Louisiana shrimpers are facing low prices. They say the business is tougher than it’s ever been, and recently considered striking. Many are looking for creative ways to make more money.
Way down Delacroix Highway in St. Bernard Parish, people are laughing and drinking beer under big white tents at the second ever St. Bernard Seafood Market. A handful of boats are docked on the bayou. Shrimpers stand onboard, bagging up shrimp for customers walking by.
Charles Robin IV is one of them.
“When people see the shrimp, the shrimp sell themselves,” says Robin from the cab of his boat, the Lil’ Charlito. “I was out here today, I put the shrimp out on the table, and as soon as they see ‘em they was like, yeah, we gotta have that.”
Robin says the shrimp are great -- the problem is selling them. Like most shrimpers, after a fishing trip he’ll pull up to the local dock, refuel his boat, stock up on ice, and sell his catch to the dock. The dock owner then turns around and sells it to bigger buyers.
But that’s not paying much these days. Shrimp prices have been low.
“It's been really bad,” Robin says. “And you need to catch a lotta lotta shrimp to make up for the difference.”
That’s why he came to the seafood market today -- to cut out the middleman, make a little more money by selling directly to customers. Instead of getting $1.30 per pound at the dock for a medium-sized shrimp, for example, he can get closer to $2.50 per pound.
Julie Falgout, Seafood Industry Liaison for Louisiana Sea Grant, says more and more shrimpers are doing this. She says selling direct makes a lot of sense for some people, but it’s not easy. Cutting out the middleman means becoming the middleman.
“And so it becomes a business where you have more things that you have to do and it's less time fishing.”
That’s exactly why shrimper Warren Guidroz isn’t so enthusiastic about direct sales.
“Too much time involved it’s just too much time,” he says as he takes a break from the hot afternoon sun about a mile up the bayou from the seafood market.
For him, selling direct is a gamble.
“When you go all day and you get up to five, six, seven thousand pounds of shrimp -- you're going to be while trying to get rid of that,” he says.
Guidroz says it's just easier to sell it to the dock and be done with it. He doesn’t want to spend any extra time chasing down new clients.
In fact, there may not even be enough clients near local shrimpers. Falgout says most of the customers who buy direct do so simply because they live within driving distance of these shrimpers.
“I mean even if we had a third of [shrimpers] trying to sell direct you'd end up with too much for the market and the prices will go down.”
For now, most shrimpers will have to rely on the docks. Another solution would be to raise those dock prices. But that’s tough to do since the industry is competing with foreign imports. According to seafood import data from NOAA, cheap shrimp are increasingly flooding the market from places like India, Indonesia, and Ecuador. That’s been driving down prices, shrimpers say.
Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser is targeting those imports. He wants to convince people that Louisiana shrimp are better.
“We've got to take this thing and make it a health issue,” he says.
According to a government report, in 2015, the Food and Drug Administration tested 0.1% of imported seafood for drug residue. Nungesser says if the government tested more of that seafood, more of it would be rejected. He wants the federal government to start imposing a fee of ten cents per pound of imported seafood, and to use that money to pay for more FDA inspectors.
Nungesser says that would “allow the government to hire plenty inspectors to inspect all seafood being imported. And would level the playing field going forward.”
Nungesser is asking local politicians to put pressure on Congress to pass the fee. He’s asking parish councils to pass resolutions that state their support for the plan. Resolutions have been passed in Lafourche, Jefferson, and St. Bernard parishes.
That plan could take a while. In the meantime, shrimper Charles Robin IV feels he only has one viable option for now: to get out on the water, drop his nets, and drag.
“Stay grindin’,” he says. “As long as they got shrimp we’re gonna drag.”
Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Foundation for Louisiana, and local listeners.