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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Laguna Madre

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: The eastern border of the U.S. and Mexico begins where the Rio
Grande flows into the Gulf of Mexico. And if you were in an airplane high above this spot, you'd notice a unique environmental feature. You'd see two vast inland waterways stretching north and south for nearly 100 miles along the Gulf Coast. Each is known in its own country as Laguna Madre, and both are still surprisingly well-preserved. Yet, the challenge each Laguna Madre faces reflects the differences between the U.S. and Mexico and the efforts the people of both nations are making to preserve this international treasure. As part of the series Border Stories, correspondent Alan Weisman of Homelands Productions has this report.

(A sandhill crane calls)

LABUDA: That's a sandhill.

WEISMAN: Dawn, 20 miles north of the Rio Grande.
(The sandhill calls)

LABUDA: Yep. Yeah, he's flying there against the sunrise. (Laughs)

WEISMAN: U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Steve Labuda stands in a thicket of cactus, honey mesquite, and wild lilies, listening.

(Bird calls)

LABUDA: There is a constant chorus of eastern meadowlarks singing. The occasional loud chips you hear behind us are olive sparrows and cardinals, interesting mix of the tropics and the eastern seaboard there. And then flying over occasionally you can hear a long-billed curlew.

(Calls continue)

WEISMAN: Every year thousands of visitors come for this. The Great
Laguna Madre of South Texas is one of the last places on the continent to see tropical birds like rare reddish egrets, or roseate spoonbills, brilliant green jays or great kiskadees. Even ocelots, bottlenose dolphins, or sea turtles.

(Water splashes)

WEISMAN: In all the world there are only three coastal bays where so little freshwater enters that they become hyper-saline, saltier than the sea itself.

(Water splashes)

WEISMAN: This long, shallow body of water and its Mexican counterpart just across the border are two of them. The only other is in Crimea.

LABUDA: It's just a wonderfully diverse system. We have these enormous numbers of redhead ducks out there floating on the water, that use it for wintering habitat.

WEISMAN: It used to be you could find wintering redheaded ducks on inland bays all the way from the Chesapeake on down. But agro-wastes, chemical fertilizers, and development killed off the sea grasses that they feed on. So the ducks pushed their way further south. Today, nearly all of them find their way here. This is their last refuge.

(Ducks quack)

LABUDA: This is one bay system that's still intact. It's not been polluted out of existence.

(Bird calls)

WEISMAN: The two Laguna Madres formed over time as the Rio Grande and the Rio Panuco 100 miles to the south, dumped huge loads of sediment into the Gulf of Mexico. Prevailing currents swept the sediments northward, and they formed great sand barriers, like Padre Island, that parallel the coast.

LABUDA: Well, it feels like you're in a time machine almost, because there aren't that many changes from the way it was 100 years ago or even 1,000 years ago.

WEISMAN: The U.S. Laguna Madre has been preserved by several vast Texas ranches that border much of its length. Wide open spaces like the 825,000-acre King ranch. In recent years urbanization has begun to slice away some pieces of this Texas cattle empire. There's even a spaceport proposed for the upper laguna, near Corpus Christi. So far, though, the shoreline is largely free of development.

LABUDA: Yeah, we can hear motor noises in the background, and you can see a house in the distance. But you can look at areas that are just water and sky and birds. And it's nice to know there are places left that are like that.

(Bird calls; fade to footfalls and lowing cows)

MARTINEZ: We are in the Rancho Rincon de Anacahuitas, in Matamoros, Mexico, right in the Laguna Madre.

WEISMAN: Jorge Martinez owns the largest ranch on the Mexican Laguna Madre. The 30,000-acre spread looks the same today as when his grandfather founded it.

MARTINEZ: And this is the last ranch from the border to 300 miles south of the border with a natural brush. We have more than 200 plants, mountain lion, ocelot, jaguarundi, and bobcat. And 407 migratory bird species.

WEISMAN: Usually it's also home to about 3,500 cows and steers. But now, Jorge's running about half that number.

