Shrimpers decry low prices, damage caused by shrimp imports
NEW ORLEANS - Dozens of Louisiana shrimpers - ranging from Vietnamese-Americans to Cajun fishermen - rallied Wednesday in downtown New Orleans to bewail low prices, farm-raised shrimp imports and other woes in their industry.
Shrimpers spoke out at a meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, a body of industry and government representatives that regulates fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. The group is meeting in New Orleans this week.
The shrimpers say they're struggling against a flood of cheap farm-raised imported shrimp, market uncertainties, hurricanes, the lingering effects of the massive BP oil spill and high fuel prices.
They are looking to remind customers and political leaders of the challenges they face.
"If it stays this way you will see at least half of this industry go down," said Ashton DeHart, a 38-year-old fisherman from Bayou Dularge, a fishing community far out in the marsh, about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans. "If they gave us an honest price, you'd never hear from the fishermen," he said.
Tai Nguyen, a 46-year-old Vietnamese-American fisherman who runs a boat with his wife, Tho, said fishermen receive about $1.30 a pound at the dock but it sells for $7 in supermarkets. "Something's wrong," he said.
Shrimpers say they're facing a dramatic price drop this year. They say on average shrimp has dropped from about $4.70 a pound at the dock last year to $1.30 a pound this year.
Dressed in T-shirts reading, "Domestic Shrimpers Need Fair Prices For Quality Organic Shrimp," the shrimpers chanted: "Demand Gulf shrimp!"
During the meeting, shrimpers held up signs reading: "Ask where your shrimp come from" and "Foreign shrimpunemployed Americans."
More than 90 percent of the shrimp consumed in the United States is imported.
Roy Crabtree, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said he understood their complaints. But he said the Gulf fishery council and the federal government have limited power to help the fishermen with their economic troubles.
In recent years the federal government has imposed tariffs on imported domestic shrimp and placed a moratorium on the number of boats permitted to harvest shrimp in the Gulf. Those measures have helped shore up the industry, shrimpers acknowledged.
Crabtree said the Gulf fishery council will decide the fate of the moratorium early next year.
"The issues they have are economic ones, largely driven by shrimp prices and fuel prices," Crabtree said. "Shrimp are largely a global market now and prices are affected by that."
Crabtree said the shrimp industry is not hampered by overfishing or serious environmental factors. "The fishery itself is healthy enough," he said.
Increasingly Gulf shrimpers have sought to highlight the differences in quality between the shrimp they catch - wild, fresh shrimp - and the farm-raised, poor quality shrimp from South America and Asia.
Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, said those efforts will continue.
"You have to create niche marketing," he said. But he said the federal government must do a better job of protecting American shrimpers from imports.