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Net Losses 

In the face of global trade agreements and falling prices for their harvest, shrimpers along the coastal bayous fight to maintain their way of life.

On July 26 of this year, Kimberly Chauvin woke in her Terrebonne Parish home, put on a clean T-shirt bearing the image of the Mariah Jade -- the shrimp boat she owns with her husband, David -- and drove to New Orleans to march in a protest against the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

She'd have rather awakened on board the Mariah Jade, where she and David had spent summers with their three children in the two years after David finished building the shrimp trawler in 2000. The dream of a lifetime, the 73-foot, steel-hulled ship was four years in construction in the Chauvins' back yard. But plummeting shrimp prices and debt on the boat had prompted the Chauvins to begin retailing directly to consumers beginning in August 2002. That gave Kimberly the day job of selling shrimp to consumers and building a retail business.

The threat of even more extensive cheap imports under the pending free trade agreement prompted Chauvin to take to the road on this Saturday in July. Once in New Orleans she would walk in protest with Green Party members, Pax Christi activists, and self-declared anarchists wearing black face paint and dark bandanas.

At the anti-CAFTA protest, rain clouds gathered over Congo Square while a knot of shrimpers wearing red, white and blue caps stood a little apart. A.J. Fabre, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, took the megaphone to blast imported farm-raised shrimp as a threat to public health and a way of life. "The domestic shrimpers are catching healthy, great-tasting shrimp without pesticides and antibiotics being added such as those that are grown on shrimp farms," he boomed. "Our shrimp pond was designed by God, not man or government."

As the procession moved off toward Canal Street, the Louisiana trawlers brought up the rear. Shielded by a banner spray-painted "Go Wild for Wild-Caught Shrimp," they kept a discreet distance from the rest of the protest.

It was an incongruous place for a conservative Cajun to be. Even more incongruously, the action Chauvin and about 20 other shrimpers were supporting in New Orleans was "Save the Mangroves," an international movement in solidarity with shrimp fishermen opposed to the destruction of mangrove swamps by shrimp farms. On the same day in Grand Isle, a flotilla of about 30 shrimp trawlers staged a parallel demonstration, strapping "No CAFTA" and "Fair Trade, not Free Trade" signs to their rigging. As sport fishermen left the harbor for the Grand Island Tarpon Rodeo that morning, the shrimpers -- who are not known for their love of environmentalists -- tooted their horns in support of what amounts to an environmental campaign.

The terms of CAFTA are still under negotiation, but the agreement is believed to be modeled closely on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which set out to stimulate trade and encourage investment between the United States, Canada and Mexico. The shrimpers fear that CAFTA will encourage large-scale shrimp farms in Central America. Shrimp farms, in turn, crowd out independent coastal fishermen, the shrimpers say. They further claim that such shrimp flood the market with an antibiotic- and pesticide-ridden product that poses a health risk.

Against such imports, domestic wild shrimp prices took a dramatic dive between 2000 and 2001, falling by more than a third in that year alone. By this summer, wholesalers were paying well below $2 a pound for large shrimp -- prices that paralleled those of the 1970s.

The price tumble has sent shrimp trawling communities into a panic. On one hand, shrimpers are having to educate themselves on government regulation, imports and international trade. At the same time, many are urgently trying to save themselves by marketing their wild-caught Louisiana shrimp directly to consumers as a niche product.

For Chauvin, whose husband is a fourth-generation fisherman, it's not merely a fight to save an industry. It's also a fight to preserve her home and her heritage. And if it means going into new territory to fight major institutions, that's what she'll do.

"We were different from the other protesters," Chauvin recalls. "We are folks who lived in our own backyards, not particularly paying attention to the rest of the world. We attended church, spent time with our families and worked very hard for the money we made. I have to say that I felt out of place."

Call it the heritage of solitary Cajun trappers, a holdover from pirate days or the orneriness of people who work alone and keep their prize shrimping spots to themselves. Until now, Louisiana shrimpers have never organized into anything more than an incidental movement. Shrimpers staged a disciplined shutdown of wholesalers during the so-called shrimp wars of 1938, when shrimpers were confronted with disastrous prices. In the early 1980s, a group called Concerned Shrimpers briefly stood together and refused to use turtle excluder devices, or TEDs, on their nets. But there has been no sustained organization, no ongoing education of membership, no movement.

But the framework for such a movement exists. At 5 a.m. on a recent Friday, out in the water on Grand Isle Pass, there's a buzz and crackle as the VHF on Kevin Curole's boat wakes up. "Hey, cap," says Curole, who smiles when an older man's voice comes back to him. "Naw, man, we trawled for two hours and got about 10 pounds of shrimp," Curole answers. "Then we slept through the alarm."

