The Whooper's Table
Nourished by the Guadalupe River, San Antonio Bay feeds the central coast, including the endangered whooping crane.
By Michael Berryhill
When we wade in San Antonio Bay, my daughter and I play a game with mud. I scrunch down in the water and grab a handful of bay bottom and pour it into her cupped palms. "Here's some ice cream, Elizabeth," I say, "it's chocolate." Then I grub in the bottom for another handful, and give her another scoop and another, while she stands laughing, the mud oozing through her fingers.
On the fourth or fifth grab into the bay bottom, I almost always find the topping for her sundae: a common rangia clam. We stop and admire this animal that lives in the water only 50 yards from our front porch near the harbor at Seadrift.
Shaped like a bulging triangle, the rangia clam is about an inch thick at the caramel-colored hinge, and tapers to a perfectly sealed lip subtly designed for burrowing. It is not a gaudy shell, but quite beautiful; its growth can be seen in the concentric succession of ridges in the top of the shell, which is acorn-brown growing gradually paler toward the lip. The rangia has a nice heft to it. Its shell is thick; it feels good in the hand. It's also good to eat. The nearby middens of the Karankawa Indians contain many thousands of rangia shells mixed in with oyster shells. A friend of mine cooked the clams in a big dish of pasta and vegetables, and they were quite good.
Like oysters, clams are filter feeders, and in our corner of the bay, they have a lot to filter. The water of San Antonio Bay is almost always murky, or what the scientists call turbid. Its color varies from dark green to whitened coffee to deep chocolate, and is hardly ever clear, for San Antonio Bay is an estuary, one of the most important, and possibly one of the most endangered, on the Texas Coast. Clear water can be great for fishing; it's wonderful to swim in, beautiful to see. But I have learned to appreciate the turbid water of San Antonio Bay, for it speaks not of filth but of life, and the rangia clam is the very symptom of the bay's vitality.
The clams receive the nutrients and fresh water that pour out of the mouth of the Guadalupe River, only a few miles to the west of Seadrift in the upper reaches of the bay. The river and the bay live a yin-yang relationship. Without the outflow of the Guadalupe River, San Antonio Bay would be a completely different place, not necessarily dead, but radically altered, shorn of many species. Without the bay to capture the river's outflow and deliver salt water to it, the tiny juvenile crabs and shrimp and fish that live in the shelter of the salt-tolerant spartina grass would dwindle and possibly disappear.
Everything in the bay answers to the exchange of salt and fresh water. Fresh water helps the roots of the marsh grasses descend more deeply, anchoring the soil and providing sturdier shelter for the larval animals. The larval animals eat zooplankton, tiny floating animals such as copepods, which in turn gobble up the phytoplankton, the tiny floating plants that bloom from the nitrogen and phosphorus pushed into the estuary by the river. Farther out in the bay where the water is moderately saline, the oyster reefs are arranged in wide Vs to catch the plankton, living and dead, and the other nutrients the river pushes south.
With oysters come oystercatchers, the birds with the red-orange, chisel-like beaks that make you believe someone studied them in order to make the oyster knife. Clams, snails, crabs, shrimp, trout, red and black drum, sheepshead, flounder and spotted seatrout flourish in this bay, and with them come commercial and recreational fishermen and women. Ducks winter here, and with them come duck hunters. Shorebirds, stilts, sandpipers, peeps, terns, gulls, pelicans, herons, roseate spoonbills, egrets, wood storks and the most famous birds of all, the whooping cranes, are drawn to the bay, attracting birdwatchers from around the world.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Guadalupe River has kept the whooping crane from going extinct, and that the crane's future depends on whether the river continues to deliver fresh water to San Antonio Bay. The river reaches beyond the bay's boundaries. Its water pushes south along the edge of Blackjack Peninsula, turns right, washes through a chain of islands, and enters Mesquite Bay. It then moves down the coast, bringing nutrients and freshening Aransas and Copano bays, nourishing them, too. To the northeast, the fresh water purls into Espiritu Santo Bay, which is also blocked with oyster reefs that act as bird islands and is a favorite spot for recreational fishing.
