Mary Tutwiler

Striking shrimpers under stress

by Mary Tutwiler

The shrimp strike (see this week's Independent Weekly article, "Salty Politics"), now a week old, is taking its toll, mostly on the shrimpers themselves who have turned to infighting rather than focusing on their common enemy. Cheap imported seafood has driven down the price of shrimp dockside to less than a $1 a pound. According to Houma's Courier, 2,000 of the state’s 3,000 shrimpers have dry docked their trawls.

In Delcambre, a rally earlier in the week took an unexpected turn, the Daily Iberian reports, when shrimpers marched into processor Gulf Crown Seafood to show reporters boxes of frozen shrimp labeled “packed by Bayou Shrimp Processors Inc.” The frozen shrimp were not packed by Delcambre Bayou Shrimp Processors, the DI reports, but are in actuality being held as evidence of the reboxing of imported shrimp as part of an ongoing investigation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Deputy Special Agent in Charge for NOAA Fisheries Office of Enforcement’s Southeast Division, Tracy Dunn confirms that the agency is investigating the issue. The DI also reports that “protesters from across the state said they have heard from family or friends who work in processing facilities that imported shrimp are mixed with domestic shrimp, then labeled as domestic.”

In Houma, “a prominent Grand Isle shrimp producer has resigned both his position and membership with the Louisiana Shrimp Association over the investigation the group requested into allegations of price-fixing by shrimp processors,” reports the Courier. Dean Blanchard, the owner of Dean Blanchard Seafood in Grand Isle, resigned over what he called “unproven speculation” after the LSA called for investigations into several domestic corporations  they accused of price fixing. Blanchard told the Houma paper:
We’ve got to get together and realize that we are not the enemy down here. The enemy’s in other places. I’ve never seen a year with a lot of shrimp where people didn’t make no money. This is very unusual. People are freaking out, and they want to blame somebody. The trawler always thinks the dock’s screwing them, and the dock always thinks the factory’s screwing them. We don’t need to break the industry up anymore than what it is. We need to go up with one voice.
Yesterday, more than 300 shrimpers gathered for the second time in a week, on the steps of the Capitol in Baton Rouge, to protest the low prices, and to call for testing all foreign shrimp for chemicals, bacteria and harmful antibiotics. Chemicals and growing conditions at aquafarms banned in the U.S. are common practises in other countries. Ninety percent of the shrimp in the U.S. is imported, and according to Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, only about 2 percent of foreign shrimp is tested for safety, reports The Advocate.

Now that the shrimpers are making a lot of noise, they are finally getting some attention from electied officials. Shrimpers are meeting with Gov. Bobby Jindal today, to ask the governor to close all state plants that process foreign shrimp until the imports can be tested. U.S. Sen. David Vitter, occupied by town hall meetings on health care, sent a staffer to read a letter to the crowd, saying he was working on the shrimpers' issues. Congressman Charlie Melancon has called for congressional hearings. State legislators are looking into requiring seafood markets and restaurants to label the source of shrimp on menus, as well as developing a state branding for Louisiana seafood.

Shrimpers statewide hope they can finally get some real help, rather than lip service,  before one of the state’s most colorful industries is driven out of business by low prices.  Kim Chauvin, who runs the Mariah Jade Shrimp Co. in Chauvin with her husband, told the Courier that getting U.S. Sens. Vitter and Mary Landrieu and Melancon is the key to putting some regulations in place to protect domestic shrimpers. “For some reason, we just can’t get a handle on our elected officials and make this work.”