“All the boats in here are hanging on by a thread. Just look at the rust,” said Ryan Bradley, Director of Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United, standing at the Pass Christian Harbor last September. “These guys are really the underdogs. If these guys go out of business, a lot of the political types could really care less — and that’s the sad part.”
The seafood industry is a staple of the Gulf Coast’s identity. Driving down Beach Boulevard in Biloxi, you pass road signs decorated with pictures of shrimp and a baseball stadium for a team called the Shuckers. For over a century, Coast families have passed their fishing businesses down from one generation to the next. But the current generation is navigating an industry constantly suspended by the effects of global warming.
For many of the Coast’s fishermen, 2019 marked the worst year of a 15-year stretch that began with Hurricane Katrina and included the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in between. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carré Spillway for a record duration, killing over 95 percent of Mississippi’s oysters and over half of its shrimp and blue crabs, three of the state’s biggest seafood crops. Earlier this month, the Corps opened the spillway for a third consecutive year.
“It’s kind of like, what do you want to do: do you want to buy something for your boat today, or you want to make sure you got gas or something to eat tonight,” said shrimper Jimmy “Buffalo” Sanzin. “I’ve spent so much money on the boat that I’m going to run out. Hopefully I’ll die before.”
About 30 different fishermen, deckhands, seafood processor and market owners, and other industry representatives shared their experiences from last year’s spillway openings with Mississippi Today.
Several people shared their financial struggles, all of which included losing at least half of their usual income. Everyone described the damages differently, but almost all the perspectives shared one commonality: 2019 was the worst year they’ve ever had in the industry. With the 2020 shrimp season underway, fishermen are now bracing for the pressure of another rainy spring.