BILOXI — Derick Ross, his father and his younger brother boarded the 53-foot Mark and Dawn and set out to ply Mississippi waters for shrimp this week, just as Rosses have done since ancestors arrived here from Alabama on a schooner in 1896.
By noon, fishing in wind and choppy water around Horn Island, they had caught only about 150 pounds.
“It ain’t really looking too good so far,” Ross said. “We’re still trying to find them. The ones we got are great big ones, probably 10- to 15-count (to a pound).”
Mississippi shrimpers badly need a good season. They’ve suffered a decade of low shrimp prices driven by cheap imported seafood. They’ve faced rising fuel and other costs. Hurricane Katrina devastated their boats and infrastructure.
The BP Gulf oil disaster practically shut them down last year and made consumers leery of their catch. Now there’s an unprecedented flow of freshwater from the Mississippi River rendering the western part of state water — potentially more — unfishable.
Wednesday, June 25, was the earliest state shrimp season opener on record. Early catch reports were of 40- to 50-count shrimp, with most boats avoiding the western part of the Sound because of the freshwater.
Authorities said they likely won’t know until bigger boats return with catches over the weekend how the season is shaping up, and whether the freshwater intrusion will have a major impact. Some fear the river flow will drive shrimp too far out for many state shrimpers to catch. But recent catches in Louisiana, where seasons opened earlier, were decent in areas ahead of the freshwater incursion, lending room for optimism.
“We’ve been seeing all these little pieces of wood, sticks and other stuff, even lilly pads in the water that we don’t normally see,” Ross said. “I’m guessing that’s from the river, all the way out here near Horn. We’re trying to catch them out ahead of it.”
Joe Jewell, deputy director of fisheries with the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, said 162 boats headed out Wednesday morning for the season opening, which was triggered by sample specimens reaching 68-per-pound count. While this marks a rebound from last year, with only about 70 boats shrimping amid the oil disaster, it’s still far below the pre-Katrina 350 to 360 boats shrimping.
“What the freshwater is going to do, what will happen, we’re still not sure yet,” Jewell said.
“Most people are quoting the (river spillway releases) from the 1970s and ’80s, and using the Gulfport ship channel as the border of where the freshwater will stop. But this will be bigger — the biggest incursion in our lifetimes, since the ’20s and ’30s, and it may not stop at the channel.”
Jewell said the freshwater flooding in the 1920s drove many South Louisiana shrimpers to Mississippi, including his grandparents.
DMR Director Bill Walker said salinity has plummeted to 4 to 5 parts per thousand as far west as Pass Christian when it should be in the low teens this time of year.
“It will push the shrimp out ahead of the freshwater,” Walker said. “Hopefully, we’ll still be pretty good on the eastern side, east of the Gulfport ship channel.”
Seafood processing plant owner Richard Gollott, processors’ representative on the Commission on Marine Resources, said wholesale, or “boat prices,” for small shrimp are about $1 a pound, up 20 cents a pound or more from last year. It’s an improvement, but still low, and imports are still driving prices down.
Domestic shrimpers did recently win a battle in Washington, with the extension this month of “antidumping” tariffs on five countries that had been flooding the U.S. market with cheap frozen shrimp. Also, millions in collected tariffs will now be released to domestic producers now that litigation over the tariffs has been resolved.
It’s tough to be a shrimper these days, Jewell said, and he doubts the local industry will ever return to its peak levels of hundreds of boats. But, hailing from a family of generations of shrimpers himself, he also doubts it will ever go away.
“A lot of it is a cultural thing,” Jewell said, “a genetic will to stand in and fight. I think it’s hard for them to give up or give in, when their parents were shrimping, their grandparents were shrimping. I don’t think it will ever go away.”
Ross agrees, it’s hard to make a living shrimping any more.
“Everything’s going up, and they’re still not paying anything at the docks,” Ross said. “A new bilge pump doesn’t cost $100 anymore. Now it’s $300. Salt is $9 a bag when it used to be $4.50. You’ve got the imports selling so cheap.”
But, Ross said, fishing is in his blood, and he and his family plan to keep at it.
“We love it. That’s why we keep doing it.”
GEOFF PENDER,The Sun Herald