Pink hat, manicured nails, fabulous lashes, and make-up? No, it is not a Junior League meeting, it is the way the Shrimp Diva climbs onboard her father-in-law’s shrimp boat for work.
The fashion-conscious deckhand works beside her husband’s father who docks his boat at Pier 19. Captain Jerome Thomas “Pops” Kunz, the oldest working shrimper in Galveston, and his daughter-in-law Nicole “Nikki” Lee Johnson-Kunz may seem to be an odd pair - but rarely have two people worked better together.
“I’ll be 88 in April, and I started shrimping with my Dad when I was 10,” Pops shares. “He bought a little old boat out of the yacht basin, added a mast made of wood, and made a shrimp boat out of it. We started fishing on the beachfront with an 800-foot seine and did everything by hand. We didn’t have a winch or cables back then.”
His father’s business soon grew, and Kunz quit school to help him full time.
“We got a dollar-per-hundred that we sold at the bait camp on 61st Street,” Pops continues. “Then we bought another camp called Duke’s Place and ran that until (Hurricane) Carla tore it up. We had a couple of boats, and I ran one of them for years. My two brothers both worked over there, too. One of them bought himself a shrimp boat after returning from World War II, and the other brother worked at the bait camp.”
Kunz reminisces about his family, never missing a beat while sorting his morning catch. Seagulls cry overhead and stout pelicans crowd the deck of his boat St. Vincent, waiting for their chance at fish that the pair discards from their bins. He speaks with great affection about his wife Carol Ann, known by friends as “Honey Ma,” who he lost 11 years ago.
“When I met her, she was 16 and I was 18. She was volunteering at the hospital reading to kids. She could read like anything,” he says proudly. The couple had ten children during their 56-year marriage: six boys and four girls.
“I had twelve people to feed. The only way I knew how to do it was to work. I shrimped seven days a week from sunrise until dark, and then dredged for oysters during the winter.”
Nikki interjects, “We started doing Monday night family dinner after his wife passed away.” The family feels it is important to see each other more often than only during holiday gatherings, and they often have 10 to 20 people at the dinner table.
“And many aspirin are needed,” she laughs. “He has a very loud family - a lot of commotion and kids running around. It’s quality time.”
If the Captain looks familiar, he starred in two national commercials for Joe’s Crab Shack. Nikki laughs, telling the story of how the actor they originally flew down from New York did not seem authentic enough for the production crew.
“They called Pops to do it. They made him put slickers on and he told them that ‘wasn’t how you do it.’ He ended up wearing his own gear.”
Kunz says part of what he likes best about being a shrimper is that “it’s kind of like a gamble. You never know what you’re going to pick up when you put the net out. Some days you think you know everything about fishing and some days you wonder if you know anything.”
He chuckles, “As many years as I’ve done it, I still get a kick out of it. I thought I was going to retire about two years ago. But then I stayed at home one day, and I was ready to get back on board the next. As long as I can do it, I’ll do it.”
“He’s the hardest worker I know, and the person I respect most in life. The little guy with the iron fist,” Nikki shares, tearing up when talking about him.
“I’ve got too much to do to die now,” Pops adds. “It’s been a great life. I’m still here to talk about it so it ain’t too bad.”
The Captain still enjoys eating shrimp, even after working around them every day for decades. More often than not, he eats them at local restaurants rather than cooking them himself.
“I live by myself, so once I get home I don’t feel like cleaning shrimp. I think fried is my favorite, but I’ll eat them in gumbo or any kind of way.”
The pilothouse of the St. Vincent displays two licenses - one for bait shrimp and one for bay shrimp. He explains that shrimping off Galveston was once extremely competitive, but things have changed.
“Nowadays the state is buying licenses back, and they don’t issue more. So, there’s hardly any boats left now. There were solid boats here at one time,” Pops says, waving his arm to the docks behind Katie’s Seafood.
“They’d be six-deep at each dock. The state’s bought over 5,000 licenses back already. Every year we buy a bait license and a bay license and the state offers to buy them back. I keep both of mine.”
Nikki joined her father-in-law on board about two and a half years ago. “On the weekends, my youngest son Jason (Nikki’s husband) would go out with me because he didn’t want me going out by myself any more,” the octogenarian says.
“Then Nikki started going with me during the week. She turned out to be a very good deck hand. She’s quick and has plenty of strength - way more than I do.”
Prior to that time, she had no experience fishing or shrimping. “I spent the last 27 years in property management,” Nikki explains.
“We were at Monday night dinner and I noticed he had a leg wound from a rope that wasn’t healing. I told my husband that I could go on the boat with Pops during the week and be a warm body.”
“For the first year, I was in his way the entire time. Once we were on the boat and working, he didn’t have time to train me or show me how to do things,” Nikki says about her father-in-law, who was accustomed to working by himself.
“Now I work the wench, throw out the net, pull the net in, and I’ve had injuries from a stingray, and third degree burns on both hands,” she says with a sense of pride.
The Captain interjects with a smile that “she makes more money with me than her other job paid.” Nikki responds, “Absolutely! I’m not complaining. Some people say I’m high maintenance, but I pay for my stuff. I wear makeup on the boat to protect my skin, because that sun, wind, and saltwater are rough on skin.”
“But I’ll tell you,” Nikki clarifies, “I didn’t know that we did shrimping in the wintertime when I started doing this! A month or two ago it was 35 degrees. We didn’t have a heater (he has never had one on board) and we couldn’t feel our faces or fingertips.” Luckily, the Captain’s grandchildren bought a portable heater for him as a Christmas gift.
The longtime shrimper justifies going out during cold weather, explaining it as an opportunity. “Sometimes the shrimp get pretty thick during the winter because the Gulf water stays warm and they stay here.” Nikki confirms, “He will shrimp every day of the year.”
Though they won’t take the St. Vincent out in thick fog, rain rarely dissuades them. “We’ve got slickers to wear,” the Captain says casually.
Nikki nods, adding, “If we do, he pays me a little bit extra so I can get my lashes done the next day. That rain can do some damage!”
When asked if he believes it is bad luck to have a woman on board, the shrimper gives a dismissive wave of the hand saying, “I’m not superstitious at all. And she always washes it down. I tell her it’ll just get dirty again tomorrow, but she cleans it off anyway.”
Recently, the shrimping duo attracted the attention of Kelsey Harlan, owner of a local production company, resulting in an unscripted reality series that will begin streaming online this month. The idea for a reality show was not pitched to major networks, because those involved wanted to ensure the integrity of the show.
“With Kelsey filming, we just do our thing. It is how it is,” says Nikki. “I would not want [Pops] out here with his reputation in Galveston to affect him negatively in any way. That’s why we trust Kelsey. Life on the shrimp boat is never dull, so we don’t need to add any drama.”
The partnership will keep going, whether or not the series does. “Our day ends by the time most people are having coffee at about 9 o’clock, and that’s a great thing,” smiles Nikki.
“We have a good time don’t we baby doll?” the Captain asks Nikki. “And we get along great.”
The Shrimp Diva Instagram account can be found at @shrimp_diva, and the series can be viewed at www.cinalyst.com beginning at the end of April.