- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 9, 2002

DULAC, La. — Shrimp fishermen across the country are sinking into debt, and some are bailing out of the business.
Domestic shrimp prices fell by 40 percent this year as imports of pond-raised shrimp rose by 30 percent. And a bad situation was made worse by a depressed economy, higher fuel costs and a disastrous hurricane season.
For example, Clarence "Weasel" Fitch a weather-beaten shrimper by trade has found that popping quarters into a video poker machine helps him get through a good working day.
Right now, poker is less risky than shrimping, he says.
The 49-year-old fisherman has not had much luck these days. Abysmal shrimp prices have cut his income in half. He laid off his deckhands because he couldn't pay them. His wife quit her job to replace the deckhands on their 48-foot boat, the Lady Taylor.
And then the other day, about 50 miles southwest of New Orleans, he hit a log in Lake Boudreaux and lost his $2,500 propeller.
On Oct. 22, shrimpers from across the South formed the Southern Shrimp Alliance to do something about their plight. The coalition may file a petition with the Commerce Department accusing 16 countries of dumping shrimp on the U.S. market. The petition could lead to higher tariffs on imported shrimp, though many experts are skeptical the government would support that.
In the meantime, shrimpers are demanding state and federal relief, such as low-interest loans, price supports or exemptions from environmental laws governing their nets.
"I'm breaking even; I'm not getting out of debt," said Michael Cowdrey, a 43-year-old North Carolina shrimper. He blames free trade for the low prices: "There's this great sucking sound of money going out of this country."
Up and down the bayous of southern Louisiana, the hard times are easy to see. Fishermen sell shrimp out of their pickup trucks to cut out the middle man. And "For Sale" signs are posted on boats.
"I gave it all up. I'm driving an 18-wheeler now," said Welton Guidry, 35. "When I was growing up I wanted to be a commercial fisherman. My grandpa did it. I don't want my kids becoming commercial fishermen. You can't afford it."
The shrimpers are partly a victim of their own good fortune over the past few years, when prices were strong.
"When they made that money, a lot of the guys reinvested it and didn't save it. They maybe changed out an old engine that had run up a few years," said Kevin Savoie, an area agent for the Louisiana State University Agriculture Center. "There are some folks who are really in trouble right now."
When the shrimping was good, Mr. Fitch was hauling in up to 800 pounds a day and making more than $50,000 a year. So he went in for a bigger boat. Last summer, he took out a $40,000 loan, bought the Lady Taylor, and started paying it off $580 a month.
Now he is thinking of selling the boat. But who is going to buy it? he asked.
"I went bigger because I thought I could do better. But it got worse. I should have stayed small," he said.
Across the Gulf Coast, 13,000 to 18,000 vessels employ one to seven shrimpers each, according to Chris Smith, spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service. In 2001, Gulf Coast shrimpers caught 253.3 million pounds of shrimp with a value of $487.7 million.
At piers in Louisiana, a pound consisting of 21 to 25 large shrimp sells for about $2, said David Bourgeois, an LSU Agriculture Center marine advisory agent.
The same shrimp sold for $3.50 to $4 three years ago, he said.
Tropical Storm Isidore and Hurricane Lili made matters worse. Many of the bigger shrimp were killed, and the storms littered the coastal waters with debris, Mr. Fitch said.
"You can't work out there. The bottom is so dirty. We even caught an old washing machine in our nets the other day," he said.
Now, he is looking for other work maybe a job on a tugboat.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide