GULF OF MEXICO — The shrimp are slightly bigger, but prices are down, making this year’s season-opening in Biloxi comparable to last year’s start.
During the first two weeks of the 2012 season, 1.137 million pounds of shrimp were landed in Biloxi. In the same time in 2011, 1.124 million pounds were landed at the same port.
Shrimp season began May 30, and 210 boats went out for the opening day. To date, the bulk of the production has been medium, 36- to 40-count shrimp, a reference to the number of shrimp needed to make a pound.
Dave Burrage, commercial and recreational fisheries specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said a majority of the early crop harvested last year was the smaller, 50- to 60-count size.
“We are getting good-sized shrimp, but not a good price for the fishermen,” Burrage said.
Medium shrimp are bringing about $1.50 a pound, and small shrimp are getting $1 to $1.10 a pound. The large, under 15-count shrimp are selling off the boat for $2.85 a pound with heads on and $4.35 a pound for tails.”
Burrage, who works at the Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi, said mild weather over the last several months helped production and size in this year’s shrimp crop.
“We didn’t have any winter to speak of, and the shrimp grew fast,” Burrage said. “The oil spill of 2010 is behind us, as are the closings that happened last year when the Bonnet Carre’ Spillway was opened to handle flooding in other areas.”
High winds have prompted small craft advisories, so smaller shrimp boats are either staying docked or working in less productive locations where the weather is better.
Percy Bradley of Long Beach is owner and captain of the Kar-Lyn Dawn, a shrimp boat that works out of the Pass Christian harbor. He has been in the shrimp business since 1973.
“We had a good opening for the first couple of days, then we hit a dead zone, and then it got better after the wind,” Bradley said. “The shrimp come through in schools. They don’t stop anymore; they just pass through.”
With low prices, shrimpers are squeezed to make a profit.
“Diesel is killing us,” Bradley said. “You used to be able to work for two to three 100-pound boxes of shrimp a night. Now it takes 200 pounds of shrimp just to pay for diesel and another 100 pounds to pay for crew.”
With today’s high production costs and low prices, Bradley said a shrimper needs to catch about 500 pounds of shrimp to have a decent night’s work.
Burrage said the three major challenges facing shrimpers recur every year.
“Cheaper, imported product is putting the pressure on the price of domestic product; operating costs, primarily diesel fuel, are high; and increased regulation,” Burrage said.
The average consumer buys shrimp based on price, not quality, and the Mississippi wild-caught shrimp industry has to do a better job marketing their superior product, he said.
“There is no comparison between the quality of wild-caught Gulf shrimp and the pond-raised, imported product they compete with in the grocery store,” Burrage said. “We think our Gulf shrimp are better and more flavorful than any others that are available.”
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill decimated the industry in 2010, but Burrage said it appears this disaster is no longer impacting the shrimp.
Traci Floyd, shrimp and crab bureau director with the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources in Biloxi, said there is plenty of evidence the shrimp are safe to eat.
“Our Gulf of Mexico shrimp are some of the most-tested shrimp in the world,” Floyd said. “Although it’s too early to tell how the whole season will be, we’re pleased with the amount of shrimp being harvested. It looks like we’ll have an average year, and average is good sometimes.”
The number of boats out on opening day increased from last year, when many shrimpers were still feeling the hardship of the oil spill.
“Even though we had 48 more boats out than last year, that’s only a quarter of what we had 10 years ago,” Floyd said. “The number is down from the loss of infrastructure caused by Hurricane Katrina, fuel costs hit hard and we have competition from foreign imports.”
Shrimp season closes Dec. 31 north of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, where the smaller shrimpers fish, and it closes April 30, 2013 south of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.