Louisiana’s commercial fishermen are a living legacy and symbol of our heritage, and nowhere is this truer than right here in Terrebonne and Lafourche.
Fourteen years ago Louisiana shrimpers joined those from other Gulf states and pooled their money -- along with processors and dock owners -- to pay millions of dollars in legal fees to bring a case for tariffs to the U.S. Department of Commerce and the International Trade Commission. The punitive tariffs that were approved, after this costly battle, were the result of findings that China and other nations were dumping shrimp into the U.S. at a below-market price or subsidizing the industry in some nations.
The tariffs did some good but not enough. There is ample proof that shrimp were routed through other countries not contending with tariffs to defeat the process. The result has been more shrimp often raised in unsanitary farms and containing chemicals banned in the European Union but allowed in certain thresholds at U.S. docks.
A combination of tariffs and certain market conditions aided local shrimpers to some degree. A respite was also won because some fishermen found work using their vessels or their bodies, at the peril of their respiratory systems, following the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
But none of those would be a ticket to prosperity, and today, with an abundance of shrimp in the Gulf and local inshore waters, the word is going out that this is one of the worst if not the worst year for prices in recent memory.
The jaded response would be “fishermen always complain.” They do, and they have a variety of things to complain about. But the numbers show clearly that dockside prices have plummeted to a level that should not be at this point in the spring season. The shrimp price is making it so that fishermen would do better to keep their boats tied up. Further up the industry chain, docks and processors are equally vexed. In an industry where a penny per pound can make a million-dollar difference in profit and loss, the land-based portion of the industry is running huge risks.
They might do better to close their doors as well because the price they can profitably sell at will soon exceed the cost of production.
Bills have been floated at prior legislative sessions to require that menus list country of origin for seafood in our state. Restaurant lobbyists have easily halted them. Millions of people flock to our state, and many of those people want to sample our native seafood. There is no guarantee that they are getting the real product. “Gulf shrimp” could easily refer to the Gulf of Tonkin. Even “Gulf of Mexico” shrimp often refers to shrimp from Mexico and other nations to our south. Our local delegation has worked on these measures and they should be lauded for their efforts. But upstate senators and reps have not gotten on board. Next session, we hope, a new bill can be crafted that will protect our local industries.
Measures have been taken at the federal level that will help. Rep. Garret Graves R-Baton Rouge and Louisiana’s U.S. senators have sponsored legislation that includes imported shrimp in the federal Seafood Import Monitoring program, requiring traceability of imported seafood from point of capture to point of sale. This was a tremendous step.
One federal voice in particular has been directed at a place where it can do some good. Sen. John Kennedy R-La has directly communicated with President Donald Trump through letter, to consider inclusion of shrimp from China in any tariffs that are imposed by executive order.
Kennedy will attend a Louisiana Shrimp Association meeting in Houma Friday. We are certain he will hear a lot from his shrimping constituents.
Perhaps such attention will help Kennedy’s desire to aid fishermen, and by that our region and our state overall. We certainly think a lot of him for making the effort. Not since Mary Landrieu -- a dedicated fishermen’s friend -- was in the senate has the industry had an ally in the senate willing to show up to this degree.
We have seen what the oil crisis has done to our local economy. The ripple effect as we lose shrimp boats won’t be as dramatic for most people. But it will have an effect. Shrimpers buy equipment and food and cars and trucks. We began to see in 2002, when the last shrimp crisis hit, how true that is. We hope we don’t have to see it again.