Shrimpers see tough season

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Published: July 19,2004

Biloxi — In a town once known as the seafood capital of the world, shrimpers have had a hard time of it for the last few years. The shrimp industry, a vital part of Mississippi’s coastal development, has been assailed with cheap imported shrimp, stringent regulations and rising fuel prices. Fewer boats by half went out to work the state’s territorial waters on opening day this year.

The current shrimp season officially opened June 9 with 538 shrimp boats counted in an aerial survey conducted by the fisheries staff of the state Department of Marine Resources (DMR). That number compares to 1,067 shrimp boast counted on opening day last year.

Shrimpers nationwide have been complaining about the unfair import competition. Shrimp prices have plummeted by more than half since approximately 2001. The U.S. Commerce Department suspects dumping — frozen and canned shrimp flooding into this country — of damaging the domestic industry.

Just recently the federal government announced proposed tariffs on China and Vietnam after shrimpers filed an antidumping petition against six nations that export approximately 70% of the shrimp Americans eat.

Loc Nguyen, owner of Sea Lover, said the decision regarding tariffs was good news but not much help right now. He said his catches have been small inland and the price he’s getting has been bad at 50¢ per pound. Last year he was getting up to 90¢ a pound.

He, and others, say the tariffs won’t be much help this year, and shrimpers are also suffering from the price of diesel fuel, which has risen since last shrimp season.

Todd Rosetti, whose family has owned Quality Seafood for 70 years, said, “The fuel price has been steadily increasing and has made an impact. The shrimpers can’t run in and out with their catch like they used to do. They have to stay out longer.”

He says he’s heard a lot of complaining about shrimp prices being low and operating costs for shrimpers going up.
“We hope the tariffs will help. Shrimp will become a commodity and won’t be cheap like they’ve been,” he said. “The quality is there.”

Good catch, small shrimp

Rosetti says that overall the catch has been good this season, but the size of the shrimp is down.

“We’re usually seeing larger shrimp this time of year, and I think the rain had something to do with it,” he said. “It seems like the bigger shrimp have moved farther offshore, and only the bigger boats can go out there and go that deep to catch them.”

Waters close to shore were closed soon after opening but re-opened on July 9. Rosetti said last week that his processing facility is still seeing the same size shrimp they were seeing when the waters closed. He thinks the combination of rain and temperature has caused the shrimp not to grow this year. Shrimp are sized by the number it takes to make a legal pound. Rosetti says he’s seen very few 31 to 35 count this season, a drastic change since opening day.

“The catch varied between 100 to 200 pounds per hour on opening day, depending on where shrimpers were working,” said Mike Brainard, the DMR’s Shrimp and Crab Bureau director. “The sizes were good, 36 to 40 and 41 to 50 count.”

The total number of commercial shrimp licenses sold this year was 814, consisting of 600 resident and 214 non-resident. Last year, that number was 1,065 total licenses sold with 809 resident and 256 non-resident.

Dockside value of Mississippi’s annual shrimp harvest, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, was approximately $29.8 million in 2002. Annual commercial shrimp landings average approximately 16.7 million pounds.

In February 2003, Congress appropriated $35 million in funds to aid the shrimping industry. Funds were allotted to states based on the volume of shrimp produced.

Mississippi’s portion of the $17.5 million allotted to the Gulf of Mexico states was approximately $1 million. After distributing about 90% of funds directly to licensed shrimp fishermen who meet shrimp fishery landings and/or income requirements and 2% to those with a demonstrated record of compliance with turtle excluder device and bycatch reduction device regulations, the remaining 8% is being used to promote Mississippi’s shrimp product.

Brown, white and pink shrimp are the three major types of shrimp harvested on the Coast. Approximately 85% of the state’s harvest is brown shrimp. The nutrient-enriched estuaries provide the ideal habitat for juvenile shrimp to develop. As they reach maturity, the brown shrimp swim into the open Gulf where they spawn.

Besides China and Vietnam, shrimpers allege that Brazil, Ecuador, India and Thailand also have dumped shrimp on the U.S. market. The U.S. International Trade Commission will make a final determination next January on whether the domestic industry is being harmed by the imports. Then, the Commerce Department will set final dumping penalties.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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