For shrimpers, a vanishing way of life

A sea-level look at an old and dimming trade as imports rise and regulations tighten

Mike Morris may be a shrimper by trade, but like all fishermen worth their salt, he's a storyteller at heart.

His eyes dance when he explains how Captain Kenny, kingpin of the Galveston shrimping fleet, likely owes his success to suckling on bottles of oyster and shrimp juice as a baby. He grins remembering the year he pulled in 4,000 pounds of shrimp on opening day. And he swears that, in the industry's heyday a quarter century ago, so many thousand boats jockeyed for position in the bay that it was hard to keep from tangling nets.

But even a yarnsman like Mr. Morris can't spin much from the couple of hundred boats expected to show up Thursday for the start of this spring's bay-shrimping season. This story is a sad one. Foreign competition, rising fuel costs, and, now, another round of environmental regulations are squeezing the life out of an industry that was once the most lucrative in fishing.

"In the last two years, the bottom has fallen out of the industry," says Chris Smith, with the National Marine Fisheries Service in St. Petersburg, Fla. "For some, it's been a family tradition, a way of life passed down from generation to generation. Now, it's not even worth it to gas up their boats, repair their nets, and head back out....

We're seeing the end of an era."

Congress is not oblivious to the problem. In February, lawmakers allocated $35 million in disaster relief funding for US shrimpers - and experts believe this is just the beginning of the federal government's subsidizing a dying industry. But at the same time, agencies overseeing the industry are clamping down.

In April, for instance, new regulations took effect that require Atlantic shrimpers to increase the size of their "turtle excluder devices," which prevent turtles from drowning when they get trapped with the catch. The same regulations take effect in August for the Gulf of Mexico, where the federal government is considering limiting the number of shrimpers who can mine the gulf at all.

These new regulations are intended to allow larger turtles, such as the endangered leatherbacks and threatened loggerheads, to pass through the nets unharmed. But shrimpers say they are simply speeding the extinction of another species: themselves.

Imports, regulations, and a way of life

"This is a hard business. It seems like everybody is against us," says Morris, steering his 50-foot boat, the Jackyl, into open waters one dark morning. He gets started at 5 a.m. each day to take full advantage of the hours he's allowed to shrimp before cutoff at 2 p.m. "It's a silly law," he says of the cutoff, "just another one to hold us back."

A shrimper like his daddy, Morris learned the business at a young age. He married a fisherman's daughter and had his first shrimp boat before he graduated from high school in 1970. In 33 years, he's watched his colleagues retire with no one to replace them. He says he's just hanging on himself until retirement. "I just hope I can make it."

Once he finds a location he's happy with, some 10 miles offshore, Morris swings off his captain's chair, dons rubber boots, and heads back to help his deckhand drop the green nylon net. It drags along the bottom of the bay for nearly an hour before they raise it.

Morris is able to shrimp during the off-season because he holds a bait license, which allows him to pull up 200 pounds of shrimp per day - half of which must be alive. That will change come Thursday, when the bay season opens and shrimpers are allowed to catch 600 pounds per day.

The net is emptied into a holding tank and deckhand Manny Lyons - his first name tattooed on his right forearm - begins the tedious process of picking through the load, pulling out the wriggling white shrimp and returning the rest to the sea. Puffer fish, silver eels, blue crabs, squid, and the occasional stingray are among the creatures dumped back overboard. There is no sign of a turtle.

Morris is not surprised. "It took me 30 years before I ever saw a turtle in this bay," he says. Three years ago, he explains, he caught an endangered Kemp's ridley. It was the decline of this turtle population in the late 1970s that prompted the federal government to declare the species endangered and force shrimpers to install the first turtle excluders on all their nets.

But the openings were not big enough to allow larger turtles to slip through - thus the new regulations, which increase their size. Officials say the new devices are 97 percent effective in excluding turtles from trawls, but shrimpers claim between 10 to 15 percent of their catch drains out the opening, adding to their frustration.

But Morris, sticking his hand into the tank and fishing out a large white shrimp, says he's willing to do whatever it takes to keep working.

These days, that's a lot.

Since the industry's all-time high of $4.57 per pound in 1979, average shrimp prices have dropped steadily to $2.47 today. That's largely due to cheap foreign imports flooding the market. Today, 88 percent of the shrimp eaten here comes from Asia and Latin America - up from about 50 percent in mid-1970s.

"Farmers in [Thailand, Vietnam, China, and India] can produce shrimp much cheaper than the commercial fishermen in the US can catch them," says Bob Rosenberry, editor of Shrimp News International in San Diego. "And at the end of the day, if we believe in free trade, this farm-raised shrimp is going to put the US commercial fisherman out of business. It already appears to be happening."

As enterprise falters, appetites rise

Increasingly, the cost of shrimping is exceeding the return. Sal Versaggi, vice president of the Southern Shrimp Alliance, estimates that in the last two years, banks have foreclosed on 60 to 80 shrimp boats in Louisiana and Texas. "We're getting hammered right now," he says. His group is considering a lawsuit against foreign companies, contending that they're dumping shrimp below cost - and against the law - in an attempt to capture US markets.

Meanwhile, Americans' appetite for shrimp continues to grow. A quarter century ago, shrimp were considered a luxury. Now, with lower prices, shrimp consumption is at an all-time high. In 2001, the US Department of Commerce reported that for the first time ever, Americans ate more shrimp than canned tuna - and 9 percent more shrimp than they'd eaten the year before.

That should be music to Morris's ears. But he knows he's in a faltering business, and he says he's seen the handwriting on the wall for some time. When his oldest son was a boy, Morris recalls, he showed a talent for the shrimping business and a real interest in it.

"He could have been a natural fisherman, better than 90 percent of the guys out here," says Morris, "But I turned his head from it. I showed him all the problems with it. Thank God he listened and didn't try to make a life out of it."

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