Most years, the mid-winter weeks are high times for the commercial food shrimpers who trawl Biscayne Bay. They train their nets night after night on the plump crustaceans, which ‘‘run’’ out of the estuary through the passes and channels to the Atlantic when the water cools.
Most years, veteran shrimper Jeff Hald of Fort Lauderdale says, a good night’s catch is a couple thousand pounds of mostly pink shrimp in a night of wing-netting, which he does mainly from the Venetian Causeway to Bear Cut in his 17-footer, “Money’s Tight.’’
But this year, three months into shrimp season, his boat’s got the right name. “This is becoming a dire situation,” Hald says, bemoaning the generally meager catch so far.
Prices shrimpers can get from seafood dealers are down by double-figures percentage points. Add in foreign competition, the rising cost of diesel fuel, and an unsubstantiated but nagging feeling that last year’s BP oil spill has something to do with the situation, and shrimpers are feeling anxious.
“I’m $10,000 behind from last year,” said Hald, 43, a single dad raising a 19-year-old son and running an auto and marine shop and lawn-care business by day to pay the bills. “They’re just not here. I don’t know why. Nobody does.”
Added Opa-locka seafood dealer Jorge Fundora: “We’ve seen very little shrimp compared to past years. We usually get a good December and January run, and we didn’t get it.”
Shrimpers can’t predict exactly at what point in the season most of the shellfish will make their move toward the ocean to spawn.
In typical seasons, shrimpers will enjoy a handful of bonanza nights and a few pulses. This year has seen no bonanza and barely a pulse.
So since November, they’ve been launching their boats just before dark and pushing all night long, hoping for action.
The typical boat, 20 to 40 feet long, is equipped with lights that shine down into the water and wing nets deployed on port and starboard sides. The nets are wide at the mouth, but they narrow to socks that scoop up crustaceans as they float along, midway between the bottom and the surface.
The fishermen take a team approach, talking to each other and to recreational anglers on cellphones, rewarding tipsters with free buckets full of their catch.
Hald says the best nights are cool, with muddy water and an outgoing tide that flows all night long on a full moon.
There have been plenty of nights just like that since the season opened. But catches have ranged from erratic to downright poor.
He and others are putting their hopes on the days around Feb. 18, when the next full moon arrives.
The bounty had better not happen on a Saturday night: About a decade ago, shrimp were deemed a restricted species in Florida, which means a special commercial permit is required to harvest them during a season that runs from Nov. 1 through May 31. To help conserve the resource, no commercial harvest is permitted in Biscayne Bay from 6 a.m. Saturday through 6 a.m. Sunday.
Since the rule was passed, the Biscayne Bay shrimp fleet has shrunk by about half.
In his years buying shrimp, Fundora says he has seen ups and downs but nothing too extreme. The shrimp catch has stayed relatively steady over the past several years, but what’s been shrinking is the price: In 2005, according to records kept by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, shrimpers statewide commanded an average price of $1.96 a pound for their 430,000-pound shrimp haul. The latest figures, for 2009, show an average price of $1.57 for a harvest of just over 500,000 pounds.
This season, Fundora has been paying fishermen about $1.25 per pound. Competition from cheaper, farm-grown Asian shrimp has depressed prices, although Fundora and other local shrimpers say the wild, domestic crop has a shrimpier, deeper flavor, since it has lived without the preservatives or antibiotics typically used on farms.
We’re almost 10 months removed from the April 20, 2010, BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s just a feeling, but some of the fishermen are wondering out loud whether the gusher into the gulf is a factor in the failure of shrimp to show up miles away in Biscayne Bay.
“There’s a lot of concern over the oil spill, but we don’t have any indication that we’ve had those effects here,” said Ryan Gandy, a crustacean research scientist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. “Most of the effects are in the upper Gulf.”
Nevertheless, the fishermen worry that the oil and dispersants used on the spill may have killed spawning shrimp and their larvae, decreasing the numbers here.
“You can only have so many Exxon Valdezes and BPs,” Hald said.