Robert St. John Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Coast shrimp fleet dwindles, another victim of ‘perfect storm’

I was eating oatmeal in my breakfast room watching WLOX’s morning show when the opening-day announcement was made. The television station cut to their on-location camera covering the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and there was one shrimp boat on the water. One boat.
I can remember sitting in the same spot 10 years ago, watching that station’s coverage of the opening day of shrimp season. There were hundreds of boats in the water. As the sun rose near Ocean Springs, boats were criss-crossing the Gulf, lines out, nets down, dragging the Gulf for the single most popular seafood offering in the world.

The history of Mississippi shrimping is rich and storied. Fourth generation Biloxi fishing families, Croatian immigrants and Vietnamese refugees have shouldered the load for us. Shrimping has always been a family business. In 1900 Biloxi was labeled “The Seafood Capital of the World.” Today we have one shrimp boat making news on opening day.

With 2,000-gallon fuel tanks, $4 per gallon gas, and processor’s pricing challenges caught in the middle, we are headed into uncharted waters. The Mississippi Gulf Coast was built on the scarred and calloused fingers of its oyster shuckers and shrimp pickers, and on the backs of its shrimp boat captains. They all seem to be going the way of the buggy whip and moving inland.

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Hurricane Katrina wiped out many of the local shrimpers and it seems that Middle East oil prices are working on the rest. We have lost more than 50 percent of our working shrimp boats since Katrina. Something has to be done, but I’m afraid that I don’t know the answer. I’m not sure if anyone does.

Shrimp is the number one seafood in America. Oysters are more controversial, complex, and complicated, and crabmeat is more delicate and formal, but shrimp are universal. Local shrimpers might be one of the most underappreciated working groups in the country.

Last May a photographer and I travelled to Biloxi to photograph the shrimp fleet. The boats were all docked. At the time gas was $3 per gallon. A few were selling shrimp off of the back of their boats, but most boats seemed abandoned.

A Vietnamese woman in a straw hat and her two daughters were icing down shrimp on the back of their boat. The woman seemed to be in her late 50s, her daughters in their mid 20s. The mother was unloading ice from her pickup truck, loading it into yellow plastic laundry baskets, and then filling large ice chests on the boat. She was lifting amounts that I would’ve had trouble handling. I offered to help, but she didn’t speak English. Her daughters said, “No thank you.”

For the 30-45 minutes we spent shooting in and around the dock, the woman was steadily shoveling ice and loading ice chests. She never stopped. She never looked up, and she never once complained, or even hinted at an expression that demonstrated complaint.

The daughters were smiling and joking with each other. Their mother’s face was focused and determined on the task at hand. Here was a woman who had probably dealt with untold controversy before she came to this country, and was steadily enduring life’s daily blows with her family in today’s local seafood industry. The look in her eyes was pure determination and focus— a mother’s mission to endure.

At the time, I talked to my photographer friend about the woman’s work ethic and focus. It was remarkable.

A year has past. As I sit here today, I wonder if the woman and her family will survive today’s economic challenges and the untold trials that lie ahead. If I were a betting man, my money would be on her. I’ve seen the look in her eyes.

What will become of the independent, family shrimper? I wish I had the answer.

(For this week’s recipe, Old Bay Grilled Shrimp with Creole Beurre Rouge, go to the column link on St. John is the author of seven books including the newly released New South Grilling.)