(A motor starts up)

WEISMAN: A big green tanker pulls up behind him to refill a dry water trough. There's been a drought here for the past nine years, and Jorge
Martinez has to truck in water to keep his cattle alive.

MARTINEZ: Instead of 40 inches of rain, we just received six inches of rain. We've been losing a lot of cows and money.

WEISMAN: Which is why Jorge Martinez has become more and more interested in the wildlife on his ranch. Over the past few years, organizations like The Nature Conservancy and its Mexican counterpart Pronatura have been helping him to preserve one third of his land as wilderness. He freely admits that one big incentive is economic.

MARTINEZ: In the U.S. Laguna they have tourist boats, hotel guides, food, lodging. They have an income more than $100 million a year. We're trying to pinch a little bit of that market.

WEISMAN: Sounds reasonable. But a lot of poor countries who pin their hopes on ecotourism discover that the logistics of making money off nature and preserving it, too, can get complicated. And there's always the chance that someone else, like the government, has very different plans for the environment, even in the U.S.

(Radio music. Voice over: "Gulf Coast fishing can be quite challenging.
Let's join Walt Kittelberger in Port Mansfield ...)

WEISMAN: Meet fishing guide Walt Kittelberger. You can see him on tourist videos about the U.S. Laguna Madre. But you'll also find him at meetings, like this one held recently in Brownsville,Texas, taking on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

KITTELBERGER: No it does not. It does not.

WOMAN: But what's the alternative?

KITTELBERGER: Pardon me if I take umbrage at you spending such an inordinate amount of time on various ways to dump it in the bay...

WEISMAN: Kittelberger is upset because the Corps regularly dredges a 16-foot-deep channel right down the middle of the Laguna Madre. It's called the intercoastal waterway, and the mud it stirs up blocks sunlight and kills sea grass. This is bad news for birds and fish and the ecotourism business.

KITTELBERGER: No it doesn't, no it doesn't.

WOMAN: Yeah, it does.

KITTELBERGER: It does not.

WEISMAN: Kittelberger and other Laguna Madre defenders have fought to keep the core from dumping the dredge material in the water.

KITTELBERGER: You know, we keep this bloody canal open even though you might not see a barge, you know, for days down here. If you want to save taxpayers money this canal probably ought to be shut down. But I'm not endorsing it. Our group can't because it would be political suicide. Part owners of this barge company, that is, the primary beneficiary of this canal are Robert Mossbach, James Baker, and George Herbert Walker Bush. (Laughs) I mean, there's one reason for you right there. That's probably all the reason you need.

WEISMAN: On the Mexico side, there's even a scheme to extend the
intercoastal waterway right through the Rio Grande and straight down the
Mexican Laguna Madre, turning the Gulf Coast from Corpus Christi, Texas, all the way to Veracruz, into one of the world's richest shipping zones.

KITTELBERGER: It would be a real tragedy if they were to not learn from some of our mistakes and do a little better job of protecting that laguna. It's like this only not spoiled yet.

WEISMAN: Not spoiled because for years there were no paved roads leading to Mexico's laguna, and nearly no one lived there. But recently that all changed.

(Motors and bird calls)

WEISMAN: This is Mesquital, one of dozens of tin and cardboard shanty towns that have materialized on the shore of the Mexican laguna, seemingly overnight. The beach here is filled with sandpipers, plovers, gulls, and terns, but also plastic bags, coke bottles, and reeking piles of fish guts. There's a big chain-link fence here the government put up to keep people away from where it wants a marina, once the intercoastal waterway arrives. But Mexico hasn't reaped enough from NAFTA to build the waterway, and more people keep arriving instead.

CRUZ: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: It's a no-man's land. Five years ago there was no road here at all. Now there are four.

WEISMAN: Miguel Angel Cruz is a community worker here with Pronatura, the Mexican environmental organization.

