When Lance Nacio recently walked into a Fresh Market grocery store, he made a beeline for the seafood as he always does. He found that only one type of shrimp was local out of the nine varieties.
Nacio started work as a commercial fisherman in 1997. Changes in the industry affect his livelihood so the fact that 93 percent of shrimp is imported or farmed hurts his business. Nacio is one of 5,500 licensed shrimpers in Louisiana alone, according to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
The first shrimping season of the year opened Monday and local fishermen said their early hauls are full of large white shrimp and average brown shrimp, but the imported shrimp hurts the prices regardless of the local quality.
“Import shrimp is a lot of what drives global price,” said Nacio, who was recently featured on a Dr. Oz segment about imported shrimp. “We’re not considered a specialty anymore. We’re more of a commodity.”
Commercial fisherman Phillip Silver, who lives near Dulac, said big shrimp sells for $1.50 a pound at the dock near him compared the $4 or $4.50 it went for in the 1990s. Fifth generation commercial fisherman Parish Williams said he can only get 90 cents a pound at the sheds near him in Golden Meadow.
Williams, who owns the boat Chackbay Lady, has found that the drop in shrimp prices make it difficult for him to turn a profit. Every trip costs him $2,500 to $3,000 just to leave the dock after buying groceries, ice and fuel. That doesn’t even factor in the pay for his crew.
“You gotta get at least $2 a pound to pay your expenses,” Williams said. “If I’d a sold everything at the shed, we had about 6,000 pounds, I wouldn’t even have gotten $6,000. Then I gotta pay my crew and I gotta get the fuel again and the ice again. I would just be turning over money.”
In response to low shed prices, Williams decided to sell his own shrimp out of his boat. Rather than making 90 cents a pound at the sheds, he sells for $2 a pound. The shift in retail responsibilities helps, but it is not a complete solution.
“We doing it real good selling shrimp right here … but it takes time,” Williams said. “We lose time doing it. We can’t be out. But I’m making more money doing this. … Me staying out there costs me more money in fuel and everything else. I’d rather be home selling shrimp than be out there making the same amount of money.”
Scott and Nickie Esponge of Galliano also "cut out the middle man" by selling to family and friends and they make double the money. The cousins went out on their boat Lil-Kai on Monday and brought in about 1,000 pounds of shrimp.
“The price of fuel was 15 cents back then [in the 1980s] and [small] shrimp was 45 cents," Scott Esponge said. “Now diesel is $1 something a gallon and shrimp is 50 cents. One went up, the other one stayed the same.”
Williams referenced the recent Dr. Oz clip featuring Nacio and said as more people are learning, more people are coming directly to him for shrimp.
“I’m getting ... a lot of people who are finding out about the imported shrimp and the rest of them that’s about almost all they sell,” Williams said. “Especially when they get out the state people don’t know what they’re buying. It makes a bad name for shrimp really because it’s not good to eat. They never eat no good shrimp. And the state should be doing more because people want this shrimp.”
Carol Terrebonne, co-owner of the Seafood Shack in Golden Meadow, said the prices are set by the factories. She was surprised that the prices have still been low despite the growing discussion about imported shrimp.
“I thought it would be higher because the imports are not coming in,” Terrebonne said. “They say they got the bacteria. But the price is still low.”
Both Terrebonne and Scott Esponge noted that the shrimp have been out farther in the water this season, which limits the hauls of the small boats that cannot go out that far.
“I think they opened up the season a little too late,” Carol Terrebonne said. “Shrimp will go in a circle and the shrimp went offshore. Some of my fishermen tell me that might be the second crop that left. The small skiffs in the canals are not doing nothing. The shrimps not there in the canals.”
There are typically about three crops a season depending on how long the season lasts. The opening and length of a season depends on research and sampled by LDWF biologists.
As one member of the Chackbay Lady said, “Just put ‘endangered species: commercial fishermen'.”