How an Unlucky Texas Fisherman Stumbled Upon an Environmental Catastrophe
Kirk Wallace Johnson on the Dark Side of America's Gulf Coast
Five years before a pair of bullets tore through his gut and heart, Billy Joe Aplin reached over the silt-smeared water of the tidal flats with a boat hook to snare a small buoy bobbing near the grassy shoreline. As he pulled it toward his skiff, the rope gathered in soggy coils by his white rubber boots.
Billy Joe was a bear of a man, six feet with broad shoulders, strong nose, square jaw, and jet-black hair. His palms were callused from the thousands of times he’d hauled in these ropes, hand over hand as the trap emerged, water streaming out its chicken-wire sides until its quarry of blue crabs came into view, stunned by sunlight and sea breeze. Above him, a big dome of sky, humid and swarming with gulls impatient for a crack at his catch.
Their skiff drifted calmly at the mouth of the Guadalupe River in San Antonio Bay, their favorite spot to lay traps. His wife, Judy, lit a cigarette and took a long drag in the Texas heat. His ten-year-old daughter, Beth, was already perched on her culling stool, ready to sort the catch. Billy Joe Jr. and Cheryl Ann, only five and four, huddled close to their mom. Superstitious fishermen thought it was bad luck to bring a woman on a boat, but by 1975, Billy Joe had endured such a streak of bum luck that he couldn’t afford not to bring his family out with him: they were his deckhands.
He’d met Judy in 1964 when she was sixteen, a ninth-grade dropout picking crabs up the coast at a plant in Port Lavaca. They were pregnant a few months later. Billy Joe was in his senior year then, but figured providing for her and their newborn daughter, Beth, was more important than trigonometry, so he dropped out, bought a decrepit crabbing boat and a heap of rusty traps, and got to work.
Each morning, they’d wake before sunrise and motor through the cold morning fog to run their traps in the bayous. But in the economic hierarchy of Texas fishing, crabbing was near the bottom, just above oystering, barely enough to feed a family. The real money was in bay and gulf shrimping or working as a captain on the party boats, so Billy Joe went to night school and earned his mariner’s license. Before long, he was taking wealthy Houstonians deep-sea fishing for red snapper out of Galveston, dropping Beth off in the mornings with a family friend, Captain Jack Gunn, while Judy helped on the boat… until Beth whispered to a classmate during a sleepover that Jack had molested her. Judy talked Billy Joe out of killing Captain Gunn, but it was enough for them to pull up stakes. Every six months, it seemed, they were packing their things, chasing the catch and a lucky break. Beth hated saying goodbye to new friends, and was turning inward.
Billy Joe knew they needed something more stable, but his ambitions had a habit of getting snagged and torn up along the unforgiving coastline. An engine could kick out or explode. A hurricane could scatter the catch or disappear a boat. Rising fuel prices ate into his slim margins—plenty of days he only earned enough to cover gas. By the late 1960s, though, after a few good seasons, he had finally saved enough to graduate to shrimping. They bought their first trawler, which he named Judy’s Pride, and for a brief spell, the future seemed brighter.
But one fateful morning in July 1969, his luck began to curdle. After dropping Beth off with a relative, Billy Joe and Judy went dragging for shrimp in high spirits: in her purse was a wad of cash—the final bank payment before they owned Judy’s Pride outright. But something quickly went wrong. Almost as soon as their ninety-by-thirty-foot nets drifted to the bottom of the bay, the trawler lurched and began listing; Judy’s Pride was snagged upon something on the floor of the bay. The bays were filled with debris, boulders, oil pipeline, shipwrecks—the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department once dumped hundreds of junked cars to build artificial reefs for game fish, switching to concrete pipes only after the tide swept the cars away.
Whatever had seized their nets caused Judy’s Pride to circle her tether and quickly take on water. The moment before it capsized, Billy Joe and Judy dove into the gulf, treading water as the boat began its descent into darkness. Judy remembered her purse and started screaming. Billy Joe dove down to search for it, again and again, but came up empty-handed. A fellow shrimper by the name of John Collins came to their rescue on a salvage boat, winching up the wreckage and Judy’s purse. Beth, then four, ironed the waterlogged cash while her dad sulked in the living room, watching the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin lived near the Manned Spacecraft Center, in El Lago, right next to the Galveston Bay shrimping towns of Kemah and Seabrook, where Billy Joe frequently docked. In that moment, it was hard not to be embittered by how small his life seemed in comparison. The next morning, he made his final bank payment on a wrecked boat and was knocked back down to crabbing and oystering.As best as he could tell, nothing in the natural world produced mutated crabs or zombie fish.
