Gulf shrimp boats sail into trouble on economic ebb tide

With the price of fuel up, the demand for shrimp down, and international restrictions on where they can fish, many Gulf Coast shrimpers say they may be out of business within a year.

"We're in pretty much of a scrape," said Jimmy Loeb, owner of the shrimp boat Rachel Lyn and a shrimper since he was 12. "We've got higher operating costs and lower market values for the shrimp. Some of the boats are already tied up."

Four factors are working together to make life difficult for the shrimpers:

* Fuel costs have more than quadrupled in the past five years. Catching a pound of shrimp takes a gallon of diesel fuel, and many shrimpers complain they work mostly to pay the fuel man.

* A recessionary economy dampens the appetite for shrimp, and as the demand for the pink crustaceans drops, the price the shrimpers can get for them drops, too. The American shrimp fleet was able to sell only 336 million pounds of shrimp in 1979 compared with a five-year average of 405 million pounds. The price the shrimpers got for their product dropped by about a third.

* The Mexican government squeezed American shrimpers out of Mexican waters. The Mexicans imposed a 200-mile territorial limit in 1974, and during the next five years issued fewer and fewer permits to American shrimpers. By December 1979 no Americans were allowed to fish for shrimp in Mexican waters, which meant more shrimp boats were competing for shrimp in American waters.

* An oil-rich Mexico has been able to hold down the price of its diesel fuel. While American shrimpers are paying 87 cents a gallon for their fuel, Mexicans are still getting theirs for 18 cents a gallon. Therefore, Mexicans are able to sell their shrimp in the American market at a lower price which helps keep shrimp prices down.

"I think there's a lot of shrimpers about to go out of business," said Robert Jones of the Southeastern Fisheries Association. "How this year's season goes off Texas will have a big bearing on who does go out of business. If it's a bad season, I think hundreds will go out of business."

Shrimpers are groping for answers, but the only solution mr. Jones's association has devised is a proposal for Congress to roll back the price of diesel fuel for farmers and fishermen to January 1978 levels. That would mean diesel fuel would cost shrimpers about 43 cents a gallon, and Jones said the oil companies would be allowed to make up the difference in price through a reduction in the windfall profits tax.

Mr. Jones concedes the plan has a slim chance of passing through Congress, and most shrimpers are not counting on it.

"Everyone knows what the problem is, and there's nothing we can do about it," said an angry Ernie Donini, who has been in the shrimp business since 1954 and is president of the Superior Seafood Company. "If we're lucky, we're hoping to pay the bills we already have and float through to next year and see what happens."

The hundreds of shrimp boat owners who ferried Cuban refugees to Key West weren't actually making any money, Mr. Donini claimed. They were just trying to pay off some of their bills.

"I don't believe the government should support me," he said, "but if the government is going to support everyone else, then I'm worse off."

Clark Rodgers, owner of the shrimp boat Beverly R., clasped his hands together as he leaned against the rail of his boat and looked at the other shrimp boats tied up in Tampa's port.

"If it weren't for the fuel and the imports we could make it," he said.

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