"You missed it," says the voice on the other end. "We pulled plenty."

"Of what?" Curole asks, worried.

"Of fish, yeah," says the voice, laughing.

The conversations that come over these crackly radios are musical and lilting, with an edge of Cajun French. At almost any hour, outrageous stories and challenges travel from cabin to cabin over the open waves. Viewed differently, this web of communication is also a potential force for political organizing. The land-based network up and down Lafourche is equally efficient. A local tale holds that a young man once arrived in Raceland from World War II, intent on surprising his mother, and found the pig on the spit and the beer iced down by the time he reached Golden Meadow.

In this part of the world, the front-porch telegraph is a mean machine.

This morning, Kevin, whose nickname "Godzilla" came from his fearlessness around other boats, is barely awake himself. His deck hand, Sonny "Bozo" (pronounced bo-ZO) Cheramie, is still sacked out in the cavelike room under the front deck. After three days of successful trawling, the two of them had spent the last night pulling nets full of pogeys and bisqué, or sardines, from the Grand Isle Pass. With a few good-natured comments about journalists and bad luck, they went off to nap at 11 p.m. and woke too late to try again.

The sky is just beginning to take on light as Curole edges the Heavy Metal across Grand Lake towards Bayou Lafourche, going home. In the ice chest are 800 pounds of medium and large shrimp that he and his wife will retail in Galliano. Three days before, Curole had delivered 900 pounds of shrimp to the shed in Grand Isle and taken home $900 -- just enough to cover the cost of the trip. On this morning, Curole knows he'll be getting between $3 and $3.50 a pound. As daylight strengthens, he uses his cell phone to call ahead to customers who are just waking up.

A year before, on May 7, 2002, Curole came in with a similar cargo and was met with a price of 60 cents a pound for 36-40s -- the medium-sized, moderately priced shrimp the Curoles consider their bread and butter. His response was immediate. "I will not work for 60&162;," he scrawled on a piece of wood he found in the bulkhead, and he strapped the sign to the rigging. He swore that he would give his shrimp away before he'd sell them that low. Most of the other trawlers working in the pass that day joined him. The media came. Friends and neighbors took the shrimp. The boats sat it out for two weeks. Then the price moved a nickel higher. Curole returned to work. He had bills to pay, and the shrimp were running.

Moving inland, Curole points out the boats tied up along the bayou. The beautiful red trawler to the left was repossessed by the bank; Curole points out the U.S. Marshal's sticker in the window. The green one further up hasn't been out all season. The white one is being sold. A shrimp shed is boarded up. Beyond the Golden Meadow floodgate, boats are tied up every 100 feet, then every 50. Usually, Curole explains, those boats would be on the other side of the floodgate during this season, chasing the last of the big shrimp before the cold fronts come. Seeing them so far from open water means that their owners have decided for now not to shrimp.

Turning in to dock in Galliano at the Curoles' roadside stand, the monument is impossible to miss. It's an old iron mast that Kevin Curole bedecked with various tools of the fisherman's trade. An antique shrimp basket crowns the pole; beneath it, a crab trap, a gill net, a shrimp net and Kevin's grandmother's oyster rake drape the arms. The display looks like a crucifix.

"This is my monument to every fishing industry that has fed people from these bayous," says Curole, more angry than sad. "Pretty soon, the monument may be all that's left."

The CAFTA protest provided an opportunity for calling attention to the plight of Louisiana shrimpers, many of whom have "gone on the job" -- a phrase meaning that they've taken other employment. But the most immediate hope of Louisiana shrimpers these days is an anti-dumping petition that the Southern Shrimp Alliance is pressing with the U.S. Department of Commerce. The eight-state coalition of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas shrimpers, processors and wholesalers, is suing the federal government for tariffs that will keep imported shrimp from drowning their prices.

To wade into the anti-dumping discussion is to get tangled in a welter of national and global issues, from free trade to World Trade Organization measures to compensation for domestic producers. But hundreds of local shrimp trawlers and fishermen's wives see in the pending fight a chance to salvage their lives and their heritage. And for that, Louisiana shrimpers are willing to take on the WTO -- and the world.

Tariffs on imported shrimp might address the price problem, at least for a while. The hottest button on the industry's petition, though, is not the tariffs themselves but how they would be distributed. Under the U.S. Continued Dumping and Subsidy Offset Act of 2000, aka the Byrd Amendment, tariffs are divvied up by U.S. Customs and sent directly to those hurt by the dumping.