So it is foolish to think solely in terms of San Antonio Bay, as though that body of water alone is what matters. It's San Antonio Bay and Mesquite Bay and Espiritu Santo Bay and the Guadalupe estuary, and this place, this living place, this super-organism, depends on decisions made hundreds of miles from the mouth of the river. It's dependent on how San Antonio manages the water it withdraws from the Edwards Aquifer, which in times of severe drought supplies 70 percent of the flow of the river. It's dependent on how much water we take from the river to feed the developing cities of Central Texas.
The river has given a lot to this bay, even the name of its only town, a fishing village of about 1,300 souls named Seadrift. Seadrift sits about eight feet above sea level, and is tucked into the neck of the western side of Calhoun Peninsula. It was named by some German settlers about a hundred years ago for the driftwood that washed up on shore. But that debris didn't drift in from the sea, which is 16 miles away on the other side of the barrier island of Matagorda. The debris was washed out of the Guadalupe River.
Other things wash out of the Guadalupe when the fall and spring floods come. Last August, rafts of invasive water hyacinth floated out of the flooded river and dappled the bay before being blown against the sea wall and up into the tidal creek that drains the western side of the town. It took a few months for the bay to digest it, but it's gone. An alligator came with the hyacinth, and it was strange to see this 10-foot-long specimen drifting out in the chop a hundred yards from shore, its jaws open. In the winter ducks migrate to San Antonio Bay. They swim in the open waters by the thousands, and retreat into the marshes of the Guadalupe Delta to feed on widgeon grass.
Fresh water makes this possible. Very little life can survive without fresh water, and fresh water from the Guadalupe is sizeable. In an average year, 2.4 million acre-feet of fresh water are pushed into the bay. The water and nutrients from the Guadalupe estuary create the nursery of the bay. Hatched in the gulf, larvae produced in the trillions by shrimp, crabs and fish drift back through Pass Cavallo and into the marshes of the Guadalupe delta. The larvae find shelter among the grasses and feed on the microscopic particles washed there by the river, and on each other. These young thrive according to how salty or fresh the water is: too salty and the larvae can't develop properly; too fresh and their growth is slowed. For this reason, eggs and larvae are plentiful. A redfish lays from 1 million to 2 million eggs at a spawn, eggs so small they look like yellow dust when collected in a bottle. Only a few creatures from this extravagant spawn reach adulthood. The rest serve as food for all the creatures in the nursery: the shrimp, crabs and the finfish; red drum, spotted seatrout, black drum, sheepshead and flounder.
All this seafood has attracted the commercial fishers, and that's what Seadrift has been most of its life, a commercial fishing town. The grandest building is a 21/2-story, high-ceilinged wooden hotel (now a private residence) built for train crews early in the 20th century, when a rail line ran straight to the harbor to haul out oysters, crabs and shrimp from the bay. Although shrimping in the bay has been erratic for the past dozen years, San Antonio Bay is still productive, producing as much as 8 million pounds of seafood in a good year.
Commercial fishing has taken a lot of hits in the last 50 years. Some people would like to see it disappear from the bays altogether. Let all the shrimping be done in the Gulf, they argue, except shrimping for bait. This is largely an economic argument: recreational fishing delivers so much money that it seems rational just to set aside all the fish and shrimp for hook-and-line fishing.
I would hate to see commercial fishing disappear. (For one thing, nothing is more delicious and subtly flavored than a shrimp caught in the bay before it's gone to the Gulf and become flavored with iodine.) There is something immensely important about being able to go to a fish house and buy fresh oysters or shrimp or flounder that have come out of the bay that day or the day before. I think of the commercial fishers as indicator species. As long as their boats are docked in the harbor, and they are surviving, sometimes even prospering, then the bay is still producing, still living.
The years of records kept of the commercial fishing harvest have played a role in the study of Texas bays. In 1987 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Water Development Board began collaborating on studies of the major Texas estuaries to determine how freshwater inflows shape their productivity. Their purpose was to plan for the future of water development in Texas, and make sure that our bays receive an adequate share of the water. San Antonio Bay was the first estuary to be studied.
