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The Boats That Chase The Shrimp

Kevin Savoie - Monday, May 01, 2017
Ask commercial shrimpers why they fish for a living and the answers sound scripted:  to work on a deck instead of at a desk, to enjoy the freedom of being their own boss, and, for many, it’s a livelihood handed down from their dads and grandpas.  With no medical benefits or retirement plan and no guarantee of a good catch, shrimpers continue to chase the shrimp because it’s what they love to do.

To appreciate the shrimp on our tables is to have a better understanding of the boats that bring them in.  Considered second homes to shrimpers, they are divided into two general categories, inshore and offshore.

The shrimp boats working the shallow inshore bays and bayous are typically the smaller boats, and range in size from about 20 to 50 feet long.  These vessels are dubbed the “mosquito fleet” because they are so numerous. 

The large majority of inshore boats are outfitted with skimmer nets that hang on either side of the boat, connected to a sled that rides along the bottom.   Skimmer nets are essentially pushed along through the shallow waterways—‘skimming’ the shrimp from varying depths in the water. The butterfly net is a gear similar to a skimmer but lacks the sled, since this net is typically used in deeper passes relying on strong tidal movement to push shrimp into the net.  Still other inshore boats use the traditional otter trawl rig that is pulled behind the boat using a pair of “doors” that keep the net opened while moving forward. 

Shrimping can occur during all hours of the day and night; moon phase, tides and weather have much to do with shrimp movement and location.  An experienced shrimper takes all this into account when deciding where and when to deploy the nets.  Though inshore vessels are not, at present, required to be fitted with a turtle excluder device (TED), they must limit the amount of time nets are towed in the water to avoid any problems with sea turtle encounters.  Special bycatch reduction devices (BRDs) are often installed in nets to allow finfish bycatch a way to escape. 

Each shrimp boat represents a small business enterprise and may have been in the same family for several generations.  Even a smaller shrimp boat may have more than $100,000 invested, with constant repairs and maintenance required to keep vessels in working condition.   Shrimping trips may be limited to one day or night for the smaller boats, and four or five days for the larger inshore boats.  Boats must be loaded with enough fuel, ice and supplies for the trip, though some shrimpers have recently opted to install mechanical chilled water systems as a way to store shrimp and cut expenses for ice.  Each trip is a gamble with hopes that shrimp catches will allow for a profit. 

The inland fishermen operate during seasons regulated by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF); the spring season runs from mid-May through early July, bringing in mostly brown shrimp from saltier estuaries, and picks up again mid-August into December for the more profitable white shrimp.

In offshore shrimping, everything is bigger—the season (year-round), the boats (steel-hulled vessels powered by larger diesel-fueled engines), and most certainly the expenses   These boats are typically 70 to 80 feet in length with some 160 feet and longer, and their size and onboard freezers allow them to fish for weeks at a time.  Offshore boats are outfitted with galley, bunks, bathroom and everything needed to be at sea for extended periods. The captain oversees up to four to five deck hands who are most often family members because, like inshore fishing, these large boats are family ventures.

Offshore vessels are most often rigged with four otter trawls; these big nets scoop up shrimp while gliding along the bottom.  Their fishing area includes the entire Gulf of Mexico, shrimping in both state and federal waters (with special permit), and returning to land their catch in Louisiana.  Trawlers with a mechanical assist, in federal waters are equipped with both TEDs and BRDs by law to reduce or eliminate incidental catch.

Chad and Angela Portier are long-time shrimpers from Chauvin, LA who both come from shrimping families.  They are both entrenched in the business—Chad has been shrimping since he was 15 years old, and Angela was recently appointed as a Louisiana representative for the Southern Shrimp Alliance.  They currently own a 28-foot inshore skiff and four offshore trawlers ranging from 69 to 78 feet long, with a sixth one on the way when Chad finishes building the 80-footer he’s been working on.

Angela says they fish nearly 24/7, with boats leaving and returning at different times of the day.  Like many owners of larger boats, they’ve invested in refrigeration systems, one of the main advantages that offshore trawlers have over inshore vessels, allowing them to stay in the Gulf as long as their fuel and supplies last and until their holds are filled – usually 15 to 20 days. 

These systems include the brine freezer vats and holding freezers required for “individual quick frozen” (IQF) shrimp.  During this process, 50 to 70 pound bags of shrimp are immersed into super chilled brine (-5 degrees Farenheit) where they freeze in just minutes.  Frozen shrimp are then stored in the holding freezer for remainder of the trip.  A good day’s catch can be as much as 2,000 pounds of shrimp or more.   Angela estimates that approximately 75 percent of the offshore boats have brine freezer systems.  Installing one is a significant investment for offshore shrimpers, costing up to $60,000.

Louisiana Sea Grant marine extension agent Thu Bui says the shrimping industry saw even more complex freezer technology around the year 2000 with the building of larger boats ( >85 feet) by Vietnamese shrimpers  located in Intracoastal City.  Because of their larger size and freezer capacity, these boats can be offshore as long as four to five weeks.

While offshore shrimping offers the opportunity for a more steady flow of income, it is also a more expensive investment in diesel, nets, constant maintenance and equipment; and this is on top of the actual cost of the boat, which is reported to cost up to $1 million.  

Whether inshore or offshore, shrimp fishermen will tell you it takes capital investment to get into the business and stay in it for the long haul.  “It’s blood, sweat and tear money,” says Portier.

It’s been extremely difficult for shrimpers to make a living, with the last good season reported in 2014.  Shrimpers continue to face challenges of ever-changing environmental conditions, like the flooding in August 2016, and the growing competition from imported shrimp that bring prices down at the dock.

To help revitalize the shrimp industry, Louisiana Sea Grant in partnership with the Port of Delcambre, developed an online direct sales program called DelcambreDirectSeafood.com shortly after the BP Oil Spill in 2010.  The website allows participating fishermen, from Morgan City to Intracoastal City, to post their latest catch and how and where customers can buy direct.  Customers then call the shrimper for prices and to place orders. 

It’s a win-win situation for everyone—consumers can buy the freshest product right off the boats, and fishermen get a far better price than if they sold wholesale.  Lifetime shrimpers like Rene Gregoire say the Delcambre Direct program has really boosted their business.

The tremendous success of Delcambre Direct Seafood led to the establishment of other regional programs, including Cameron Direct Seafood, LaTer (Lafourche-Terrebonne) Direct Seafood, SouthShore Direct Seafood, and the parent initiative Louisiana Direct Seafood.

While certainly not a glamorous livelihood, shrimping has pulled generations of fishermen into its tempting net since before Louisiana was proclaimed a state.  It is a tradition that has endured because of the people passionate to keep it alive.

Angela and Chad Portier remain encouraged for the future of shrimping when they still see younger men becoming inshore shrimpers.   “It’s our culture and our heritage; it’s families working together to make a living,” says Angela.
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