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Big shrimp await catch, but harvest faces obstacles
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Conditions have been favorable to produce a large crop of big shrimp, but with record-high fuel prices and uncharted debris in the shrimping grounds, it may be a struggle to land this crop.
The coast is about 14 inches behind normal rainfall for the year, and this drought means salt content is higher in the bayous and inland waterways where young shrimp mature. The young shrimp are growing well in these favorable conditions, and adult shrimp not caught last year because of the hurricane's disruption are even bigger this year.
Dave Burrage, professor of marine resources with the Mississippi State University Extension Service in Biloxi, said whether or not the state has a good harvest this year will depend on fishermen's ability to catch and land the shrimp and sell them for enough to cover their costs.
“The shrimp out there are big and plentiful, but fishermen are facing an uphill battle to harvest them,” Burrage said.
The entire coastline is clogged with tons of storm debris, including trees and parts of buildings. Burrage said debris cost one fisherman 13 nets in two weeks off the Mississippi coast. Fishermen keep “hang logs” of where they find debris on the Gulf floor, but Hurricane Katrina nullified all their previous data and dumped untold amounts on the sea floor.
“It's uncharted waters out there now. You have to shrimp at your own risk,” Burrage said.
A bill in the U.S. Congress would appropriate more than $1 billion to help restore Gulf Coast fisheries impacted by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but even if it passes, it would be at least October, well into shrimp season, before that money is available.
“A lot of fishermen will just catch this stuff in their nets and bring it in and not get any money for their work. They'll end up cleaning the grounds themselves and tearing up their nets,” Burrage said.
While the debris is a significant problem, a larger problem is the lack of infrastructure supporting the fishing industry. Katrina destroyed most structures along Mississippi's coastal waterways, including docks, fuel facilities and ice houses. What boats survived the storm or were repaired have just two places to get fuel in Mississippi. Burrage said the first ice house was scheduled to open the last week of April.
On the economic side, shrimp prices have been low for years, mostly from stiff competition from imported shrimp. Rising fuel prices cut into profits last year and are worse this year.
“Fishermen had been operating on a 3 percent margin,” Burrage said. “Now with the price of fuel as high as it is, that margin will be cut.”
Peter Nguyen is one fisherman who could no longer make a profit after 15 years in the shrimp business. Nguyen, who is originally from Vietnam, lost his boat to the combined effects of Katrina, fuel costs and low shrimp prices. Now he is an MSU fisheries technologist at the Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi.
“Katrina put a lot of folks out of business,” Nguyen said. “Most of the boats had damage and many of them had big mortgages on them. Many of the shrimp boats are still in the boatyards awaiting repairs, and they don't know when they'll be fixed.”
Despite the hurdles, Nguyen said as many boats as are able will be out when the regular shrimp season opens, probably in early June.
“They still have to do whatever they can. It's a living for them,” Nguyen said.
While shrimp are prospering in the wake of the hurricanes, oysters are not.
“The oysters were completely wiped out, and it takes about 18 months to reestablish them,” Burrage said. “Their reefs were buried in silt and oysters need to attach to a hard surface.”
Burrage said larval oysters float in the water until they attach to something hard and grow into adults. Existing oyster reefs make good landing spots, as do manmade reefs. Hurricane Katrina destroyed both the natural and manmade reefs, and fisheries managers have not had the opportunity yet to reestablish new reefs for the oysters.