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Net Loss? 

The image of the working Louisiana coastline is in danger of becoming a picture from the past.

The shrimpers who are the mainstay of Louisiana's coastal inlets work hard for their money. They also take pride in a way of life that has value to our state beyond the market price of their crop. Tourists -- especially "cultural tourists," to use a travel industry buzzword -- delight in visiting areas renowned for their working coasts and local seafood. But Louisiana shrimpers currently face immense pressure from low prices caused by a glut of imported shrimp. As a result, the image of the working Louisiana coastline may soon become a picture from the past.

The increase in shrimp imports over the last few years arises mostly from shrimp farms in countries where labor and energy are cheap, LSU fisheries biologist Mark Schexnayder says. Critics charge that free trade agreements such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) promote the development of such large-scale farms, which they say are ecologically disastrous and use harmful antibiotics. Schexnayder disputes those claims, but he sympathizes with local shrimpers. He says imported shrimp pose two threats to the local industry -- their high volume and their high quality. Generally, he says, imported shrimp are clean of bacteria, frozen within two hours of leaving the ponds, with more whole shrimp as opposed to pieces. "While some of the (Louisiana) shrimp reaches the market in impeccable condition, in general terms, their quality beats the hell out of our quality," he says.

Currently, some shrimpers address the glut of imported shrimp by opposing CAFTA and proposing an "anti-dumping" lawsuit. Such strategies are legitimate. But if Louisiana shrimpers are going to compete in the long term, they're going to have to ramp up quality by embracing change and by working together. For example, they could manage the coastal fishery for larger shrimp by selectively closing areas that harbor smaller shrimp until later in the season. They also could improve practices on their boats to raise the quality of the shrimp being brought to the dock.

"The goal is to improve the quality, and that does two things in itself," explains Jerald Horst, associate professor of fisheries at LSU's School of Renewable Natural Resources. "Number one, that allows shrimp buyers to sell shrimpers' products that are more competitive with this high-quality import. Number two, it allows for the branding of premium quality seafood, which is a form of niche marketing."

Premium branding requires a third party to certify shrimp at every step of their journey from the water to the kitchen. Some independent shrimpers won't tolerate that level of intrusion. Others, however, believe it will help save the industry. Pete Gerica, who trawls in Lake Borgne, Lake Pontchartrain and Breton Sound, serves on the Seafood Industry Advisory Board, which has already asked food technology professor Jon Bell to put observers on trawlers. By observing shrimpers' practices, Bell's team could establish a strategy for improvement. They'll also be able to lay the groundwork for a quality grading system -- another necessary component of a successful premium branding campaign.

The Louisiana Seafood Promotion Board supports the branding idea and is working with the eight-state Southern Shrimp Alliance to assemble focus groups and to test-market slogans. They hope to create a product that consumers associate with quality and for which they would be willing to pay a higher price -- similar to Black Angus beef or Vidalia onions. Armed with $1.2 million in federal relief to shrimpers, the Seafood Promotion Board will also introduce a Gulf Coast seafood pavilion at the annual Louisiana Restaurant Association trade show next August. Other initiatives include a Web site where individual retailers can take orders and an overnight shipping program with a specially marked Louisiana Seafood box. The group is also reviewing country-of-origin labeling laws to make sure labels are clear about where seafood was caught or raised.

Next year, Richard McCarthy, director of the Crescent City Farmers' Market, plans to facilitate conversations between shrimpers and local chefs about selling directly to restaurants. He believes Louisiana shrimpers could improve their prospects if they start looking for natural allies in the areas of cuisine and tourism. "I think they need to dislodge themselves from the commodity system where they only get rewarded for volume and price, and move instead into arenas where they're rewarded for quality, freshness and their indigenous knowledge," McCarthy says. "These are family-based enterprises. They're the bedrock of our community and also what people associate with Louisiana. It's on their backs that we're promoting the tourism industry."

Quotas and anti-dumping legislation are political solutions that might help stem the tide, but by themselves they can't save the shrimping industry in the long run. Shrimpers -- with private and public assistance -- are going to need to take a fresh look at how they catch and market their harvest. "We have to find a new way of doing things," says Margaret Curole, who manages her family shrimping business with her husband, Kevin. "It's a new century. The people who don't adapt aren't going to make it."

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