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Fuel costs, low prices reduce shrimp boats
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Low shrimp prices and high fuel costs may share the blame for the reduction in commercial fishing boats in Mississippi waters.
Aerial surveys by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources on opening day June 9 revealed 538 shrimp boats in Mississippi waters compared to 1,067 on the first day last year.
Richard Gollott of Golden Gulf Fisheries in Biloxi said shrimp prices are at 1960s levels and fuel costs have skyrocketed.
"Last year, shrimp fell to an all-time low. They sold for 30 cents a pound right off the boats. Those same shrimp in 2000 were selling for between 80 and 90 cents a pound," Gollott said. "We were paying 90 cents per gallon for our diesel last year, and yesterday they paid $1.30 per gallon. Some boats may burn 25,000 to 30,000 gallons in a month."
Gollott said starting in 2000, China, Vietnam, Brazil and several other countries began a conscious effort to overtake the U.S. shrimp market. Thailand, for example, provided close to $1 billion to stimulate their export of shrimp.
"We have just gotten the good news that the Commerce Department is imposing tariffs on several countries for dumping shrimp in the United States," he said. "The tariffs should help shrimp prices move up a little, but we also need fuel prices to come down."
Dumping is when a country sells a product for a lower price to one country in an effort to undercut domestic suppliers.
Dave Burrage, Extension professor of marine resources at Mississippi State University's Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi, said the bad news for fishermen continues to be dockside prices.
"Medium shrimp in the 36-40 shrimp per pound and 41-50 per pound classes, which were bringing $1.25 and $1.15 last year respectively, are bringing $1.10 and 95 cents this year," Burrage said. "The prices for larger heads-off shrimp are about the same as last year, but the heads-on prices are about 15 percent lower than in 2003."
Burrage said total reported landings in Biloxi for the first two weeks of the season were about 1.5 million pounds, slightly higher than last year.
Steve Bosarge, a commercial fisherman from Pascagoula, said production in the Gulf has remained constant regardless of the number of boats. The fleet size peaked about 18 months ago and has been in decline since. A member of the Gulf of Mexico Shrimp Advisory Panel, he said the biggest challenge for commercial fishermen will be to increase efficiency.
"We need to look at different types of gear, such as net materials. We have to be careful with decisions on how far to go to harvest shrimp. Some may not go as far away because of fuel costs," Bosarge said.
Decisions to harvest white shrimp when that season opens may be impacted by fuel costs. White shrimp swim in schools and require nets to extend higher off the Gulf floor.
"White shrimp are easier to market, but you don't get more money for them. They are a challenge to catch and you use more fuel in the process," Bosarge said. "Brown shrimp are more flavorful, but white shrimp are prettier."