Shrimpers fight to survive
Costs are high as imports flood the American market.
BAYOU LA BATRE, Ala. - Ho Van Le, who trawls in the Gulf of Mexico aboard his 50-foot vessel Star Light, understands the price squeeze facing shrimpers as this year's season gets under way amid a global recession.
"Diesel high, shrimp go down," Le said.
Once a trade that kept bayou families afloat for generations, shrimping is beset by imports flooding the market, rising fuel prices, and a spate of hurricanes that have kept costs high.
For many shrimpers, a way of life is at low tide.
The numbers in 2008 were devastating. As fuel prices climbed past $4 a gallon and Hurricanes Gustav and Ike battered the coast, production fell to 188 million pounds, the lowest level since 1975.
Bayou La Batre, which bills itself as the seafood capital of Alabama, has lost 200 of the 300 shrimping vessels it boasted before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. With nets hoisted high, some boats haven't budged since the storm tossed them into marshes.
Dean Blanchard, who operates a seafood company in Grand Isle, La., rebounded after Katrina but said the pressure of imports, coupled with prices falling below what they were decades ago, has forced many shrimpers out of the business.
"The shrimp price is so low, it's getting to the point we are losing them left and right," he said. "It's not like it used to be."
Gulf shrimp - white, pink, and brown - typically represent about 80 percent of the total domestic shrimp landings, with the Pacific shrimp fishery accounting for about 11 percent, the Atlantic 8 percent, and New England 1 percent.
While domestic shrimpers struggle to bring in 250 million to 300 million pounds, imports surpass 1.2 billion pounds a year. The competition from foreign fleets remains fierce, particularly from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and China. More than 30 percent of the shrimp that the United States imports comes from Thailand.
"What we need is to get with supermarkets and sit down and say, 'Look, sell domestic shrimp. Give us a chance again,' " said Rodney Lyons, 63, owner of Murdock's Market in Bayou La Batre.
Foreign shrimpers and their U.S. counterparts have felt the effects of a recession that industry analysts say has kept people away from restaurants. While overall production seems to be up this year, the price for large shrimp - favored by restaurateurs - is down 20 percent.
"Larger sizes typically command the higher prices," said Mike Travis, an economist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Seafood wholesalers have an excess inventory of larger shrimp and "cannot move them," Travis said.
With the cost of fuel - at least 40 percent of a shrimper's operating cost - rising again, many shrimpers go trawling only on weekends.
"Any trick out there in the world is being played right now. They are desperate to hold onto their boat and way of life," said fishery agent Rusty Gaude at Louisiana State University's sea grant office in Belle Chasse, La., part of a coastal program run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Shrimp processors in Newfoundland and Labrador, among the world's largest suppliers of cold-water shrimp, recently halted production, blaming a rising Canadian dollar combined with dwindling global demand for seafood.