HOUMA, La. Shrimp season opened Monday morning, and fishermen headed into state waters with a certain amount of optimism following years of dismal catches.
'Fishermen are always optimistic,' said Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association. 'Between hurricanes, flooding, losing our boats and our homes, we have to be. It would be really easy just to quit and leave. But this is what we do. This is our culture.'
The season opening wasn't without its kinks. A spring sprinkled with record cold temperatures resulted in slower than usual brown shrimp growth, and the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries responded with a delayed and staggered opening of state waters.
Waters in Terrebonne and Vermillion Bay opened first, at 6 a.m. Monday. Openings will follow at 6 a.m. May 20 in Barataria Bay and 6 a.m. May 27 in lakes Pontchartrain, Borgne, Mermentau and Calcasieu.
State Wildlife and Fisheries biologists monitored water conditions and conducted more than 550 trawl samples over five weeks to determine season opening dates, officials said.
The openings are projected for when at least 50 percent of inshore brown shrimp reach market size.
David Chauvin, who owns three Terrebonne seafood businesses with his wife, Kim, said brown shrimp were small in some areas, and some might criticize Wildlife and Fisheries for opening the season too early. But he said he supports the opening's timing. Had the state waited much longer, there was a possibility the early crop may have moved out of the estuary and into the Gulf of Mexico before shrimpers got a crack at them.
'We can't afford to lose a crop right now,' he said.
Early reports Monday indicated that fishermen were filling their nets with good catches. While brown shrimp were small, shrimpers also reported catches of large white shrimp coming in off the boats Monday. Those reports, paired with talk of good prices for shrimp and less expensive fuel, had shrimpers feeling positive.
In the past few seasons, poor catch in areas such as the productive Barataria-Terrebonne basin have had shrimpers concerned that oil and dispersants from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill may have disrupted the fishery there, a problem that needs to be more effectively studied.
Guidry said areas that had been doing poorly, like waters off Grand Isle and in Terrebonne Bay, are showing signs of improvement this season. Fishermen will have a better idea of how things are going in the next few days, he said.
'You never know what's in store until you play out the season,' he said.
Down post-spill catches came on top of other problems plaguing fishermen, including numerous hurricanes, rising fuel prices and cheap imported shrimp flooding the market.
Fishermen said that disease has been impacting the import market lately, creating an opportunity for Gulf fishermen. In addition, new tariffs may be coming for imports, Guidry said.
Imports are down about 6 percent in the U.S. market right now, David Chauvin said, which may not sound like a lot. But Gulf shrimp only make up about 10 percent of the entire U.S. market, 'so that's a big gap to fill,' he said.
And with fewer imports coming in, prices are more competitive. Chauvin said he believes they'll be equivalent to or more than what they were before the oil spill.
'I'd love to see those prices maintain for the season because we need to jump start the industry,' said Lance Nacio, owner of Dulac's Anna Marie Seafood. 'If the prices don't reflect what we spend on operating, this industry can't be maintained.'