U.S. shrimpers looking for other work

Wednesday, November 6, 2002

DULAC, La. -- A weather-beaten, sea-gnarled Clarence "Weasel" Fitch -- shrimper by trade -- pops quarters into a video poker machine in Wayne's Cafe to get through a good working day.

Right now, poker is less risky than shrimping, he says.

"I wish I had won some money right there," Fitch said with a smirk at the machine.

No luck today. Actually, the 49-year-old shrimper hasn't had much luck at all these days. Abysmal shrimp prices have cut his income in half. He laid off his deck hands -- he couldn't pay them. His wife quit her job to replace the deck hands on their 48-foot skimmer boat, "The Lady Taylor."

And then the other day, about 50 miles southwest of New Orleans, he struck a log in Lake Boudreaux, which swiped his $2,500 propeller.

He's a casualty of global trade and the epitome of the Southern shrimper this year: Sinking into debt, looking for other livelihoods and asking himself, "How did it come to this?"

This year, industry leaders say domestic shrimp prices fell by 40 percent as imports of pond-raised shrimp rose by 30 percent. And a bad situation was made worse by a depressed economy, higher fuel costs and a disastrous hurricane season.

Filed anti-dumping petition

On Oct. 22, shrimpers from across the South formed the Southern Shrimp Alliance to build a common voice to advertise their plight.

"This is not a fly-by-night business. We plan to be here forever," said John Williams, a Florida shrimp buyer and a state representative.

The coalition may file an anti-dumping petition with the U.S. Commerce Department against 16 countries.

"In a nutshell, that's the popular thing most fishermen think will give them relief," said Pete Gerica, chairman of the Louisiana Shrimp Association.

In the meantime, shrimpers are demanding relief from state and federal governments in the form of low-interest loans, price supports or exemptions from costly environmental laws regulating nets.

"I'm breaking even. I'm not getting out of debt," said Michael Cowdrey, a 43-year-old North Carolina shrimper. He blames free trade for the low prices.

"There's this great sucking sound of money going out of this country," he said.

Up and down the bayous of southern Louisiana, the tough times are easy to see.

"For sale" signs adorn boats and fishermen sell shrimp out of their pickup trucks to cut out the middle men.

'You can't afford it'

And people are leaving the business in droves.

"I gave it all up. I'm driving an 18-wheeler now," said 35-year-old Welton Guidry.

"When I was growing up I wanted to be a commercial fisherman. My grandpa did it," Guidry said. "I don't want my kids becoming commercial fishermen. You can't afford it."

The plight of shrimpers has been worsened by an unexpected change in the world shrimp market.

In recent years prices were good, leading American shrimpers into loans they can't pay off now, said Kevin Savoie, an area agent for the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center.

"When they made that money, a lot of the guys reinvested it and didn't save it. They maybe changed out an old engine that had run up a few years," Savoie said. "There are some folks who are really in trouble right now."

Fitch is a good example.

When the shrimping was good, he was reeling in up to 800 pounds of shrimp a day and making over $50,000 a year. So, he opted for a $40,000 boat.

Now he's thinking of selling the boat. But who's going to buy it?

"I went bigger because I thought I could do better. But it got worse. I should have stayed small," he said.

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