Image: Shrimping Economy
Garry Mitchell  /  AP
Part-time shrimper Jimmy Harris, left, and crew member Charles Cain, right, unloaded a day's shrimp catch from a pickup truck at Sea Pearl Seafood Co. on June 9, in Bayou La Batre, Ala.
updated 6/16/2009 11:59:15 AM ET 2009-06-16T15:59:15

Ho Van Le, who trawls in the Gulf of Mexico aboard his 50-foot (15-meter) 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 (3.79 liter) and hurricanes Gustav and Ike battered the coast, production fell to 188 million pounds (85 million kilograms), 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 Louisiana, rebounded after Katrina but said the pressure of imports, coupled with prices falling below what they were decades ago, have 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 (114 million kilograms) to 300 million pounds (136 million kilograms), imports surpass 1.2 billion pounds (0.6 billion kilograms) a year. The competition from foreign fleets remains fierce, particularly from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and China. More than 30 percent of the shrimp the U.S. 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, Louisiana, part of a coastal program run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The struggles continue once shrimpers unload their catches.

Shrimp processors in Newfoundland and Labrador, one of the world's largest suppliers of cold-water shrimp, recently halted production, blaming a rising Canadian dollar combined with a dwindling global demand for seafood. The Association of Seafood Producers, which represents 11 shrimp producers in the Canadian province, said up to 2,000 plant employees are out of work after shrimp processing plants closed indefinitely.

Industry officials hope for a turnaround; while production fell sharply last year, there have been a few good years over the past decade. Almost 289 million pounds (131 million kilograms) were hauled ashore in the Gulf in 2006, the highest level since 1986, Travis said.

On the Alabama coast, some boaters continue to take hurricanes in stride and return to the waters of Mobile Bay and Mississippi Sound year after year.

Xe Dang, 75, said he survived Katrina in Bayou La Batre. Standing beside the 55-foot (16.76-meter) vessel Phillip Jr., equipped with a new engine for this shrimping season, Dang said he plans to be on board.

"Sometimes good. Sometimes bad," he said of the season. "Just don't know until you get out there.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

Data: Latest rates in the US

Home equity rates View rates in your area
Home equity type Today +/- Chart
$30K HELOC FICO 4.95%
$30K home equity loan FICO 5.19%
$75K home equity loan FICO 4.58%
Credit card rates View more rates
Card type Today +/- Last Week
Low Interest Cards 13.40%
13.40%
Cash Back Cards 17.92%
17.91%
Rewards Cards 17.12%
17.11%
Source: Bankrate.com