If you live in south Louisiana, you're probably aware that commercial shrimpers have had a tough go at making a living in recent years. Foreign imports have undercut the domestic market and forced many trawlers out of business. What you might not know is that shrimpers don't always get along with each other, which has been as much a detriment to the industry as anything else at times. Each region seems to have its own coalition, often pitting east coast shrimpers against those along the central and western shorelines. The divisions are even more pronounced among ethnicities — Cajun-American, African-American and every other hyphenated culture that resides along our bayous.
Last week, however, the traditional chasms were bridged — at least momentarily — when more than 500 shrimpers gathered on the steps of the state Capitol to protest what has to be the most substantial price drop in recent history. It was a heartening sight: The crowd, which turned up in Baton Rouge with only two days' notice, ran the gamut from elderly fishermen who have long since left the trade to college-age adults poised to inherit their piece of the sea-bound business, problems and all. At one point during the protest, the crowd erupted in clapping, shouting and pointing as a busload of Vietnamese-American shrimpers walked through the Capitol's gardens to the front steps, past the grave of former Gov. Huey P. Long and into the parking lot.
Earl Ronquillo, whose shrimping operation is based in Buras, says economics have brought the factions together. The same $4-per-pound, 10-count shrimp consumers buy from their local markets are netting him only 45 to 75 cents — down from about $2.50 last year. Add in the cost of fuel, nets, ice and deckhands, not to mention that federal recovery money from hurricanes past is still tied up in the federal bureaucracy, and it's a dismal state of affairs. "We tied up our boats and got everyone together — the Vietnamese shrimpers, black, white, everyone — and decided to strike," he said. "We're not making money anymore."
Charlie Smith, a Baton Rouge lobbyist who represents commercial fishing interests, says shrimpers want state officials to investigate whether seafood brokers and others are engaging in price-fixing to bring down their costs. Smith added that the strike many fishermen promised during the rally could be the real deal, with shrimpers making "no dockside sales to buyers unless and until they get a price that includes a modest profit."
Even if a massive strike does occur, cynics doubt its ultimate impact. More than 90 percent of all shrimp consumed in the United States is imported. Louisiana shrimp represent only about 5 percent of the market, even though Louisiana leads the nation in domestic shrimp production, with fishers hauling in 57.8 million pounds last year. Thus, when many of the shrimpers in attendance were asked directly if they were willing to strike, reactions were mixed. "I just can't do it," says Rickey Robin, a shrimper from St. Bernard Parish. "I got to feed my kids. We're already starving now."
While many who are unwilling to strike attended the rally, as a group, Louisiana's shrimpers are hardly all on the same page. Processors and brokers, potentially valuable allies in the shrimpers' fight, are being blamed for the low prices. In a phone interview after the protest, David Chauvin, whose Mariah Jade Shrimp Company processes shrimp in Terrebonne Parish, says the shrimpers' time would be better spent pushing new laws, such as one requiring restaurants to disclose the origin of their product. Domestic crawfish producers got such a law passed earlier this year for mudbugs. "The people we sell and market our shrimp to are having their own problems selling shrimp," Chauvin says. "We wouldn't have these problems if there was a law like that nationwide."
He adds that some form of price-fixing is going on amongst buyers, but it's not a conspiracy; it's just a common business practice. "Processors and competitors keep an eye on where prices are and they're going to adjust (theirs) accordingly," Chauvin says. "And if processors are making so much money off of this, why are we losing two or three each year?"
Some elected officials attended the rally as well. Sweating in the midday heat and with a megaphone pulled near his mouth, U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., told those gathered that he would personally see that hearings convene as soon as Congress returns from its summer recess. "We're going to find out who's making money off your shrimp," he said.
Not in attendance was Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose absence wasn't lost on the group of Vietnamese-American shrimpers who arrived late. Some of them waved signs reading, "Where U At Bobby?" At that moment Jindal was flying to Winnfield for a previously scheduled event. State Rep. Ernest Wooten, R-Belle Chasse, played up Jindal's absence. "[The governor] is running around the state talking about professional football teams and chicken plants and all the money we gave them, and that's great, but we can't turn our back on an industry that has been here for generations," Wooten said.
Jindal ultimately got involved, albeit more than 24 hours later. On Aug. 19, he fired off a letter to the Commerce Department and International Trade Commission "requesting an investigation of possible violations of trade practices by foreign countries adversely affecting Louisiana's shrimping industry." In his letter, Jindal suggests an immediate investigation could go a long way toward solving some of the challenges commercial trawlers face. "While continuing to recover from the effects of the devastating 2005 and 2008 hurricane seasons, Louisiana shrimp fishermen have never had greater need for protection from unfair trade practices that threaten their livelihood," the governor wrote.
Many shrimpers, however, lost confidence in the federal government long ago. One protestor waved a sign proclaiming, "Obama, Fishermen Need A Bailout Too." Another held up a poster that kept the message simple: "Help us Obama!" Ronnie Anderson of Montegut stood in the middle of the pack wearing a Delcambre Shrimp Festival T-shirt and a "Wild-Caught Louisiana Shrimp" hat, and holding a sign asking people to "Buy American." He says he lost faith in the federal government, which has stopped imposing tariffs on imported products, when his 16/20-count tails started selling for $2.30. "I just can't take it anymore," Anderson says. "When I sold shrimp as a kid I got more money than that."
If the feds are of little help and the industry is unwilling to stand behind one banner, the struggles of Louisiana's iconic shrimpers are likely to continue. Any solution will have to address the influx of foreign shrimp, the relationship between shrimpers and buyers, and some kind of government-funded assistance. That's a tall order, but doing nothing would mean losing part of Louisiana's culture. State Rep. Truck Gisclair, D-Larose, says he hopes the struggle fosters new ideas that could be addressed during next year's legislative session. "These fishermen are not looking for a handout," Gisclair says. "All they want is a level playing field."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.