DULAC, La. (AP) - David Chauvin of Dulac has worked in the shrimp business since 1986, the year he graduated from high school. His father, grandfather and great grandfather also fished the waters off Louisiana’s Cajun coast.
Gulf Coast shrimpers, who bring in three quarters of the nation’s catch, have been battered with waves of bad luck. Hurricanes. A flood of cheap imports. The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Fresh water diversions that kill seafood. And now the coronavirus.
“You always wonder how you’re going to die,” Chauvin said. “I always thought it would have been Thailand or India that would have wiped the domestic shrimp out. I never would have dreamed that it could possibly be a virus.”
Restaurants buy 80% of both imported and domestic shrimp, according to the Southern Shrimp Alliance. With restaurants closed or offering only takeout, no one is buying much shrimp. Next month would typically launch the peak of shrimp season as Gulf states begin their annual opening of nearshore waters to shrimping.
The United States caught 289.2 million pounds of shrimp, worth $496.1 million, in 2018, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (a full 2019 report has not yet been released). Louisiana shrimpers, working in both state and federal waters, brought in 90.7 million pounds of that catch, followed closely by Texas with 72.1 million pounds.
That bounty, however, is dwarfed by the 1.5 billion pounds of shrimp imported that year to the United States, the majority from India and Indonesia.
Chauvin still owns four large shrimp boats, but today his main business is on land. In Dulac, he runs docks that supply boats and purchase their catch and processing plants that peel and package that catch for buyers.
“We buy shrimp, we sell shrimp, we eat shrimp,” he said.
Shrimpers are still working. Preliminary numbers from NOAA for this March show 2 million pounds of shrimp were brought in, mainly to Texas docks. That is down 400,000 pounds from the average March catch for the last two decades.
Most of those shrimp were caught in federal waters, which are open year round. It remains to be seen whether smaller boats, which work closer to shore, will head out when more state waters are opened for the summer season.
“I’ve got a lot of bank money that I operate on,” Chauvin said. “But once all of the money is basically spent in putting up product, and your product is still not moving, you’re done. All you can do is throw your hands up in the air, walk out on the dock and tell the fishermen, ‘Look, I’m done.’”
Few processors across the Gulf Coast are currently open, said David Veal of the American Shrimp Processors Association. They don’t want to expose their staff to the virus. They worry about who will buy the seafood. And many already have freezers full of shrimp.
“It takes a mighty brave soul to venture out and spend $20 million, $30 million or $40 million and put it in inventory without having any idea where it might go,” Veal said.
The coronavirus hit the U.S., forcing states to shut down restaurants to curb the spread of the virus, when shrimp processors in the Gulf South were sitting on extra inventory for Lent. This is normally a busy season for seafood.
“The processors don’t really come into play until larger volumes of shrimp start coming. I’m very concerned. Will these processors be open and be able to operate?” said Ryan Bradley of Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United, which represents the state’s seafood industry.
Grocery store sales of shrimp remain steady. Rouses Supermarkets, a grocery chain in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that only carries domestic shrimp, has sold over 400,000 pounds of shrimp since March 1, about the same as last year.
Similar to small farmers, many shrimpers have shifted to selling directly to customers amid the COVID-19 crises. Some shrimpers sell catch out of coolers from their docked boats.
Before the coronavirus crisis, 60% to 70% of Lance Nacio’s business was with wholesale distributors. Even though Nacio, based in Montegut, Louisiana, lost most of those sales, he’s busier than ever working eight farmers markets a month. He even added an employee, hiring his nephew to boost online ordering for his Anna Marie Shrimp company. More than a decade ago, Nacio decided to sell more of his shrimp directly to consumers as low-priced imports drove down the prices he got at the docks.
Direct sales to home cooks, though, can’t sustain the shrimp industry if restaurants take months to recover. Few shrimpers have Nacio’s established relationships with farmers markets and an online platform to reach more buyers. And home cooks will never match the restaurant industry’s appetite for shrimp.
“If you’re an offshore boat that goes out for a month and gets 60,000 pounds, that’s a lot of shrimp to sell off the boat,” said Veal of the American Shrimp Processors Association.
While coronavirus looms as a threat over future sales, shrimpers have found some current relief. Fuel is one of their biggest costs, and diesel prices are low.
“We average about $20,000 a trip on fuel. We probably saved $6,000 to $7,000 last trip on one boat,” said Wendell Howerin, who runs three shrimp boats out of Bayou La Batre, Ala.
The USDA agreed this month to buy 20 million pounds of Gulf Coast shrimp. The Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA will distribute the shrimp to food security programs, like the National School Lunch Program or The Emergency Food Assistance Program.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, includes $300 million for the seafood industry, but that money will be spread across the entire country.
The main program in the CARES Act for small business is the Paycheck Protection Program, and shrimpers have struggled to take advantage of it.
Shrimp boat crews, according to Southern Shrimp Alliance, commonly receive a share of the proceeds from the catch, which means legally they are considered self employed. Each crew member must apply individually to the PPP, a daunting process, especially for many of the Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants who work in the Gulf fishing industry. The PPP quickly ran out of money, although Monday another $310 billion was added to the program.
This crisis, many shrimpers say, is worse than the others.
A hurricane blows through, and then recovery can start. But no one knows when the coronavirus crisis will end, when customers will brave dining rooms and restaurants will buy again.
After the BP oil spill, which befouled the Gulf waters a decade ago, billions of dollars from the giant oil company gave fishermen a boost.
This time, no one can be sued. No company is to blame for the coronavirus. The shrimpers and processors are expecting the government to bail them out when the entire country is in need.
“It’s definitely another punch in the gut,” said Bradley, of Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United. “It’s another disaster on top of many disasters that we’ve weathered here.”
Some Gulf fishermen hope, when the coronavirus crisis ends, people will be more aware of what they eat. Diners might worry more about where their seafood comes from, instead of just buying the cheapest shrimp.
“There’s going to be a big movement in America of buy USA for everything. I’m hoping that will help our industry recover,” Bradley said. “I kind of see a silver lining in it, if you can hang in there.”
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