Individual trawlers are looking at that money hungrily. Some see it as a way to buy time and reorganize; others see it as a ticket out of a failing business. If the petition is filed before Dec. 15 of this year, it can include the prices paid for shrimp in 2000, the last "good" year before the drop-off, as a benchmark for establishing the dollar amount of damages.

The Louisiana Shrimp Association, a grassroots network led by trawlers George Barisich and A.J. Fabre, has not decided whether to contribute to the costs of the alliance's lawsuit or to file its own parallel petition. The Southern Shrimp Alliance has engaged the firm Dewey Ballantine LLP to press the dumping petition. "The petition will be filed before the December 15 deadline," says Alliance president Eddie Gordon. "I guarantee it."

There's some rancor over what role processors should play in the negotiations and whether the Louisiana Shrimp Association's accounting practices are transparent enough. The Alliance means business -- to some trawlers, too much business. The group, which originally sprang from a Louisiana Shrimp Association meeting, has hired the Jones Walker law firm and former house speaker Bob Livingston to lobby on behalf of shrimping issues in Washington. They're also working on an ambitious marketing program that would position wild shrimp as a premium product. Yet another organization, the Louisiana Shrimp Industry Coalition, has come forward to support the Southern Shrimp Alliance within the state. No one needs to belong to any organization to benefit from the dumping petition, says Gordon.

Louisiana lands the largest number of shrimp in the country, weighing in with more than 106 million pounds for a total of $139 million in 2002. Texas, with only 75 million pounds, outstrips Louisiana in terms of income from shrimping, because Texas shrimp are bigger. But both Texas and Louisiana pale next to the total number of shrimp consumed in the country. Last year, Americans imported roughly 1.2 billion pounds of shrimp. Comparatively, the 169.7 million pounds of shrimp brought in by all domestic U.S. shrimpers makes up a measly 12.4 percent of the U.S. market.

Pound for pound, there's no way individual trawlers in diesel-powered boats can compete with vast acreages of shrimp ponds, especially in countries where environmental restrictions are lax and labor costs low. One approach for Louisiana fishermen, however, is to sell their shrimp as something different -- a wild-caught, even natural product that keeps individual shrimping families and, indeed, coastal Louisiana culture afloat.

On a Tuesday night at Seasoned Seafood I in LaRose, a young man turns heads as he strides through the room in tan clam diggers and white shrimper's boots. With multiple piercings and a black sleeveless T-shirt, he gains approving glances from men seated with their families -- and flirtatious smiles from women.

The image of a young loner riding the waves, cowboy-style, to haul in fresh shrimp is impossibly romantic. It's also specific to just a few strips of land in the United States. Shrimping sets Louisiana's coastal bayou country apart from what author Howard Kunstler has called "the geography of nowhere," in which local landmarks have been relentlessly eroded by commerce.

Along the blue-and-white oilcloth-covered picnic tables, proprietor Ray St. Pierre has an easy air as he sits first with one family, then another, talking to customers who also seem to be old friends. St. Pierre trawled for 28 years. Since buying the restaurant in 1999, he has gone out of his way to continue to support the local fishing economy. A hand-lettered sign on the wall next to the specials board spells it out for customers: "All seafood we sell at Seasoned Seafood I is fresh Louisiana seafood. It includes ALL broiled and fried seafoods, with the exception of the Lobster, Stone Crabs and Dungeness Crabs."

"Louisiana seafood is the best in the world, better than anything, but the bottom line is profit," St. Pierre says. "People want it cheap. Are you going to buy an $11 po-boy?" He sighs. "They have a long road ahead of them. I feel sorry for them. I have good friends who are trawlers.

"They need to get along," he continues. "They need to get together and talk to these people in Washington, D.C. or whoever they need to talk to."

South of LaRose, Route 1 takes a deep breath of roadside fast-food culture and dives south toward Galliano, Golden Meadow and, finally, Grand Isle. Bayou Lafourche is a pretty little bayou, with trawlers -- too many trawlers -- tied up along the road. The farther you travel, the more you feel yourself slipping into a more traditional way of life. Hardware stores advertise trawling equipment and fishing tackle. In Cut Off and then in Galliano, tidy, French-style Catholic churches are the centerpoints of town. A sign on a pontoon bridge in Cut Off advises that this is the Côte Blanche, named for a high spot of land residents retreated to after the hurricane that destroyed Cheniére Caminada.

