Coast shrimpers cling to legacy through the industry’s choppy waters
By Alex Rozier | May 1,2020
This series is part of the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines reporting initiative. For more information, go to pulitzercenter.org/connected-coastlines. This story is part two of three.
BILOXI – Danny Ross, an Ocean Springs shrimper, has been on a boat for as long as he could walk. He remembers driving the family vessel as a kid, having to climb onto the dashboard to see over the steering wheel. “Two spokes to the left,” his dad would direct. He remembers, back on land, getting bad grades in art class because he would only draw one thing.
“I’d draw a pretty good boat too,” he said. “Me and my brothers were always on the boat. The rigging, the pipes – that was our jungle gym. And our swimming pool? The boat would be shrimping and we’d be diving off the bow, catching ropes on the outrivers.”
Ross, 55, recently tied up his boat after a disappointing season that saw fresh water kill 56 percent of Mississippi’s shrimp. The plummeting price of shrimp has made it difficult for Ross to find crew members, and instead he’s gone to work on another captain’s boat. After following five generations of fishermen into the business, he’s worried about the direction the industry is headed in.
“All these people, they came over here as immigrants, and they built fishing boats. Now, there’s nobody left to step into my shoes,” Ross said.
Mississippi’s shrimp fleet has dwindled over the last 20 years, largely due to cheaply imported shrimp that’s forced domestic fishermen to lower their prices. Over the ten years between 1973 and 1983, around the time Ross entered the trade, Mississippi shrimpers averaged $4.69 per pound for their catch when adjusted for inflation. By 2007 to 2017, that number dropped nearly 60 percent to less than $2 per pound. For a full-time shrimper, that’s a difference of tens of thousands of dollars each year.
Adding to the frustration is the increasing frequency of natural disasters. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina took out many of the boats in the Gulf Coast’s fleet, including Ross’. Hurricanes Gustav and Ike came three years later, causing over $10 million in damage to the industry, and several Bonnet Carré spillway openings since have repeatedly shaken the water quality in the Mississippi Sound to the point where species died or had to evade the Coast.
And those don’t include the disruption of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Traditionally, shrimpers would catch oysters in the winter, but after the oil spill, which killed between 4 billion and 8 billion oysters in the Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi’s reefs are still struggling to produce.
“We’re like ballerinas,” Ross said. “We have to dance to the music.”
Last year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the spillway for a record length. The subsequent flow of Mississippi River water into the Mississippi Sound wreaked havoc on the state’s seafood industry, including a 56 percent shrimp mortality rate. After the wettest 12-months in the U.S. on record, many believe the river flooding that causes the spillway opening will only become more frequent amid climate trends.
Even after the decades-long decline in the value of shrimp, experienced shrimpers said they had never seen a year like 2019.
“You could’ve dredged the whole Sound at one time, you wouldn’t have caught enough to make a good po’boy,” said Wayne Tillman, a 71-year-old Vancleave shrimper, referring to last season. Tillman, who left school for fishing at 14, said he made $25,000 less last year than in 2018.
Tillman, like Ross and many others in the business, carries the torch from a long history of commercial fishing in their families.
“I reckon it’s in my blood,” said Chad Stork, 45, of Lucedale. Stork, a fifth-generation fisherman, said he learned how to fish when he was just 5. “I don’t know what your family’s done. My daddy’s been doing it all his life, his daddy. I reckon you inherit it.”
In a good year, shrimping can be a lucrative business, especially for larger boats with freezer systems that can haul in over a million dollars worth of shrimp some seasons. But in order to turn a profit, fishermen have to account for what they’re paying in boat maintenance, fuel, ice, and crewmembers.
In Mississippi, the season starts in the spring and ends in the fall, lasting around six months. Mike Nguyen, a 26-year-old shrimper in Biloxi who works on a smaller boat with his dad, said he often makes enough in the season to “sit on my ass” the rest of the year. But with those advantages comes the dangerous nature of the business.
“You’ve got to be a little nuts to do the job,” Nguyen said.
Commercial fishing, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, is 22 times more deadly than the average job. Within the fishing industry, more Gulf shrimpers – 25 total – died on the job between 2010 and 2014 than in any other sector.
