BAYOU LA BATRE, Alabama – Long before America slid into recession in late 2007, shrimp fishermen here on the Gulf Coast had been struggling to make a living.
“Twenty-odd years ago, if a shrimp boat came in with 100 boxes of shrimp, they’d consider that a good catch,” said Avery Bates, vice president of the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama (OSAA). “Now if you come in with 400 you’re barely scraping by.”
The main problem that shrimpers down here say they face is farm-raised shrimp imported from countries like Vietnam or China, or government-subsidized shrimp from Mexico.
“We take it right on the nose,” Bates said. “A lot of our boats have went right out of business.”
Bates said that back in the 1980s, some 4,500 U.S. shrimp boats trawled the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Now, that number is down to 1,200 and dwindling fast.
The complaint here is similar to one you will here from manufacturers around the country: a cheaper imported product has undercut the market and left local producers fighting to stay afloat. Shrimpers in this small town known as the seafood capital of Alabama say they have had to catch ever more shrimp over the years to keep up.
“The last good year we had around here was 2000,” said Greg Ladnier, owner of Sea Pearl Seafood Co Inc., which processes shrimp delivered by local shrimpers. “Back then a lot of farm-raised shrimp was affected with diseases and we had a good year for catches. So we were able to make up the difference.”
“Since then things have been bad,” he said as workers cleaned his plant following the heavy rains brought by tropical storm Ida. “Unless something changes what’s going to happen is already happening all around us. “
“As the price of shrimp goes down it’s harder and harder to make a profit and keep on going.”
High fuel costs and high maintenance costs have added to shrimpers’ woes and the recession has only made things worse. Shrimp is a luxury item and prices have slumped as American consumers have cut their budgets.
“Shrimp is like steak or hamburger,” said Ernie Anderson, OSAA president as workers at his distribution facility box up frozen shrimp to be hauled to customers. “People don’t have to eat it and it’s something they can do without if they need to spend less money.”
While readying the shrimp boat that he works on for a trip out into the Gulf – Gulf shrimpers will often go out for 20 to 30 days and freeze the shrimp they catch as they go within 30 minutes of catching it – Bob McClintoc said that he had just been looking through the boat’s log back at the year 2000 and regretted that he had.
Back then, the boat would sell “1620s” – meaning shrimp that weigh in at between 16 to 20 to the pound – for $7.40 per pound. Now that catch sells for $2.80 a pound.
“It’s enough to make you sick,” he said. “This is killing us.”
Anderson said that the local industry’s hopes for survival are currently pinned on a state law, which will come into effect next January, that will require restaurants to tell customers where their seafood comes from when asked.
“We believe that given a choice, most people will prefer domestic wild caught shrimp to farm-raised imports,” he said. “That should at least allow us to increase our market share just enough to stay in business,”
He added that the U.S. shrimp industry is lobbying for a national bill along the same lines, but that the restaurant industry and retailers are resisting it.
“Restaurants are not keen to have American consumers know what they’re eating,” Anderson said.
In the meantime, shrimpers like Steve Patronas say that they are caught between the high costs and low prices for their catches that are slowly choking off their way of live.
“Come the spring if shrimp prices are where they are now and fuel prices go up,” he said, standing on the deck of his small boat for shrimping close to shore, “then my boat isn’t going out.”
Photos by Carlos Barria