CRUZ: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: People from other places who have nothing arrive here. Or, people come here because they can easily escape the police, because it's close to the border. It's a natural route for drugs. There's only one policeman for a community of 5,000 people. In a place like this, people can just as easily beat you up as talk to you.

WEISMAN: Yet Miguel Angel has to talk to them, often about delicate issues like over-fishing. Because unlike the Texas laguna, which is basically open just to sport fishermen, the Mexican laguna is suddenly booming with commercial fishing.

(Music from a speaker, ambient voices)

WEISMAN: To the sounds of a portable radio in Mesquital's plywood and tar paper fish processing plant, 20 men pack several thousand pounds of mullet in yellow salt. Women stand at a long wooden table removing the sacs of mullet eggs to sell to Korea and Japan. They stopped fishing for mullet yesterday. Next, trout season starts, followed by shrimp. Cooperatives like this one are trying to observe seasonal closings while each species breeds, but not everyone respects them. In the past two years, three state fisheries inspectors were found floating in the laguna. Already people worry that the fishing stocks in the Mexican Laguna Madre are declining under the pressure of so many people coming here.


WEISMAN: Like many of the men and women here, Pedro Meza came from Tamayagua, Veracruz, 300 miles to the south. Until a few years ago it was a fishing village.

MESA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Tamayagua is ruined now. The fish are all used up, because we didn't respect the season closing.

WEISMAN: And then there was the morning he awoke to learn that a nearby offshore oil well had exploded.

MESA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Oil floated over the lagoon and the coast. It killed everything. The oyster beds were the first to die. The shrimp nurseries were ruined. In Veracruz there used to be a lot of life, a lot of fish. Now, nearly everyone's here looking for a fish so they can eat. Fishing's all we have. That's the way it is.

WEISMAN: Pedro Meza's entire catch today was just one flounder and two crabs, not a lot to feed his family.

MAN: So, good evening everyone. Welcome to crab races.

(The crowd cheers)

WEISMAN: Back across the border, on the Texas Laguna Madre, they've got another use for crabs. It's the Wednesday night crab race in the
Quarterdeck Lounge on South Padre Island.

MAN: Oh, thank you.

(The crowd cheers)

WEISMAN: In the middle of a big round table, eight crabs shiver under a large pie plate. They've been sprinkled with tequila because it irritates them, and that makes them run.

MAN: Are you ready for this?

(The crowd cheers, claps)

WEISMAN: And they're off!


WEISMAN: The first crab that crosses the line near the table's edge wins.

MAN: Five, three, two, and six.

(The crowd cheers)

WEISMAN: Tourists have been flocking here for spectacles like this ever since the early 50s, when the state's longest causeway was built to connect South Padre Island to the mainland. That was back when nature was something to be conquered, not preserved, back when this song made the hit parade.

(Music up and under: "Oh, shrimp boats is a comin', their sails are in sight. Shrimp boats is a comin', there's dancin' tonight. Why don't you hurry, hurry home...")

(A motor runs)

WEISMAN: Down at the docks under the causeway a line of shrimp boats shuttles back and forth. The Texas laguna has been off-limits to commercial shrimpers for decades. Boats like this one have to fish miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. But it's actually two Laguna Madres that are crucial to the shrimp industry. The warm, shallow waters provide the nursery for young shrimp before they move out into the Gulf to be caught as adults. But the ban doesn't apply to a new and different kind of shrimping on the shores of the laguna, shrimp farming.

(Vehicle over rough road)

JANECKE: This is kind of an all-weather road.

WEISMAN: This is Fritz Janecke. He manages the Harlingen Shrimp Farm, and his grow out ponds are right on the shore of the laguna. You have to drive around in a truck to see them all.

JANECKE: We have about 22 ponds. Our largest ones range in the, about 40 to 45 acres. These are the largest ones in the United States.

WEISMAN: When Taiwanese investors first brought shrimp farms like this one here a decade ago, it seemed like a good idea. Just pump saltwater into grow out ponds in the spring, add baby shrimp, feed them all summer, and harvest them full-grown in the fall. Simple.

