- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

DES ALLEMANDS, La. — After 35 years as a school bus driver, Roland Dufrene recently retired to his beloved roots as a hardworking, tough-skinned commercial shrimper.

Mr. Dufrene’s career choice comes at a time when cheap imports and overfishing have made it tough to scratch out a living shrimping in the Gulf of Mexico. His 47-foot “Captain Autry,” draped with skimmer nets, is one of just two shrimp boats left in Des Allemands, an old fishing town southwest of New Orleans that once boasted 30 boats.

Such hard realities have federal officials rethinking the entire Gulf shrimp economy, believing that limiting the number of shrimpers is the best way to keep the fishery viable and end the cycles of profiteering that have beset the industry.

But their plans have clashed head-on with many in the heart of Louisiana’s fishing coast, who cherish the freedom to shrimp as a time-honored birthright.

“This is supposed to be a free country and it’s not free anymore,” said Mr. Dufrene, who started fishing with his father at age 8.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the body that oversees the Gulf’s federal waters, is expected to vote in May on whether a cap on offshore shrimp licenses should be imposed. The plan would need clearance from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which is pushing for changes.

“The shrimp fishery is heavily pursued,” said Chris Smith, a NMFS spokesman in St. Petersburg, Fla. “It is my understanding that every trawlable portion of the Gulf of Mexico gets dragged five to seven times a year. So it’s really, really a lot of effort out there.”

The proposal comes on the heels of one of the worst periods ever for American shrimpers. While shrimp has become the No. 1 seafood in the United States, an influx of cheap, farm-raised imports have eroded profits for U.S. fishermen and processors in the past four years.

This year, Southern shrimpers won tariffs on shrimp imports from six Asian and South American countries. But tariffs may not cure the industry of its woes.

“The anti-dumping petition was a great step forward, but I think they see it only as a part of the solution,” said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. “Shrimpers realize there is no silver bullet.”

Shrimping has undergone many changes since it first became a commercial fishery a century ago when Cajuns lived and worked on wooden shrimp drying platforms on the edge of the Gulf. It’s a story marked by fights with environmentalists over gill nets, the loss of deck hands to high-paying oil jobs and hurricanes dashing fortunes.

But what hasn’t changed is the freedom for anyone to buy a boat, get a couple of licenses and go shrimping.

“It is about the only big fishery left where a guy can spend a few dollars and get into it,” said Ransom A. Myers of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, who studies North American fish stocks.

But is there room for everybody to trawl for shrimp and still make a profit?

Without an offshore cap, some argue, the fishery would see a repeat of what happened in the late 1990s: When the price of shrimp rises, people will flock back into the fishery and no one will earn enough. Some economists estimate shrimp will become profitable again by 2012.

“The guys that are serious about going offshore, they know that something has to be done to stop this gold rush situation,” said Pete Gerica, a Louisiana commercial fisherman who has long been active in fishing policy. “You got to make sure that professional people are doing the job.”

In Louisiana, the Gulf’s biggest shrimp producer, plans to cap the Gulf fleet have not been well received.

“We’re concerned about the family businesses that will be impacted by this,” said Joel Waltzer, a lawyer who represents Vietnamese shrimpers. They make up a sizable portion of the fleet.

Mr. Waltzer said many fishermen went bankrupt and lost their boats during the recent crisis and would not be allowed to re-enter the fishery under the cap proposal.

Especially irksome for critics is that offshore reduction plans are based on economics, not on depleted shrimp stocks. Landings for shrimp remain high.

“There’s nothing wrong with the resource,” said state Sen. Nick Gautreaux. “These people have been shrimping all their lives, and they have a right to shrimp.”

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