Louisiana Shrimp

Financial Justice Labor Organizing

shrimp-boat-wp6New Orleans More than 20 years ago every month or so I would drive from New Orleans across the River and down to Bayou Lafourche until I got to Galliano, then I would pull into a lot paved with oyster shells.  In a small nondescript building there hardly noticeable among the working shrimp boats tied up along the pretty bayou, I would work with an association of shrimpers and fishers hardly making a living on the water and trying to organize.  I did it partially as a favor for a good guy who worked with the Houma-Thibodaux Catholic diocese who had helped these folks get a Catholic Campaign for Human Development grant to see if they could get something going.  I saw it as a form of giving back and a rich learning experience about the hard work, trials and tribulations of making a living on the rich fishery of the south Louisiana.

All of these memories came back to me reading a piece a couple of days ago in the Wall Street Journal called, “Besieged in the Bayou:  Shrimpers Fight Back,” by Jeff Opdyke that focused on the problems in the industry because of imported shrimp from Indonesia, Thailand, Ecuador, and elsewhere, as well as potentially price fixing and bad handling procedures by processors that have spoiled the market.  Sadly a lot of the same problems existed for shrimpers back then.  A lot of the shrimpers then thought that they couldn’t do well because of overfishing and the fact that there were too many boats on the water and too many captains willing – or forced – to settle for prices that sucked any margin out of the shrimp.

Opdyke notes that since 1989 the number of shrimpers has plummeted to a quarter of what it was (16500 to 4700), which is a huge difference.  Unfortunately, the shrimp are only getting about $1.00 a pound at the dock, which is shockingly low.  The level of imports is now dwarfing what comes of the boats.  Opdyke reports in 2008 Louisiana moved 90 million pounds of shrimp worth only $135 million, while imports in 2007 were at 1.6 million pounds and that was double the imports of 10 years ago.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (R) is writing letters to beg for help from the federal government, but in the meantime the state doesn’t seem to be inspecting the processors and others whose practices are taking beautiful shrimp off the docks and running the downstream market with chemicals and fast dealing.  I read today Jindal is off fundraising again in other states.  This would seem worth a minute if he can spare it.

The other problem not mentioned is Katrina.  A lot of shrimpers and fishers lost their boats in the storm.  In fact some of the early crews working on houses with our rebuilding program in New Orleans were Vietnamese fishing families who had lost boats worth more than $100,000 but were having problems with FEMA, insurance, and everything else and being pushed off the water by the storm and government inaction.  Now more than 4 years since Katrina it was only recently that FEMA made an announcement on a partial program to begin clearing some of the waterways of the boats sunk by the storm.  That’s no way to support working boatmen whose living is on the water.

Even in New Orleans hardly 75 minutes from the water, the price at the store for a pound of Louisiana shrimp (and that’s all my partner buys!) is $3.57.  The shrimper is getting a buck and god knows where the $2.57 is leaking out along the way.

And, even in New Orleans we can look at the packaging of shrimp in our local store (a Louisiana grocery chain) and see the imported shrimp from China with a picture of the state of Louisiana on the outside and the claim that it’s Louisiana Gulf shrimp.

If they are doing the hard job on water, why can’t people do the right thing the rest of the way, once we’re walking on land?