MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST — The year 2000 was very good for shrimp catches landed in Mississippi waters with the dockside landings valued at $38 million. And the same conditions that made 2000 so good — low rainfall and warm weather — are in place this year.
“I think we are going to have an above average season,” said Dave Burrage, a Mississippi State University Extension fisheries specialist at the Coastal Experiment Station. “Last year we had one of the best years on record because of the fact that not only was production good, but the price held up. Typically you have an inverse relationship. If you catch a lot shrimp, the price goes down. But that didn’t happen last year primarily because the imported shrimp was down due to disease problems in aquaculture overseas in places like Thailand and Ecuador where we normally get imported shrimp.”
Rudy Lesso, owner of R.A. Lesso Seafood, a wholesale seafood processor and distributor in Biloxi, believes part of the reason 2000 was a good year was because of higher domestic demand.
“Our domestic business was stronger than ever last year, which leads me to believe consumers were buying more shrimp because of a great economy,” said Lesso, who serves on the Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources. “Last year was a good season for everyone, and this year shrimp production looks good from what they are telling us.”
Lesso said, however, that there are concerns shrimp prices could go lower because of a slowing economy. Shrimp is seen as a luxury item, and people forced to cut back on their food budgets could forgo shrimp and other seafood.
R.A. Lesso Seafood processes both foreign and domestic shrimp. Lesso believes that the imported shrimp have helped stabilize and grow the nationwide market for shrimp because large retail outlets prefer to carry products that can be stocked the year around.
Domestic shrimp production is expected to be good again this year partly because the Coast has gone into a drought pattern again with only about a quarter of inch of rain in the past two months. Burrage said that is terrible for farmers and folks who have to water their lawns every three of four days. But it is great for shrimp production. Higher salinity in the estuaries makes more area available to serve as nursery grounds for brown shrimp, the primary type of shrimp produced in Mississippi waters.
“That combined with normal temperatures makes me think we will have an above average season again this year,” Burrage said. “But no one can predict what the prices will be.”
Many Mississippi shrimpers are expected to work openings in different portions of Louisiana waters from the middle to the end of the month. The opening dates for Mississippi and Alabama waters haven’t yet been set, but generally those states open in early June.
Although the Mississippi shrimping season runs through December, Burrage said the heaviest catch of shrimp in the Mississippi Sound is early in the season.
“A lot of guys make their money in the first week or so of the season,” Burrage said. “A lot of boats converge on the Sound the first week, and after that they disperse out. Typically, Alabama opens the same time that we do.”
In federal waters south of the barrier islands, larger shrimp boats with freezers work the year around.
Corky Perret, director of fisheries, Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, agrees that 2001 should be a good season. He said about 15 local fishermen took advantage of the pink shrimp season earlier this year, a species which is caught at night. He said pinks aren’t a primary species for Mississippi, but the fishermen were satisfied with the special season that allowed them the opportunity to shrimp.
Perret said warm temperatures early in the spring were favorable for shrimp recruitment and growth. A cool front hit April 17, which lowered water temperatures somewhat, but not enough to do much harm.
“We have some small shrimp moving in which is par for this time of year,” Perret said. “With environmental conditions as they are, we think we are going to probably experience a decent season. In 2000 we did better than 1999 because the price for shrimp was up.”
Some states have gone to limited entry program restricting the number of licenses in order to prevent having too many boats chasing too few shrimp, reducing the profitability for everyone. Two national experts on the issue of limited entry came to Mississippi and public hearings were held on the issue.
“Some large industry members want limited entry, but they want it for the other guy,” Perret said. “When they realize they may be impacted, they aren’t too happy about it. But if you’re fishing and you have other boats around you, there are too many.”
Perret said the state has seen a decline in the number of shrimp licenses purchased that has reduced the problem without government interference. In 1989-90 the state sold 2,014 resident shrimp licenses compared to 1,039 in 2000. That means nearly half of the resident shrimpers have left the business in ten years. Thus far this year about 944 licenses have been sold. Non-resident license applications have also declined from 419 in 1989-1990, to 245 in 2000.
“Young people are not being recruited into the shrimping profession,” he said. “Younger people have more formal education, and are doing other things that provide year round jobs with benefits. There are also economics and regulations involved.”
Perret said similar declines in shrimp license sales have been reported in Louisiana and Alabama. Texas has a limited entry program for purchasing back inshore shrimp licenses.
“We have bought back no licenses, and are half of what we were 10 years ago,” he said.
About 5,000 people are employed in the shrimp industry on the Coast, including workers at processing plants that process both domestic and imported shrimp.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-3457.