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Western Seafood’s Patrick Riley Has Lifelong Passion for Shrimping Excellence

by / Newsroom Ink on July 13, 2014
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Patrick Riley was on the waterfront as soon as he could walk. He started working on his father’s shrimp boat at the age of eight, and fished his way through college. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor

Patrick Riley was on the waterfront as soon as he could walk. He started working on his father’s shrimp boat at the age of eight, and fished his way through college. Forty years later he is still on the waterfront and still in the shrimp business, working as general manger of Texas’s Western Seafood, a leader in the Gulf’s shrimping industry.

The tradition and spirit of innovation at Freeport’s Western Seafood began with Wright “Pappy” Gore. Riley, who represents Texas on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, said,  “He was always thinking outside of the box in order to make our products and businesses more efficient.”

Second-Generation Fisherman

A second-generation fisherman, Riley’s journey to Freeport started when his father Mike, originally from Florida, got involved with fishing in Brownsville, Texas through a Marine Corp buddy.

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The tradition and spirit of innovation at Freeport’s Western Seafood began with Wright “Pappy” Gore. Photo: Western Seafood

“It’s definitely a Forrest Gump story,” explained Riley on how his dad got into shrimping. “After leaving the Corp he went into long-haul trucking, a job he disliked. He hit his buddy up for a job and got on a boat as a rig-man, kind of like a first-mate or second in command. Approximately ten hours out of port heading toward Mexico, he got the nerve to tell the captain he had never been on a shrimp boat. The captain replied, ‘he didn’t really care, all he needed was a warm body’. Six month later my father was running his own shrimp boat, and we have been on the water ever since.”

In 1963, Riley’s father started shrimping for Pappy Gore. It was the start of a long family partnership of shrimping and boat building.

With the shrimp boat as his classroom and the Gulf as his playground, he worked most of his summers on the boats and docks.

“When I was young, I was cheap labor,” he explained about his start in fishing. “If I wasn’t in school, I was with my dad giving a boat the ‘fresh brush treatment’.  I learned never to say I didn’t have anything to do around the docks, otherwise I would end up with a three-inch paint brush in my hand and bucket of paint.”

During high school he played football, so he would spend summers working at Western unloading boats and putting on fuel and ice so he didn’t miss training and practice. About the only time Riley spent away from the shrimping industry was during college at Texas A&M.

According to Riley, “Pappy” Gore set the standard for setting standards in the shrimping industry. The company’s patriarch bought the company and property along the Gulf Coast in 1949 and began a lifelong mission to diversify and improve the Texas shrimp industry.

Unique Among Gulf Shrimpers

Western Shrimp is unique among Gulf shrimpers. It owns and operates a fleet of seven freezer boats that harvest primarily brown shrimp in the western and northern waters of the Gulf.

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Western Shrimp is unique among Gulf shrimpers. It owns and operates a fleet of seven freezer boats. Photo: Western Seafood

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” doesn’t apply to Western Seafood. The 61-year-old company has taken the netting used for catching shrimp from tarred cotton to nylon to Spectra to the new high density polyethylene, all with one goal in mind: efficiency.

In the mid-1970s, during one of the first big oil crises, Western helped refine and foster the widespread adoption of a quad-rig covering a larger catching area and relieved drag, which in turn reduced energy consumption while increasing production. In 2005, it introduced the hydrodynamic trawl door to the industry, a device that reduced fuel consumption by more than 33 percent.

“Shrimp is an annual crop, and like any other agricultural based enterprise, you harvest only what Mother Nature blesses you with,” explained the quiet natured fisherman whose father died off of Key West while on a fishing trip.

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Western Seafood has been continually recognized for being environmentally conscious. In 2004, Western Captains Leroy Jones and Harry Davis Jr. were awarded NOAA’s Environmental Hero Awards for the development of the Jones-Davis bycatch reduction device. Photo: Western Seafood

Western Seafood has been continually recognized for being environmentally conscious. In 2004, Leroy Jones and Harry Davis Jr., both long time captains of Western Seafood, were awarded National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Environmental Hero Awards for the development of the Jones-Davis bycatch reduction device (BRD), a device used to reduce species other than shrimp caught. This BRD is now an industry standard and reduces bycatch by 58 percent.