The truism of ecological science is that everything is connected. A corollary is the connections may be more complex than we are capable of thinking. Still, we've got to start somewhere, and the foundation of bay studies is as simple as what a commercial fisherman once told me: that seafood is like a crop, and if you want to have a crop you've got to have fresh water. How much and where and when and how it all works is more complicated.
Take blue crabs, for example. Judging by the placement of crab traps in the bay, I'd have to say they're everywhere, from far out in the most saline parts of the bay to right up in the sloughs of the Guadalupe delta. The biologists say that the male crab prefers the lower salinity waters. The females move there to mate, then return to higher salinity waters to spawn. A female will lay 2 million eggs at a time, but none of those eggs will hatch in fresh water. They require relatively high salinities of 23 to 30 parts per thousand; seawater averages 32 parts per thousand. Like many creatures, crabs move according to the salinity gradient of the water at different times of their lives, and we barely understand the subtle chemistry involved.
One thing is certain, however: fresh water is essential to crabs and there are more crabs in the bay when fresh water is plentiful. The highest commercial blue crab catch in San Antonio Bay, according to one study, came during three years when the Guadalupe River was pouring 3 million acre-feet of water annually into the bay.
How much fresh water is the right amount? The answer is hard to come by. Nature doesn't work like an engineer. It doesn't know grids and averages. The human heart may beat regularly, but the heart of the estuary works in pulses of water; dramatic events are part of its way. Floods may come and wipe out the oyster reefs for a couple of years. Droughts may do the same thing. No one seems to worry about too much fresh water in the bays, but drought is a concern. The last great drought began in 1948 and ended in 1957. During its peak in 1956, the bays received 14 percent of their average freshwater inflows. San Antonio bay received only 196,000 acre-feet of water, or 8.4 percent of its average. Up and down the coast, the oyster crop disappeared, white shrimp declined drastically and the high salinity in Upper Laguna Madre blinded black drum and scored them with lesions.
The drought of record is the baseline for scientific study of the freshwater inflows. Such factors as historical inflows, nutrient and sediment loads, circulation and salinity patterns were studied and compared to a fisheries analysis to determine how much water is needed to sustain the productivity of San Antonio Bay. Similar studies have been performed for other estuaries of the Texas Coast and numbers have been produced stating the amount of water needed to keep the bays relatively productive, provided the water is distributed in a seasonal pattern. The number for San Antonio bay is 1.1 million acre-feet, about a third of what is considered a great year.
And so in San Antonio Bay we face what seems to be the archetypal environmental dilemma: balancing the needs of people with the needs of the natural world. If only it were that simple, as though people don't live in the natural world, but in a world of their own making. The problem is further complicated because it sets the needs of one group of people, those in the cities, against the needs of those who live on the coast. How do you tell the people whose livelihoods depend on tourism and fishing and birdwatching that their lives are not as important as those of the people in San Antonio?
A nonprofit group called the San Marcos River Foundation has moved the issue of environmental water to the top of the state's water planning agenda by applying for 1.3 million acre-feet of water rights in the Guadalupe River. Their plan was not to take the water out of the river as cities, industries and farmers do. Their plan was to leave the water in the river and let it flow into the estuary. A water rights application of such scope is unprecedented, and the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, which regulates such permits, denied the permit last March, stating it lacked specific authority to grant such a request.
As I write this, the Texas Legislature is considering a bill that would create a statewide commission to study environmental inflows for the bays and estuaries and create a management plan to assure they are not left out of the water planning process.
As that course proceeds, there may be other complications. Just as everything in the environment is interconnected in ways that are not immediately evident, so environmental law can be interconnected. I must come back to the blue crab, that wonderful food of the sea.
Whooping cranes love blue crabs, and when they're plentiful, biologists estimate they make up 80 percent of the whooping crane's diet. This magnificent and endangered bird has never been numerous. Like the endangered white cranes of Asia, it has made a serious mistake in its way of living. It winters in pristine marsh, and pristine marsh is in short supply.
