Agent for change

BROWNSVILLE — Before 1995, the shrimping industry and conservationists were very much at loggerheads over the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, which had come close to extinction.

Les Hodgson, who died Aug. 8, was the guy who brought the two sides together, said Pat Burchfield, executive director of the Gladys Porter Zoo, sea turtle conservationist and Hodgson’s longtime friend.

“He was a change agent and a game changer, and he showed nationally and internationally that industry can work with conservation,” Burchfield said.

It goes back to when Hodgson was president of the National Fisheries Institute, the U.S. seafood industry trade group whose membership includes H-E-B, Long John Silvers, Red Lobster, Darden Restaurants and other major players. Hodgson and his brother, Larry, owned Marco Sales, which specialized in marketing wild-caught Gulf shrimp from the Brownsville and Port Isabel fleet.

Decades of “100 percent take” of Kemp’s ridley eggs and killing of the animals on Mexican beaches had pushed the species to the brink, said Burchfield, who in 1978 helped start the Bi-National Kemp’s Ridley Recovery Project between the United States and Mexico.

That first year, 902 nests were counted for the entire season, indicating a nesting population of only 287 adult females (the turtles nest an average of 2.5 times per season). By 1985, the number of nests had fallen to 702, causing some experts to predict the end of the species, Burchfield said.

“It just kept going down, so it was pretty depressing,” he said. “It didn’t look like we were doing any good.”

The shrimp industry was catching a great deal of flak for the turtle’s continuing decline thanks to a National Science Foundation report that identified shrimpers as the main culprit, though Burchfield qualifies that conclusion.

“When we were down to next to nothing, the incidental catch of ridley turtles in shrimp trawls was the biggest threat to them, but that isn’t what got them there,” he said. “I’m not saying (shrimpers) didn’t play a part, but I’m saying it was the total exploitation of the eggs and slaughtering the adult turtles for meat and leather and stuff on the beaches.”

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Donations in Hodgson’s memory can be made to the Bi-National Kemp’s Ridley Recovery Project c/o Gladys Porter Zoo, 500 Ringgold St., Brownsville, TX 78520.