In 2008, Riley and Western Seafood Captain Manuel Calderon were awarded NOAA’s Sustainable Fisheries Leadership Award in the Stewardship and Sustainability category for their work on fuel efficiency and BRD development.

“We did not purposefully go out of our way to be recognized; it just happened in our drive to be more efficient,” Riley said. “Pappy out hustled everybody. He did everything faster in order to get a great product out when he first opened Western Seafood. For us, it is still about delivering a high-quality product and keeping it pristine all the way from the Gulf to the table.”

Twenty years ago there were 5000 boats in the Gulf and the shrimping business model was built around cheap fuel and a reasonable price at the dock. Even if the volume was moderate, shrimpers could make money. According to Riley, it didn’t take much of a businessman to make a living back then. Today with less than 1000 active shrimpers, the business model is much more complicated.

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“We did not purposefully go out of our way to be recognized; it just happened in our drive to be more efficient,” said Riley. Photo: Western Seafood

“As shrimping has evolved, three factors currently drive the business; production or volume, dock price and fuel costs,” he explained about the new industry model. “You have to have at least one in your favor to have a successful season. If you get two out of the three in your favor, you really could have a banner year.”

This past year Gulf shrimpers have seen a moderate harvest volume, but due to a reduction of imports, prices have remained high and they are living with fuel prices more than $3 a gallon.

Western Seafood’s shrimp is brokered across the country, with the majority sold in the Midwest and Northeast. “That is where we seem to be able to get the biggest bang for the buck,” Riley said. “We are known for having some of the highest quality shrimp in the Gulf, both taste wise and visually. We sell to clients who predominately put the product on white tablecloths.”

Texas Shrimp

Texas Shrimp Ad

The state’s shrimp marketing program is run by the Texas Department of Agriculture.

The state’s shrimp marketing program is managed by the Texas Department of Agriculture. It’s one-man staff is funded from the sale of Texas Gulf shrimp licenses. With the reduced number of shrimp boats, it has a mere $120,000 a year to spend on marketing – “as anybody in marketing will tell you, that is not very much”.

Unlike other Gulf States, Texas did not see the influx of BP money that enabled marketing efforts to expand across the region. The state does a lot of education in it efforts to grow the Texas shrimp brand, and Riley feels “they do a great job with the limited funds they have.”

For him, the Gulf shrimp industry is getting to a point where things are stabilizing. The number of vessels and the volume of product remain fairly consistent; and prices are high. This, versus the cost of inputs, means boats are starting to make money.

“I see a good future for the shrimping industry, but is it going to be much more in line to what we have today than what we had 20 years ago,” he said. “However, we really need to start concentrating our marketing efforts on building a Gulf Brand for all the seafood products we produce.”

GSI

One of the biggest challenges facing the Gulf seafood industry is the number of fractured voices speaking for the industry. That is why Riley has been a supporter of the efforts of the Gulf Seafood Institute (GSI) since it was founded.

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Riley, who represents Texas on the Gulf Council, knows fishing is a fiercely independent business. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

“Across the board, everyone has opinion, and fisherman usually have two or three,” he explained. “Trying to get groups in a room to work on a issue and pass it forward is often an impossible task.”

“The great thing about GSI is that that instead of dwelling on differences, they are committed to working together to find common ground push forward arching thoughts to the benefit of the fishing community,” he said.

Riley knows fishing is a fiercely independent business, “whether reef fish, oysters, shrimp or whatever, you have to go out and produce the produce the product and bring it to market. The biggest things going forward is the need for the Gulf fishing community to work together to have a strong voice from both the marketing and the political standpoint. I think that is where GSI can really help,” he said.

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  1. Ralph Hode says:

    Very good article. Patrick is a great guy and has been around long enough to have a good understanding of those elements that make Gulf seafood successful.

    Keep up the good work.

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