Here's the Catch
Steeped in history and tradition, commercial fishing is a long-standing pillar of south Louisiana’s economy which is currently under siege as global trade continues to affect the bottom line of local fishermen
Down here, fishing the fertile inland waters and the bountiful Gulf of Mexico for sustenance and a salary has been a way of life for as long as anyone can remember It’s not just what the fishermen do. It’s who they are.
“Yeah, this is my job, but it’s more than that,” says Acy Cooper, Jr., a longtime commercial shrimper and board member at Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing — a state-run advocacy group for the industry. “My family’s life has been spent on the water. A lot of families have grown up on the water.”
That sense of generational pride — a routine wrapped in romanticism — is the backbone of the economic powerhouse that is commercial fishing in Louisiana.
As the nation’s second-leading seafood supplier, Louisiana accounts for 70 percent of the oysters caught in the United States, harvests 313,000 alligators annually, 110 million pounds of crawfish per year and boasts a shrimp industry that employs 15,000 people and generates a $1.3 billion annual economic impact. As a whole, Louisiana Seafood is responsible for a $2.4 billion yearly economic impact.
One out of every 70 jobs in Louisiana is tied to the seafood industry.
“There was a time where kids would drop out of school early — I’m talking 8th grade — because of the opportunity to make money on the water, fishing and shrimping,” Cooper says. “I tried to get my boys to go to college, but they got into the family business with me.
“But it’s not like that anymore. That’s becoming rarer and rarer with the ways things are today. Why would you want to do this?”
Though fully-ingrained into the south Louisiana culture, independent commercial fishermen have seen their profit margins dip dramatically in the past decade, as operation costs continue to rise while an influx of foreign imports — particularly from Asia — have driven down the price per pound to break-even-at-best levels.
“For generations, Louisianans have developed a culture and economy surrounding our seafood industry,” Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser, said at a press conference in July 2018. “We are especially proud of our shrimp harvested directly from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico; however, the entire seafood industry has been in severe decline over the last decade due to unfairly imported seafood.”
Recognizing the issues plaguing the seafood industry — particularly in the shrimping sector — Nungesser implored Louisiana’s Congressional delegation to introduce a 10-cent-per-pound inspection fee on all shrimp imports. The legislation would first insure the safety of foreign-raised seafood, which often is injected with antibiotics and other chemicals to produce a larger haul.
Second, the inspection fee would make Louisiana-based seafood more competitively priced.
While holding foreign seafood to the same health standards as domestic seafood, will aid the cause of those who make their living on the south Louisiana waters, it won’t solve the issues dogging local fishermen completely.
One potential solution would be for the federal government to subsidize certain fishermen or certain types of seafood catches the same way it subsidizes American farmers who grow certain crops when that crop commodity falls in price. For instance, sugar cane and sugar beet farmers receive more than $1 billion annually in government subsidies.
Cooper strongly endorses placing a firm cap on foreign imports allowed to enter the American marketplace annually — a suggestion that seems somewhat radical to free marketers except that these restrictive policies are already in place for many agricultural goods. Doing so would prevent foreign sources from flooding the market with product, thus artificially driving down the price per pound to the point where it financially cripples domestic operators.
“Once this gets in your blood, you can’t get it out of you,” Cooper Jr. says. “I wouldn’t know what else to do, honestly. I know a lot of us on the water are the same way. But we’re older, and it’s just getting harder and harder at these prices. You start to worry about things like expenses, and how am I going to pay my bills?
“For as hard as we work, those are things a shrimper should never have to worry about.”
THE IMPACT OF A SPECIES
The shrimp industry accounts for 15,000 jobs and an annual impact of $1.3 billion for Louisiana.
Louisiana has more than 1,000 crawfish farmers, plus more than 800 commercial fishermen who catch wild crawfish. The 110 million pounds of crawfish harvested each year have an annual economic impact of $120 million.
Crabs from Louisiana generate an annual economic impact of $293 million and more than 3,000 jobs.
Seventy percent of the oysters caught in the U.S. are from the Gulf Coast. Louisiana’s commercial oyster industry, which accounts for almost 4,000 jobs, has an economic impact of $317 million annually.
313,000 wild and farmed alligators are harvested per year in Louisiana. Alligator harvests have a total annual economic impact of $104 million.
A myriad of factors, both foreign and domestic, have severely cut into the profit margins for those who make their living on the water's bounty.