‘Moratorium’ short-lived: Shrimp strike ends, but troubles persist

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A strike by Louisiana shrimpers failed to gain desired momentum and ended after one full day.

But leaders and participants said the highly-publicized work stoppage – which they referred to as a “moratorium” – had the effect of increasing dialogue with processors and may have kept downward-bound dockside prices from entering a free-fall.

Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, tried to set a tone for calm after the decision to strike was made during a Sept. 5 meeting in Belle Chasse.

“Please respect everyone during this time,” Guidry told his membership. “When you do something like this it hurts everyone, the fisherman, the dock owner and the processor. We have to sit down and come together to solve these problems.”

Fishermen tied up their boats Sept. 8, the following Monday, but by the next day word was out that the strike was over, after the dock price rose by 30 cents per pound for some sizes.

“Most fishermen want to go work in a positive not negative direction,” said Dulac shrimper Ronnie Anderson, an LSA member who was among those electing to not work during the short-lived strike. “It is best for all parties involved to work together in a positive direction.”

Not all of the dialogue was positive, however. One Dulac shrimper filed a report with the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office alleging a threat on social media. Examination of the report, however, showed that the perceived threat was utterance of a vulgar euphemism, prompted by the fisherman’s decision to work.

Local processors, those in other states within the Gulf region and many shrimpers maintain that the problem at hand is far more complex than random decisions by processors to pay less.

Some therefore question whether the strike influenced a sudden rise in price at the docks, other than as a result of supply and demand. Fewer shrimp coming in, more dollars paid out per load, would be the logic.

American Shrimp Processors Association President David Veal was critical of the strike, regardless of its duration. He questioned the wisdom of shrimpers directing their understandable wrath toward processors.

“The shrimpers who are not working are private businesses who blame other private businesses for these problems,” Veal said. “Any notion that processors are making windfall profits simply does not comport with reality and publicly available information.”

Veal noted that with 85 to 90 percent of shrimp consumed in the U.S. being imported, the common competitor for fishermen and processors alike is the imported product.

Statements issued by Veal note reports that shrimp exports to the U.S. are up “44 percent for headless shell-on, 69 percent for peeled and 94 percent for cooked.”

Imports from Ecuador are up 24 percent this year and were up 50 percent for July, the figures cited by Veal show.

“As an industry, we need to work together to fight against our common competitor,” he said. “As long as our market is inundated with imports that are subsidized by their governments while using extremely cheap labor, these problems will continue to plague us all.

“Prices have fallen dramatically for some sizes of small shrimp, and we probably haven’t seen the bottom,” Veal admitted. “Earlier in the year, prices on the smaller shrimp were artificially high. Most in the industry understood this, and while we all hoped they could remain high, we knew they could not be sustained. History tells us that when prices are abnormally high, they usually settle back to lower, more typical levels.”

The effects of early mortality syndrome are among the factors resulting in higher dockside prices last year, along with a trade action brought by processors.

But Asian shrimp ponds are making a comeback from the crippling effects of the disease; the trade action case got a thumbs-down from the International Trade Commission.

The plight of fishermen and the industry as a whole is getting some official attention.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) referenced the strike and the effect of imports in a letter sent last week to leadership of a presidential commission looking into seafood industry fraud, whose purview includes import practices.

A recent “onslaught of illegally subsidized imports is creating immediate and irrevocable harm,” Landrieu wrote to U.S. Department of Commerce officials last week. “In fact, many shrimp harvesters in Louisiana have engaged in a work stoppage to protest the depressed domestic prices for wild-caught U.S. shrimp. This price depression is hurting hard-working shrimpers in Louisiana and is directly related to hundreds of millions in illegal subsidies provided by foreign governments.”

Closer to home, communication problems led to unintended effects for some fishermen, including a few who continued to stay tied up for days after the strike ended.

“Can’t wait to go back to work… this strike is killing me,” Golden Meadow shrimper Blaze Serigny, captain of the trawler Irene Cheramie, posted on Facebook Sept. 12.

Other posters informed Serigny of the strike’s end, and he prepared to set out the next day.

Editor’s Note: Gulfseafoodnews.com contributed to this report.

Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, asked his members in the days leading up to the strike to “respect everyone.”