On the brackish waters of the Cut Off Canal south of Houma, off an isolated stretch of coastal land at 2 a.m., two shrimpers haul in the night's last glistening catch. Thousands of small, brown shrimp explode across the long table on board the Capt. Ernie, a trawler that Charley Verdin's father recently acquired.
"The shrimp are still giving," says Roland Billiot, Verdin's cousin, admiring the bounty.
"And they keep getting bigger," Verdin adds, hopefully, but with a grin. Most of the catch "counts in" at 60 to 70 shrimp per pound, which is actually on the small side. They'll fetch a meager 50 cents a pound at the local processor.
The small crew of family members begins pulling out the by-catch, flinging shiners, eel and puffer fish back into the water, tossing blue crabs into a basket and scooping pound after pound of shrimp into the icy cooler. At the end of the last run, Billiot steers the boat for home with some 1,400 pounds of small- to medium-sized brown shrimp " two nights' work " and a tired but very satisfied crew on deck. The crew beams not from visions of a big cash reward, but rather from doing work they love. With fuel prices at a record high and the price of shrimp still low, Verdin and Billiot, like most shrimpers, say they no longer can turn a profit.
For Louisiana shrimpers, the struggle to survive in a cutthroat global market has been a long, hard fight. By the numbers, they appear to be losing.
In 1986, the state issued 44,000 shrimp-gear licenses. In 2000, only 29,000 were issued.
Local shrimpers consider foreign competition their toughest challenge. They tasted a small victory in January 2005, when the International Trade Commission supported tariffs on shrimp imported from six countries in Asia and South America. The anti-dumping duties had been proposed a year earlier by the U.S. Commerce Department, which had determined that farm-raised shrimp from China, Vietnam, Brazil, Ecuador, India and Thailand were being sold to the United States at unfair prices, causing the value of Louisiana's native shrimp to plummet.
"I can't think of anything that's gone down in price in the past dozen years " except for the price of shrimp," says Martin Bourgeois, chief shrimp biologist for the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Good news from the trade commission didn't last long. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita dealt a crippling blow to two-thirds of Louisiana's commercial fisheries in August 2005. Storm damages were estimated to be as high as $1 billion. By 2007, the state recorded only about 14,800 shrimp-gear licenses.
Bourgeois has been busy distributing $41.3 million in disaster assistance funds to fishermen and fishing communities. "They're grateful for the assistance," Bourgeois says, "but it just doesn't go far enough." He says the sharp increase in fuel prices has become the final element of a perfect storm for Louisiana's shrimpers.
In his travels to numerous coastal communities, including Billiot and Verdin's hometown of Point-Aux-Chenes, Bourgeois notes that fishing villages still exist in Louisiana, but they're surviving on a different economy " one that has a lot to do with oil and gas. "It's an evolution," Bourgeois says.
Unlike their fathers, who worked exclusively in the fishing industry, Verdin and Billiot work full time as marine welders. Both would prefer to be on the water full time, and neither can stay away from shrimping for long. "I love it so much I took a two-week leave of absence," Billiot says, adding that his boss and his wife are willing to accommodate his passion for shrimping. Billiot and Verdin say they'll trawl as much as they can during this year's brown shrimp season, which opened in their area on May 12.
On the cusp of May 18, two days away from a full moon, the savory morsels thicken the current. A weekend night like this one used to be filled with hustling shrimpers and rich rewards, but on this particular night, as the tide begins to turn, only three other boats, each with crews of two or three, ply the waters of Cut Off Canal. An industry and a way of life are in decline.
"It used to be you could walk from boat to boat down this canal," Billiot says, steering down the long, vacant stretch of moonlit water. Both Verdin and Billiot learned the trade from their fathers, uncles and grandfathers, all of whom used to have a hand in the industry.
About six years ago, local fishermen began dropping out of the business, says Price Billiot, Roland Billiot's uncle and the owner of Pri's local shrimp processing plant. Price doubts that anyone in the business can survive this season. "If diesel keeps on going high, we won't make it until August," he says, standing in the cool shade of his quiet, bayou-side operation.
Opening his record book, the 60-year-old man recalls that in 1999, when diesel was $1 per gallon, medium-size shrimp used to sell for $2 a pound. Today they bring in only $1.10 a pound " no better than last year's price " and diesel now sells for more than $4 a gallon.