JANECKE: Okay, you can see the basic configuration here is that we pump the water one time from the Laguna Madre into an elevated supply channel that goes right out the effluent ditch, and then back out into the Laguna.

WEISMAN: The water goes right back out into the Laguna. That was the problem. In the early days, shrimp farm waste polluted sea grass beds vital to the Gulf shrimp nursery, and virus outbreaks among farm shrimp threatened to spread to the laguna as well. Local shrimpers and environmentalists really got scared when they learned that in Taiwan, shrimp farming had fouled everything so badly that both natural fisheries and the farms themselves collapsed, never to recover. With Taiwanese owners now trying again in Texas, the locals hired lawyers to make sure the same thing didn't happen here.

JANECKE: I guess in a nutshell, yes, that public opinion did cause us to take some measures that we were not taking, practices that would be more acceptable to everybody. And I think that we've evolved to a pretty darn environmentally friendly industry. And I don't think that people should be afraid of shrimp farming occurring along the coast in Texas. I think it's a good business for our state.

(Gulls call)

WEISMAN: Back across the border, sea birds pick over a dump outside the squatter community of Mesquital. Because the land is so low, garbage often floods into the laguna. Over here, high-tech problems like shrimp farming seem pretty exotic. Mesquital's fishermen worry about polluting their waters, too, but the issues are a lot more basic.

(Voices, grunts)

WEISMAN: In the sand behind the half-finished church here, a crowd of adults, children, and a very large pig watch men dig a composting latrine.

(Ambient voices)

WEISMAN: The tall man in a baseball cap talking to the shovelers is Sergio Medellin. After years of working with the conservation group Pronatura, Sergio's concluded that the only way to save places like the laguna and its priceless wildlife is to start with people.

MEDELLIN: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Countries like ours don't have enough money for parks that are dedicated purely to preservation, like in the U.S. So we have to work with the people who live in these areas and get them to help. Here, we're empowering local people to conserve, themselves.

MEDELLIN: [Speaks in Spanish]

WEISMAN: But it may be a long process. Besides no running water or sewage facilities, these people have no electricity, either, which is why the fishing cooperative can't refrigerate their catch. So they're forced to sell fast at low prices. Sub-poverty incomes put more pressure on the laguna to surrender more fish. Yet so far, in some respects, the view from here looks better than it does back across the border.

MEDELLIN: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: But even with our big population, there is better conservation on this side than in the U.S. Our resource that's been exploited at a reasonable rate, is better preservation than what they're doing in the Texas laguna.

MEDELLIN: [Speaks in Spanish]

(Bird calls)

LABUDA: There are certainly difficulties. I don't want to downplay that. But there are some people on both sides of the border who have the kind of vision and the kind of fortitude it takes to accomplish these issues.

WEISMAN: For U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Steve Labuda, binational collaboration is the only way to ensure the future of the two lagunas and whatever else remains of the ecosystem we share. Last fall, for the first time, government scientists from the Mexican and U.S. borderlands began meeting and visiting each other's nature reserves and studying them together.

LABUDA: There are people on both sides of the border who are concerned about the same kinds of issues. And we're not going to stop because there's a political boundary. It's going to be a continuous thing, just like nature meant it to be.

WEISMAN: One continuous bountiful borderland, occupied by two nations with clashing economies and priorities, years after a trade agreement was finally supposed to bring us closer. But while we wait to see if NAFTA will ever really do that, there are two magnificent lagunas, one on either side, that might not be able to wait.

(Bird calls)

WEISMAN: With Chris Brookes, for Living on Earth, I'm Alan Weisman reporting.

(Bird calls, fade to music up and under: Dueto de Los Hermanos Rios,
"Mediu Xhiga")

CURWOOD: Our report on Laguna Madre is part of Border Stories, a series by Homelands Productions made possible in part with funds from the Ford Foundation.

(Music up and under)



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