A new sight along this bayou is the number of shrimp stands where trawlers sell directly to the public. Until recently, no self-respecting shrimper would sell retail -- in fact, doing so was an affront to a shrimpers' dignity. Now that prices have dropped, roadside stands have cropped up along with hand-painted signs advising "fresh shrimp." Some of the stands are also selling to restaurants, filling out trip tickets and receipts that satisfy state requirements.

Margaret and Kevin Curole weren't sure what they'd do with the 180-foot strip of land they owned along La. 1 in Galliano. Then shrimp prices dropped and went lower. By last summer, retailing looked like the best way to make the bank notes on the family's 50-foot skimmer boat. The couple built a wooden shelter complete with a porch swing and a deck at water's edge, painted it red, white and blue, and hung out a sign.

The Curoles' home is just one long block from the stand, back up along 161st Street in a quiet part of town. Inside the tidy, oak-shaded house that was once her parents', Margaret Curole describes how locals can't believe that shrimpers are actually hurting. "My daughter had someone say to her, 'Aw c'mon, shrimpers are rich,'" she says.

The fact is that shrimpers were rich once. Curole recalls a high school classmate who, right before their senior year, walked into the local Mercury dealership and paid cash for a brand new Marquis -- loaded. "He walked in in jeans and flip flops and laid down the money he's made on his daddy's boat," she says, laughing at the memory.

As a rule, most shrimpers do like to buy things with cash; they avoid going into debt. But in 2000, a bumper year, many bank-wary shrimpers invested in new equipment and took on substantial debts. As a result of that optimistic misstep, many Louisiana shrimpers are now carrying heavy notes.

The Curoles were among those who invested in their business in 2000, a year when they brought in a whopping $250,000 worth of shrimp. After years of fishing in a boat without a proper cabin, Kevin bought a used steel hull for $48,000 and invested $200,000 to outfit it with twin V-8 engines, a generator, a full cabin, air conditioning and four tiny bedrooms. The house as well as the boat are tied to the mortgage, and then there's insurance. Today, the family faces payments of $2,000 a month on the boat before they can even think about taking care of household expenses.

"We were victims of our own success," says Margaret. Now, if the couple got a decent offer for the boat, they'd take it in a heartbeat. Kevin has his Coast Guard license and already pilots supply boats in the winter -- something he started doing in 2001.

Margaret Curole has been with her husband for 17 years. He, in turn, has been getting paid to work on a shrimp boat since he was three. She would do anything to see her husband continue to do what he loves.

That feeling has become common up and down this coast. Women accustomed to seeing their husbands swagger and tell brash shrimping stories are now worried by the air of defeat hanging over their towns. A group of shrimpers' wives, Curole among them, started "Ladies of Lafourche Shrimpers," an organization devoted to educating the public about shrimping and its economic impact along the coast. Even children have gotten into the act; 15-year-old Caitlin Curole and her friend Joy Blanchard (daughter of "Ladies" president Cathy Blanchard) put together a social studies project called "Staying Afloat" illustrating the shrimpers' troubles. The project won first place in a parish competition and second place in the state.

Like so many Louisiana shrimpers and their families, Curole has learned to think far beyond her own backyard. From a slightly battered Gucci briefcase stuffed with paperwork, she draws clippings on the arrest of a Mexican fisherman who trawled in corporate-owned waters in Mexico; information on pending measures to make shrimpers buy detection devices in the name of homeland security; information on turtle excluder devices, tariffs and dumping.

In July, Margaret and her husband attended the World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fish Workers as delegates from the Louisiana Shrimp Association. The forum, held in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, monitored the World Trade Association talks that were going on at the same time in nearby Cancun.

Closer to home, along Bayou Lafourche, bright yellow "Penny a Pound" flags fly from the cables of many of the commercial shrimpers who are still working. The campaign, run by the Louisiana Shrimp Association, collects a penny from shrimpers for every pound of shrimp they bring to local wholesalers, or sheds. The drive now includes more than 700 contributors and has the feel of a war bond effort. Drivers wave at shrimpers flying the flag, and contributors greet one another with an air of grim solidarity.

On a Friday night in Dean Blanchard's shed in Grand Isle, shrimpers linger a little after collecting for their shrimp. John Wunstell is dismayed enough by what he's made on five days of shrimping that he lets a reporter look at his check. On this day in early October, 415 pounds of fairly large 21-25 shrimp paid $1.60 a pound. Smaller 36-40s, of which Wunstell had 1,685 pounds, paid $1.10 a pound. His total comes to $2,517.

"Then take $700 for fuel, $200 for ice, $180 for groceries," says Wunstell. And the deck hand who helped aboard the 50-foot Ramie's Wish? "I give him 20 percent of whatever's left after that."