He seemed to tempt misfortune. He soon indulged in an affair that nearly destroyed his marriage. After getting caught up in a gun deal gone bad with some mobsters in Galveston involving a dozen Lugers with Nazi insignia, he fled with his family to Alaska to work as a dive boat captain for divers repairing oil pipelines.
By the mid-1970s, though, things had cooled down enough for the Aplins to return to Texas, with enough savings for a down payment on their first home, a small redbrick two-story on the outskirts of Seadrift, a speck of a fishing town halfway down the Texas Gulf Coast to Mexico. His folks and several siblings had recently moved there; his brother Doc ran a fish house in town, buying the daily catch of shrimp, crabs, and oysters.
Seadrift was barely half a square mile, with one main street that ran right down to the docks and boat launch. There were a few bars, a run-down motel, churches, and a clutch of ramshackle fish houses—where the daily catch was sorted, weighed, and iced. A café for diesel-strength coffee before shoving off into the bays. A two-man police force, volunteer firefighters, and not a stoplight in sight. A cemetery strung with barbed wire to keep the wild hogs out, sited far enough inland to keep hurricanes and floods from disinterring the dead.
Fewer than a thousand people lived in town, which was sealed off from just about everything. There weren’t any civil rights marches or antiwar rallies in a town like Seadrift. When the draft board came knocking, some of the boys went off to fight and die in Vietnam; others hopped buses to dodge the draft in Canada. To Billy Joe, who received an exemption owing to a bum leg, the war was someone else’s problem in another country, far removed from his own life.
Their house was just a couple hundred yards from the water’s edge. Judy planted a row of red canna lilies along one side of the home, a rosebush under the back window, and wisteria out front. Live oak dotted the backyard, which opened onto chocolate-colored fields of cotton. Beth was overjoyed to finally unpack her bags for good and decorate the walls of her own room. Billy Joe bought an Encyclopædia Britannica for the family on an installment plan, plucked at his guitar after dinner, and dreamed of the day that he could return to shrimping.
As the sun climbed over San Antonio Bay, he emptied the first trap out onto the deck and Beth got to work, swiftly culling the sooks and jimmies and she-crabs into a steel drum, tossing back the hardheads, the stone crabs, and the sponge crabs laden with eggs, sending the gulls into a squawking, dive-bombing frenzy. After Judy rebaited the first trap with a fistful of foul-smelling chicken necks, Billy Joe heaved it back into the water and motored on to the next buoy, his prop churning up muddy clouds in his wake.He had an inkling of what was behind it all, but if he was right, it was a frightening road ahead.
Coaxing things up from these bays was all Billy Joe had ever learned to do, and he was more hard-pressed than ever to make it work, now that they had a mortgage and three mouths to feed. But there was reason to cling to hope: thanks to the explosion of Red Lobster franchises in the 1970s, American bellies were swelling with seafood, making the crabs skittering into his traps more valuable with each passing day. If he could just stitch together a few good years, a shrimp trawler was within reach. They only had a couple of traps left to run before they could call it a day. But as Billy Joe shook the next trap out, his eyes immediately fixed on something wrong. Amid the junk fish flopping around was a large blue crab with a bizarrely misshapen shell clacking sluggishly along the hull.
He was agitated. The fishermen in town were trading strange stories of zombie fish in the bays, rolling along the surface. Dolphins dying off. Freak shrimp turning up without eyes.
He was used to the vicissitudes of nature: a late-winter freeze might delay the mating season or a drought could leave the water in the bays too salty for crustaceans to thrive. But as best as he could tell, nothing in the natural world produced mutated crabs or zombie fish.
The deformed crab twitched in his hands. As the CB radio crackled with the chatter of bored shrimpers, Billy Joe flung the crab overboard with a scowl and gunned the engine.
He had an inkling of what was behind it all, but if he was right, it was a frightening road ahead.
Back in town, as she mended a net in one of the dilapidated fish houses, a woman, a fourth-generation shrimper and native Seadrifter, quietly nursed the same dark suspicions.
Excerpted from The Fishermen and the Dragon: Fear, Greed, and a Fight for Justice on the Gulf Coast by Kirk Wallace Johnson. Copyright © 2022. Available from Viking, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.