I'm a commercial fisherman. I started my fishing career in the late 70's when diesel fuel was less than 50 cents a gallon, and the shrimp commanded a good price. The industry was healthy and viable. Domestic shrimpers supplied the nation with delicious wild-caught shrimp.
In the mid 80's, foreign, farm-raised shrimp started to gain market share and this began the downslide in prices. The proliferation of world-wide aquaculture from Third World and communist countries has led to a flood of cheap, imported shrimp. Today, domestic shrimp accounts for only ten percent of the total shrimp consumed in this country.
In the heyday of this industry, we had over 16,000 licensed commercial fishermen in Louisiana. Today, our numbers hover a little over 2000.
My wife and I have constantly battled these forces by marketing our product. We had a retail seafood shop for 22 years and sold at local farmers markets. And then Hurricane Katrina came. It destroyed and flooded our home, our business, our entire community. It even sank my shrimp boat.
Six weeks after the storm, however, I had rebuilt my boat and was back in the water fishing. The shrimp were more abundant then ever before — a true testament to the resilience of this natural resource. Southeast Louisiana has a unique mix of fresh water rivers and salt water. We call this sweet water. This creates vast estuaries that produce the best tasting shrimp in the world. Our shrimp are all natural. There are no genetically altered larvae, antibiotics or waste water in our domestic fishery.
Since the loss of my retail store, my wife and I have continued to sell at the farmers markets. We also started shipping our seafood out of state. My shrimp are featured in some of the finest restaurants. The chefs love them. It has definitely been a win/win situation.
Fishing has been traced back to the 17th century in my family. I have constantly battled to stay afloat in this business that I love. Every single component of this business has experienced rising cost, from the webbing we make our nets out of to the antifouling bottom paint. Some things have doubled in price, some tripled in price while the off-boat price of shrimp continues to decline to levels less than one-half of what it was 20 years ago.
We are harvesters at Mother Nature’s mercy. We catch small, medium, large, and jumbo shrimp. Unfortunately, the only ones that we can market are the large and jumbo sizes. The rest is sold at these ridiculously low commodity prices.
Since 2000, diesel fuel has risen from a dollar a gallon to today’s high of $3.50 a gallon. Currently, I have my boat in the shipyard where I am installing new propellers that produce 18% more thrust and making major hull modifications to make the boat run more efficiently.
Hopefully, I will be able to fish another day.
Ray Brandhurst is a Gulf Coast fisherman and operator of Four Winds Seafood.