Blanchard, who everyone calls "Dean," has a reputation for somehow paying a nickel a pound more than any other shed, even when prices are low. He's sympathetic to the shrimpers even as he cuts them checks that hardly pay their expenses. As treasurer of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, though, Blanchard is an agent of hope for those in the penny-a-pound campaign. For others along the coastal bayou -- including several trawlers who quit the Louisiana Shrimp Association over issues of financial accountability -- he's an object of suspicion.

Blanchard hedges a little when asked how much the campaign has collected, saying that he has a secretary who keeps track of such things. After a few minutes though, he offers that the campaign has about $140,000 in the bank. In addition, he says, about 1,000 shrimpers have pledged to give 25 percent of the federal disaster money they will receive this month to the cause. A fundraiser planned at Boomtown Casino on Oct. 25 will add a minimum of $10,000 to the collection, he says, and probably more.

"It's not our money, it's not the board's money, it's the fishermen's money," says Blanchard. "We'll present it to the membership and ask them what they want us to do." Might the money be contributed to the Southern Shrimp Alliance to help with the anti-dumping petition? "Possible. But what I'm suggesting to people is that we can join their lawsuit for free."

In spite of such ambiguities, several of the shrimpers gathered in Blanchard's shed contribute their "penny a pound." As shrimper John Chabert puts it, "I can't afford not to."

About ten miles south of Houma, behind a row of brick houses along Bayouside Drive, the rigging of shrimp trawlers towers over rooflines. In this neighborhood, it's possible to tie up your trawler at the edge of your backyard.

On Kimberly Chauvin's kitchen table is a packet of promotional materials from the Louisiana Seafood Promotion Council. Flyers from an upcoming Louisiana Shrimp Industry Coalition fundraiser lie nearby. (In September, Chauvin, once a Louisiana Shrimp Association board member, decided to instead devote her efforts to the Louisiana Shrimp Industry Coalition and the Southern Shrimp Alliance.) The adjacent desk is piled with articles and folders. To the left of the glowing computer monitor sits a black box of index cards and her Rolodex -- the heart of her business.

This summer, Chauvin stayed on shore to sell shrimp, even walking the halls of hospitals to sell to doctors and nurses. She also completed a course in entrepreneurship at Nicholls State University in Thibodeaux. Her desk is littered with memos about free trade and turtle excluder devices. It's also piled up with titles like The Complete Idiot's Guide to Starting a Business and Off the Wall Marketing Ideas. Her next project, she says, is a Web-based business for selling shrimp long-distance.

"It's like this: when I saw what was happening, I told my husband 'You do not work 17 years to fall flat on your face,'" says Chauvin.

On the kitchen counter is a vase of a dozen red roses, left over from the Chauvins' 17th wedding anniversary days before. Other families in the area have cut back on everything they have, even medical insurance, says Chauvin. She and David, meanwhile, bit the bullet and made two more investments -- an "instant quick freeze" system for freezing shrimp at sea and a storage shed behind the house. They're hoping that both purchases pay off.

She points to the master plan for the Terrebonne-Houma region, which proposes no infrastructure for shellfish. She discusses possible measures for throwing a monkey wrench in CAFTA. She talks about how shocked the community will be when shrimpers go out of business, when the house notes, car notes and boat notes hit the banks. She talks about the men and women up and down these bayous who, like her, are connecting the issues.

And she talks about surviving. "Anti-dumping is not going to save us," she says. "It's a tool we can use, and if we can use it we're going to use it. Marketing is going to help; creating niche markets is going to help.

"People ask why we keep shrimping," she says. "We keep shrimping because it's my husband's heart."

click to enlarge "When I saw what was happening, I told my - husband 'You do not work 17 years to fall flat on - your face,'" says Kimberly Chauvin, pictured with - husband, David. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • "When I saw what was happening, I told my husband 'You do not work 17 years to fall flat on your face,'" says Kimberly Chauvin, pictured with husband, David.
click to enlarge Encouraged by 2000's bumper year, many - shrimpers, including Kevin and Margaret Curole, - made investments in new equipment that they're - now struggling to pay off. "We were victims of our - own success," says Margaret. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • Encouraged by 2000's bumper year, many shrimpers, including Kevin and Margaret Curole, made investments in new equipment that they're now struggling to pay off. "We were victims of our own success," says Margaret.
click to enlarge DONN YOUNG
click to enlarge Sonny "Bozo" Cheramie examines the most recent - catch, which should bring between $3 and $3.50 a - pound. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • Sonny "Bozo" Cheramie examines the most recent catch, which should bring between $3 and $3.50 a pound.
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