HOUMA – Eight months after the Deepwater Horizon disaster claimed lives and livelihoods, one of south Louisiana’s most affected regions is toddling toward normalcy as the shrimp season winds down.
An estimated one-third of Louisiana’s shrimp fleet has actively fished since the deepwater well 50 miles off the coast of Venice began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
Shrimp harvesters and processors, as well as those involved with oysters, crabs and other seafood, are still picking up the pieces. But some reasons for hope are emerging, slowly and quietly.
Large numbers of white shrimp are appearing in some waters, which has caused the state’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to extend the 2010 season in some waters to Tuesday. There are plans to review whether other waters – which have a planned closure in March – will close on that date as well.
Marty Bourgeois, the biologist who runs the state’s shrimp program, said the closure of waters east of the Mississippi River is due to “tremendous numbers” of small white shrimp in the area.
“The object is to protect them and allow them to grow to a marketable size,” Bourgeois said. “We can all look into the spring and see the benefits of that.”
The large shrimp population is good news for a fishery whose participants didn’t know for months what effects the Deepwater Horizon spill would have on their crop.
Ernest Cheramie, a 49-year-old fisherman from Galliano, had good luck in recent weeks aboard his 49-foot double-rigger, the Jaia Marie.
“We were catching a good bit, enough to make some money,” he said. “But they didn’t hardly have any boats out there.”
He has been changing how he sells his catch, offering the biggest shrimp direct to consumers from the boat itself. The rest are sold to a dock.
The spill has had a marked effect on Louisiana shrimp production. In 2009 the state’s fishermen landed 96.7 million pounds, with a dockside value of more than $103.4 million between January and October. During the same period this year, nearly 53.2 million pounds were caught, valued at a little less than $85.6 million.
Some fishermen are taking steps to make their effort more efficient, with an eye toward next year’s spring season. James Blanchard of Houma is considering a new type of net on his boat, the Waymaker.
“I have heard a little bit of a different type of webbing that is supposed to create less drag through the water,” said Blanchard, who sits on the board of the eight-state Southern Shrimp Alliance representing Louisiana. “With the lighter webbing it would cut down on the fuel consumption.”
Blanchard said he and other fishermen who worked the oil spill cleanup communicated with each other on two-way radios while out on the water. “We were always in contact with a lot of guys we wouldn’t normally be in contact with,” Blanchard said. “We always had something to chatter about and discussing different things, gear types, other things. It was like we had a meeting of the minds.”
Changes are in store for how Louisiana markets its shrimp, with some of the most optimistic thinkers exploring how to set up export markets. Louisiana shrimp, some say, could sell well in Europe.
“We are still going forward with plans for the certification program and gear technology,” said Julie Falgout of Louisiana SeaGrant, the state’s cooperative extension for fisheries. “The fact that we are going forward and investing the time and the energy and the money in this tells me we have something to look forward to. My personal opinion is that they are not going to let us spend money for something we are not going forward with.”
The certification program, Falgout maintains, will have a positive effect on how much consumers will pay for shrimp that earn the grade. Shrimp given the certification are caught under conditions that maximize quality, such as shorter drags of the net and optimal chilling conditions, as well as handling to keep them from bruising.
“It’s a great product already and the program certifies that it has had the best kind of handling,” Falgout said, explaining that not all shrimp would qualify as “Louisiana Certified.” “Black Angus beef is an example of how this can work. Only 7 percent of all beef is Angus. But the Angus program helped bring up the price of beef. It’s saying that the certified shrimp is the best of the best and that is going to help everybody.”
Fishermen interviewed Thursday said they’re not certain about all that. But they do know that something needs to be done, because as the fishery recovers from the spill, pre-existing problems with low prices will return as an issue.
“You go to Burger King and it costs you $7 for a meal now,” Cheramie said. “You buy a pound of shrimp for $1 and it can make you a meal. But shrimp should never be $1 a pound.”
While prices stay low, Cheramie said, the cost of catching the shrimp continues to rise.
“Three weeks ago I took 100 gallons in fuel and three blocks of ice and it was $302,” he said.
Conditions on the water changed and the shrimp Cheramie had been catching were gone. Cheramie returned home.
“That’s a loss right there,” he said. “That’s what it was, a loss.”
Still, fishermen acknowledge they are keeping their eyes on the future rather than dwelling on losses of the past.
Tony Thibodeaux of Chauvin worked the oil spill for most of this year with the trawler Brandon James. But he’s readying for next year’s season. He is building a new metal building with an eye towards next year’s catches.
“Eventually I might want to retail some shrimp,” said Thibodeaux, who is also planning to have a freezer installed on his boat. “I’m talking about jumbo shrimp, a nice product presented the right way will sell.” Not all fishermen or processors are viewing next year with optimism, however.
With few fishermen on the water, prices are staying low, hovering at a dockside price of about $1 on average.
If most or all of Louisiana’s fishermen hit the water in May, when the season begins, there could be an overabundance of shrimp that could make prices fall farther.