The whooping crane must be the most famous endangered species in the country. It is what environmentalists call a charismatic animal, like the panda and the koala. It's not hard to see why in 1937 the whooping cranes became the object of the nation's first major effort to save a species from extinction. They stand nearly five feet tall, are pure white with black wing tips, a red scalp patch and a black band across the eyes. When their wings are folded back, they give the impression that the crane is wearing an enormous bustle. Cranes have been revered in Asian mythology for millennia, perhaps because human qualities can be projected on them. They live for 25 to 30 years in the wild, they mate for life, are devoted to their spouses and protective of their offspring. In Chinese fairy tales and myths people are always turning into cranes, the way Merlin turns into an owl, and shamans in the Amazon turn into jaguars.
The whooping crane has been in decline for a long time, perhaps as long as 10,000 years, scientists say, because it prefers wintering in pristine marsh. Unlike its cousin, the smaller, plentiful sandhill crane, which feeds in fields and flies in flocks, whooping cranes are family feeders. A pair will stake out a territory of 200 to 500 acres of marsh and defend it against intrusion by other whoopers. Some of the birds have been returning to the same areas for years. Here they feed on mollusks, crustaceans and, most importantly, blue crabs.
As an endangered species, the whooper is protected by federal laws that can supercede state law. Tom Stehn, U.S. whooping crane coordinator for the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, has written emphatically that freshwater inflows from the Guadalupe River are essential to maintain healthy blue crab populations and, in turn, the health of the crane population, which stood at 185 this winter. (One of the 16 chicks that made it from Canada, however, was lost to a predator.) Stehn fears that without a protein-rich winter diet, birds will die in the marsh, and others will fail to make the 2,600-mile-long migration back to Canada.
There are too many variables in the law, as in the environment, to predict what could happen, but the legal aura of an endangered species can affect water planning. Because of the threat to endangered species, San Antonio has already had to restrict how much water it withdraws from the Edwards Aquifer. That aquifer sustains endangered animals much less charismatic than the whooping crane, which attracts an estimated $6 million in tourist revenues to the coast each year. The Edwards Aquifer also sustains the flow of the Guadalupe River, as much as 30 percent in years of normal rainfall, as much as 70 percent during drought years.
Water planners have a lot to consider when they look at San Antonio Bay. We have saved the bay for the whooping crane, and now the whooping crane, through its legal status, may save the bay. Yin and yang.
The cranes are special, but when I look at San Antonio Bay, I have to think of much more than cranes. I think of the river. I often take visitors up the mouth of the Guadalupe in my skiff, and marvel at the steady flow of water in the narrow channel. Huge elephant ears, spider lilies, reeds and grasses, and palmetto palms line the banks. Masses of blossoming vines climb the trees, and here and there a magnificent cypress towers over the river. There's a shell midden six feet high, and farther upstream lie burial grounds of the Karankawa, who feasted on seafood here in the fall and winter, then moved inland in the summer to hunt deer and bison. Some anthropologists have theorized that the Karankawa were so tall because they ate so much seafood.
Because I live there when I can, I am tempted to call San Antonio Bay my bay, which is, of course, silly, since loving something is only a start. Romance is easy; intimacy is hard. Intimacy comes from knowledge, from seeing the connections. I sit on my porch with Elizabeth sometimes and we just watch the sun shine on the water. The white pelicans paddle by majestically. In the morning we might see a crabber heading out, his little boat stacked eight feet high with traps. In the afternoon, the shrimp boats come in, trailing clouds of birds. A black skimmer swoops down to the surface of the water, scooping up a fish or a shrimp with its long lower bill. When you grow intimate with a bay, you want to learn everything about it, and every new thing raises another question and another.
This place is a nursery. Some day my little girl will bring her children here and, I hope, her children's children. They'll start out in that dark water, groping in the mud, reaching for clams. They will grow up knowing the bay better than I ever will, and because they know it and love it, they will protect it and care for it long after I and the rest of us are gone.