Shrimpers often work full 24-hour shifts, in all types of weather, on a moving platform, and alongside dangerous equipment. Most deaths occur either from falling overboard or from getting caught in a winch, the device used for pulling shrimp nets, according to University of Florida occupational health researcher Andy Kane.
“The winch is the beast,” Kane described. “If you get pinched, your skin, your hair, your clothing, it will pull you into it, and it’s only an act of God that you’re able to get out of it at that point. People lose digits, lose limbs, they get thrown overboard sometimes with pieces of them missing.”
Considering the risks he takes, Ross is clueless how his product can be sold for so cheap. For jumbo shrimp, which sells for the highest, he said processors usually give him around $2 per pound.
“That’s supposed to be a top-of-the-line delicacy,” Ross said. “When you say delicacy, do you think it’s going to be a cheap meal?
“I don’t think people even fathom, when they get a seafood platter, what they’re actually eating. You can’t just go into your yard, grow it, and pick it. You have to go into a very dangerous environment.”
The U.S. began importing pond-raised shrimp in the 1980s from several countries in Southeast Asia and Ecuador. Lower labor and property costs, along with a favorable currency exchange, made overseas shrimp a more profitable option for American distributors. Imports gradually became the dominant source for U.S. consumption, now accounting for 94 percent of shrimp in America.
“The industry, any way you cut it, has been bleeding cash for more than 20 years now,” said David Veal, director of the American Shrimp Processors Association. “It doesn’t matter at which level you want to talk, whether it’s the fishermen or the processor, it’s a tough market to be in today.”
Veal compared the effects of events like the spillway openings, hurricanes and oil spill to getting a “good hard lick” in the face, whereas imported shrimp is like stepping on a stick and hurting every time you walk.
The declining value of American shrimp is exacerbated by other growing costs, one state official explained.
“The shrimp industry has multiple components that are working against them, and clearly cheap imports are at the top of the list. But they have fuel, ice, infrastructure, other issues to address,” said Joe Jewell, director of marine fisheries at the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.
Jewell added that the number of dock and processing facilities has dropped since Katrina, and that waterside property insurance rates have risen since then.
“I do know that these isolated events, like hurricanes, the opening of the Bonnet Carré Spillway, man-made events like the BP oil spill, are having dramatic long-term impacts on our seafood industry,” he said. “But I can say with some confidence that the long-term trend, climate change is definitely having an impact on marine resources for all the coastal states, in our country and other countries.”
Many shrimpers themselves admitted they see little future in the business.
“I told all of my (children) if you get in the business, I’m going to knock your head off,” Tillman said. “I said stay away from that.”
Seventy-four-year-old Billy Stork, Chad’s father, retired 12 years ago, but said he still needs to fish to supplement his Social Security. Stork, who started fishing for money when he was 12, said his year-to-year earnings dropped about 50 percent in 2019.
“I think this hurt worse than anything, the fresh water,” said Stork, comparing the spillway openings to past disasters. “If I was a young man, I’d get out of this business.”
Over the last 20 years, shrimpers overall have seemed to take that advice. From 1998 to 2019, resident commercial shrimping licenses dropped 63 percent, according to the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources. The state also counts the number of shrimp boats at the beginning of each season: in that same timeframe, the opening day count dropped 87 percent, from 1000 to 133.
But for shrimpers young and old, the allure of working outdoors, on their own time without any corporate structure all while keeping a tradition alive motivates them in the face of the downward trend.
“I made more money sitting at an office,” Nguyen said. “It’s not really about the money. It’s more just a lifestyle. I kind of love it. You get your freedom.”
Ross echoed Nguyen: “I remember going to the 10 year class reunion and I’m the only one that loved their job. And I had some friends that are millionaires.”
Well aware of the challenges he faces, Ross takes pride in being one of the few Mississippi shrimpers remaining.
“I’ve been hearing my whole life, ‘Get out that business Danny, it’s never going to be the same,” he said. “How does Forrest Gump say it? ‘Shrimping’s tough.’”
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