Sea Change: U.S. Shrimpers Go Green to Compete (June 27, 2008, Wall Street Journal)

‘Free-Range Catch’ Is New Selling Point In Troubled Industry
published in Wall Street Journal at

June 27, 2008; Page A4
TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. — Meet the free-range shrimp.

As summer shrimping gets under way in the warm, coastal waters off the southeastern U.S., fishermen still are struggling to find a viable business model for survival. Nothing has stopped a price-depressing flood of foreign shrimp — much of which is farm-raised and harvested without the backbreaking tasks of plying the ocean. And many environmentalists still view shrimpers as outdoor perpetrators who harm the ocean, turtles and cherished wildlife.

So shrimp fishermen are borrowing a page from organic farmers, some of whom let their chickens wander freely before being slaughtered and then sold at higher prices than their cooped-up cousins. Shrimpers are pushing their catch as an organically raised (and presumably happier-in-life) food with a fraction of the carbon tail-print of the millions of shrimp shipped in freighters that must cross the Pacific Ocean or travel from South America to the U.S.

By 9:45 a.m. on June 10, opening day of Georgia’s shrimp season, Hank Groover and his three-member crew, working a mile offshore, had caught 200 pounds of their prey. “It’s a mediocre day so far,” Mr. Groover, 53, said as he lowered two 45-foot nets back into the sea.

For years, shrimpers have filed trade complaints with the U.S. government over the “dumping” of foreign shrimp on the U.S. market and pushed restaurants to put wild seafood on their menus instead of shrimp that was farm-raised and then frozen in Thailand or Ecuador. More recently, they have tried to reposition themselves as better caretakers of other wildlife than their international counterparts. Now, they are embracing their catch as a low-carbon-usage, free-range alternative.

“We just have the emissions from trucks,” said Pat Mathews, owner of Lazaretta Packing Inc., who works with Mr. Groover and whose family has been in the business since 1885. “We don’t have to go across the world.”

Critics of the industry say the new message doesn’t change hard reality. There is no ecologically sound way to catch shrimp with trawling nets — which can destroy the habitat of crustaceans as they are dragged across the ocean floor, many environmentalists say. And emissions from the fuel consumed by the boats still pollute.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, shrimpers came under fire for the number of turtles and fish caught and killed in their nets. Now they are required to use devices that block turtles from the nets and allow other creatures to slip through. But the changes also make the nets less efficient at catching shrimp.

“I don’t think there’s much of a future for shrimp fishing,” said Todd Steiner, director and founder of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. “It’s a dying industry.”

Shrimp fishermen insist they are minimizing the environmental impact. Near Charleston, S.C., Wayne Magwood, 56, pumps biodiesel into his boat instead of regular petroleum. He said the fuel from a local supplier, Southeast BioDiesel, is 50 cents cheaper a gallon, saving him about $500 each week. “It cleans the motor and the fuel tanks,” Mr. Magwood said of the alternative fuel made from processed poultry fat. “The engine runs quieter and it’s good for the environment.”

In Chauvin, La., Kim Chauvin uses plastic nets with special, expensive equipment in an effort to do less damage on the ocean floor. She also has started her own online shrimp business, shipping directly to caterers and consumers across the nation. “My shrimp hasn’t been through 10 hands,” Ms. Chauvin said. “It goes straight from the dock to the people.”

Many shrimpers in the U.S. now work with Wild American Shrimp Inc., a trade group that touts local crustaceans as protein-packed, never-been-penned food that is good for local economies and the environment. The group also runs a program to certify shrimp as having been caught in a natural habitat in U.S. waters. It buys billboards in South Carolina that read, “The catch is in. Insist on local shrimp.”

No matter how well the image of U.S. shrimp is reshaped, overseas production will continue to outpace American shrimpers. According to the National Fisheries Institute, 90% of shrimp, the most popular seafood in the U.S., is imported. From 2000 to 2007, the cost of the largest shrimp sold in the U.S. fell to an average of $5.93 a pound from $9.06, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In Georgia, last year’s catch also was hurt by drought and black-gill disease, which affects the respiratory system of shrimp, lowering the white-shrimp population by 30%, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. That, along with an aging and dwindling fishing fleet, caused the number of shrimp caught by commercial fishermen to plummet 50% below the 10-year average. Rising fuel costs — Mr. Groover spent $400 to fill up his 50-foot boat for opening day — and developers hungry to purchase docks to build waterfront communities have threatened much of the domestic business.

Long gone are the days when Mr. Groover, who has been in the business 35 years, says he sometimes raked in $70,000 per season.

His boat, the fiberglass-hulled Captain Jamie, and 135 other boats were out on the water an hour before dawn on opening day. Their nets dragged in the surf and they chatted on cell phones, trying to find sweet spots loaded with shrimp — new methods for an ancient trade.

By 2:30 p.m., Mr. Groover had decided to head back to Mr. Mathews’s dock, home to a bevy of stray cats and an eat-in-the-rough seafood shack. In total, he and his crew caught 400 pounds in about nine hours.

“Oh, we did all right,” he said as he chatted on the phone. “But if the shrimping was good we’d get that much in one drag.”