"When I started working here, I was earning three cents a [sold] pound, making more money than I do now," says Price, who adds that he's "broke."
"There ain't no more fishermen."
Price bought the business 20 years ago and shares it with his family. "I got two sons and they never did do nothing else except work for me," he continues. "I'm broke, but I'm going to retire. Problem is I don't know what they're going to do." Ironically, Price Billiot adds, local shrimpers now have plenty of opportunity to trawl during the season " if they can afford to do so.
Unlike many businesses that can pass rising fuel costs along to their customers, Louisiana shrimpers are forced to take the market price, which may not cover all of their costs.
Fishermen would like to bank on a big supply of large shrimp to make ends meet. They'd also like to count on local retailers who favor native Louisiana products. Unfortunately, without enough cash to fuel their boats, shrimpers can't always go after the larger shrimp. Their troubles compound as restaurants turn to other suppliers who offer shrimp year-round, which often means foreign producers who also offer prices that locals can't match.
"It's economics," Steve Hein says in a telephone interview. As a marine biologist for Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries, Hein oversees a coastal study area that stretches from Bayou Lafourche to the Atchafalaya River. Hein says coastal waters have been slightly cooler than usual this spring, which has slowed brown shrimp growth. But, he adds, shrimpers' real troubles lie in the market. "Unless something changes, it doesn't look good," he says.
Charley Verdin's cousin Monique sits on her family's dock the morning after Verdin and Billiot's two-day trawl, expressing her frustration. "It's pathetic that we're here living on America's "energy coast' and we can't afford gas," she says, surveying the small French-Indian community where her family lives. "All these guys are working for oil and gas."
The oil and gas industry along Louisiana's coast has brought tremendous shifts in the landscape and in locals' way of life. Residents of Point-Aux-Chenes say "the storms" in the same breath as "oil and gas" in reference to marshland erosion exacerbated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as well as transportation canals dug by oil and gas companies. The loss of wetlands has likewise triggered a loss of shrimp nurseries.
"When we lose wetlands, we lose the seafood industry," says Mark Schexnayder, a coastal advisor for Louisiana Sea Grant at LSU's Ag Center in Baton Rouge. After talking with a crowd of shrimpers at a recent seafood promotion event at the state Capitol, Schexnayder says, "I told them they should have had a jazz funeral instead." Fuel costs, he says, have risen so much that they now overshadow imports as shrimpers' biggest problem. "If we're successful in reviving coastland, it's going to take a long time to bring back the industry."
Schexnayder is not giving up on Louisiana's shrimpers, but " once fuel costs stabilize " he foresees a future filled with compromise. "To keep those guys in the water, we need to pay a higher price," he says, adding that native shrimp are worth the price. "We've done taste tests. Louisiana shrimp does come out as a high-quality product."
Darlene Wolnick is the Deputy Director of Mentoring for marketumbrella.org, a New Orleans-based, nongovernmental organization that launched the White Boot Brigade in 2001. Named for shrimpers' hallmark rubber footwear, the brigade's mission is to do for "artesian shrimping" what organic farming has done for agriculture.
"Our work is directly about finding innovative fishing businesses that are small in scale (families or cooperatives) and connecting them to funds to retool into more sustainable methods of shrimping, and then to connect them to direct marketing opportunities," Wolnick says.
Despite the industry's decline and the looming fuel and economic crises, many shrimpers and leisure shrimpers still live comfortably in Point-Aux-Chenes " thanks to their year-round jobs and their close connection to the land and water.
After church on Sunday, the extended Verdin family is milling around the previous night's catch, peeling shrimp, talking and joking with one another in Louisiana French. The older boys linger around Aneise Verdin's blue crab tanks, watching the male crabs "hold" the females, waiting for them to "get soft" as the molting-time mating ritual begins.
The adjacent tank holds a batch of the molted " now soft-shell " blue crabs, which Aneise Verdin, Charley's father, knows he can sell for at least $40 a dozen. Aneise has no medical insurance and a biopsy scheduled for later that week, yet he doesn't fret over the likely impact of medical bills. He strolls over to check on the tanks, picking up crabs with his large, thick, sea-cured hands to admire the large, soft-shelled crustaceans.
"They told me I could get more," he says, "but $40 is high enough."