Coming up Empty: Shrimp Catches Are Down 99 Percent in Areas Hard Hit by Gulf Oil Spill


This year’s white shrimp season off the coast of Louisiana looks like a bust, despite the fact that state fishery experts had predicted a bumper crop. But that was before the BP oil spill hit last April – just as the white shrimp were beginning to spawn. The timing couldn’t have been worse.

Today, the reality out on the water, according to Louisiana Shrimp Association President Clint Guidry, is that catches are down some 80 percent across the board. Areas hardest hit by last year’s 200-million-gallon spill are yielding next to nothing. Many shrimpers, who have trawled the waters off Grand Isle for many years, are now being forced to move to more fertile grounds.

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From an Oct. 4 Baton Rouge Advocate report:

The lack of shrimp around Grand Isle has forced some shrimpers to sail west toward Dulac and Delcambre, said Dean Blanchard, owner of a shrimp dock in Grand Isle. “Our Grand Isle beach is producing less than one percent of the shrimp it normally produces,” he said.

The impact of the downturn is rippling across the Gulf seafood industry, from harvesters to processors to wholesalers to restaurant owners. More from the Advocate:

The low harvest is impacting businesses farther inland, too, such as Doran Seafood, a shrimp processing plant in Independence. “We have done zero this year,” said Randy Pearce, the plant’s owner-operator. “We have not peeled one Louisiana white shrimp.”

Pearce recently pointed to an empty live shrimp storage room, saying that at this point in the season, it should be full. In another room of the plant, four large shrimp-peeling machines sat idle. Those machines should be running two shifts per day, Pearce said. The plant has already reduced the number of days that employees are working from five or six days per week to three, Pearce said.

Pearce has reduced the number of employees from 50 to 25, he said. Further reductions at the plant are likely if the season’s harvest doesn’t pick up, he said.

Wholesaler Carol Terrebonne, who runs the Seafood Shed in Golden Meadow, Louisiana, tells a similar story: “Usually at this time of the year, we are loading trailer loads. It’s just not happening.”

For Louisiana shrimpers, there seems to be no end to their misfortune. The state’s white shrimp season opened with a whimper in late August and will end in December or early January, making it the longer of the state’s two shrimp seasons. This year’s brown shrimp season ran through May, June and July – and by all accounts, it was dismal, too. From a June 12 Louisiana Seafood News report:

Since the opening of brown shrimp season on May 16, 2011, it has been described as weak, lean, and even poor. The average shrimp count – or the number of individual shrimp in a pound – is high, which means the shrimp are small. Catching all the juveniles isn’t good for the shrimp population, and what isn’t good for the shrimp isn’t good for the shrimpers.

Many shrimpers, like [Nicky] Alfonso, went shrimping in the first few days of the season, but catching 100/80 count shrimp at 45 cents per pound isn’t profitable when diesel costs $3.60 a gallon.

Back in late May, Acy Cooper, a Venice shrimper and vice president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, had this to say: “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen for a shrimp season open. The brownies we are getting are very small and there’s not too many of them. People around here can’t make a living with the price of shrimp these days and the high prices of gas. It’s going to get bad around here if we can’t catch more shrimp.”

Mr. Guidry, the Louisiana Shrimp Association president, quickly identified the cause of the depleted catches: “It’s still early in the season, but it’s not hard to explain. BP did it. Whether we’ll ever be able to absolutely prove it is another thing.”

So the Gulf is in the throes of its second disastrous shrimp season, first brown now white. When considering why we are witnessing such a dramatic dropoff in supply, we should consider a study released by Auburn University in mid-September. The study reveals that the oil BP sank to the seafloor with dispersant isn’t breaking down. From a Sept. 20 Associated Press report:

Auburn University experts who studied tar samples at the request of coastal leaders said the latest wave of gooey orbs and chunks appeared relatively fresh, smelled strongly and were hardly changed chemically from the weathered oil that collected on Gulf beaches during the spill.

… The study concluded that mats of oil – not weathered tar, which is harder and contains fewer hydrocarbons – are still submerged on the seabed and could pose a long-term risk to coastal ecosystems.

Although we can’t see it, there’s oil coating the seafloor – and it’s still highly toxic. Shrimp are bottom-dwellers and bottom-feeders. It doesn’t take a marine biologist to grasp how shrimp could be decimated by oil blanketing their habitat. Dr. Samantha Joye from the University of Georgia (who happens to be a marine biologist) took a submersible down to have a look in December 2010. Consider this from a Feb. 19 Huffington Post report from Seth Borenstein:

[Dr. Joye] showed pictures of oil-choked bottom-dwelling creatures. They included dead crabs and brittle stars – starfish like critters that are normally bright orange and tightly wrapped around coral. These brittle stars were pale, loose and dead. She also saw tube worms so full of oil they suffocated.

“This is Macondo oil on the bottom,” Joye said as she showed slides. “This is dead organisms because of oil being deposited on their heads.”

Of course, shrimp are tied to the rest of the food chain and, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, they are food for the killifish – a minnow-like species that lives in the coastal marshes of the Gulf. When prey becomes contaminated and depleted, it has a negative impact on predators. From a Sept. 26 Washington Post report by Juliet Eilperin:

Fish living in Gulf of Mexico marshes exposed to last year’s oil spill have undergone cellular changes that could lead to developmental and reproductive problems…

… The team of researchers from Louisiana State, Texas State and Clemson universities focused on the killifish, a minnowlike fish that is abundant and a good indicator of the health of wetlands.

Killifish residing in areas affected by the spill showed cell abnormalities, including impaired gills, two months after the oil had disappeared, researchers found. Killifish embryos exposed in the lab to water from the same site, which had only trace amounts of chemicals in it, developed cellular abnormalities as well.

The dramatically depleted supply of white shrimp is yet another indication that there are serious problems deep inside the Gulf ecosystem. Only time will tell if our fisheries will rebound or become another permanent casualty of Big Oil’s recklessness.

Here’s the full report from the Baton Rouge Advocate on severely depleted white shrimp catches:

Read more about Dr. Joye’s submarine dives and what she saw on the seafloor:

Read the full report from Louisiana Seafood News on the dismal brown shrimp season:

Read my previous post on the Auburn University “submerged oil” study:

Read my previous post on the plight of the Gulf killifish:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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