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Demand for cheap shrimp is driving U.S. shrimpers out of business


The next time you order shrimp, think about these two seemingly contradictory facts - this crustacean is by far America's favorite seafood, but the rugged livelihood of catching shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico is a dying industry. Shrimpers today are facing a perfect storm, as John Burnett reports from Port Isabel, Texas.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The skiff glides through the harbor as the Catholic priest squirts holy water from a plastic drinking bottle onto the colorful hulls of the shrimp boats.

JESSE GARCIA: Bless this fleet, their equipment, their crews, their captains and all who use it. Protect them from the dangers of wind and rain and all the perils of the deep. Amen. The name of the Father, the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


GARCIA: Amen. And with this again...

BURNETT: Every July, when the Texas summer shrimp season opens, Father Jesse Garcia motors around the Port Isabel Shrimp Basin blessing the big trawlers that are about to go out to catch America's favorite crustacean. A pair of church ladies provides the proper ambiance.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Spanish).

BURNETT: Gulf shrimpers need all the divine help they can get. For the first time in memory, half of the boats getting benedictions on this hot night will stay tied up. Ida Rivera, longtime bookkeeper for a local shrimping company, says this is the worst year she's ever seen.

IDA RIVERA: The shrimp prices are very low. We're lacking crew, and the imported shrimp is really affecting us.

BURNETT: Rivera remembers 40 years ago when Port Isabel in the Port of Brownsville had some 500 boats. Today, the shrimping fleet here in the tip of Texas is down to fewer than 100 boats.

RIVERA: We were the shrimp capital of the world at one point. It's sad, what it's come down to. It really is.

BURNETT: But that's global seafood economics. In the 1980s, domestic shrimp accounted for half of U.S. consumption. Today, more than 90% of all shrimp consumed in America is imported, much of it farmed from countries such as India, Indonesia and Ecuador. Raising shrimp in a pond is considerably cheaper than outfitting a shrimp boat. The biggest shrimping outfit in Port Isabel is Cuevas Trawlers with 11 boats, but this year, only six of them will be out fishing, says chief of operations E.J. Cuevas.

EJ CUEVAS: Every year there's - it gets less and less and less and less. All the older generations that are just burnt out - it's like, man, we're working our asses off. We're investing all our money. This is our livelihood for nothing.

BURNETT: I caught up with Cuevas at his uncle's seafood restaurant. They serve shrimp caught by the family's boats. Cuevas says he'll be lucky if they break even this year. They barely made crews in time for the season opening. Guest worker visas came through at the last minute. Their deckhands are from Mexico and Central America. Cuevas says Americans don't want to go out on shrimp boats anymore. The work is grueling and dangerous, with 18-hour days and weeks away from land. E.J. Cuevas says shrimpers are facing an existential threat.

CUEVAS: It's like, what else am I going to do? All I know how to do is shrimp. They want to take that away from me. But it's happening.

BURNETT: For Port Isabel shrimpers, the sad fact is that most diners don't know and don't seem to care if they're ordering wild caught or farmed shrimp. Greg Londrie, vice president of Zimco Marine in the Brownsville Shrimp Basin, says shrimp used to be a luxury food.

GREG LONDRIE: And then when farm raising shrimp came along, you had certain companies, hey, let's turn shrimp into the next chicken. And here all of a sudden, everybody and all these countries are raising shrimp.

BURNETT: But remember, Americans love shrimp. Per capita, we eat more than 5 pounds of it every year.

LONDRIE: So we became a dumping ground per se for imported, farm raised shrimp.

BURNETT: The fact is, if we want to keep putting shrimp on everything from power bowls to pad Thai, we need aquaculture, says Steven Hedlund. He's with the Global Seafood Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes responsible seafood practices.

STEVEN HEDLUND: The U.S. Gulf of Mexico can't produce enough shrimp to satisfy demand domestically, and it's been like that for years.

BURNETT: Over the years, watchdogs have raised concerns about the safety of imported shrimp. Every month, the FDA rejects foreign shipments contaminated with residues of unsafe drugs that some shrimp farms use to ward off disease. The FDA announced in March it was aggressively expanding foreign seafood inspections. But for Gulf shrimpers to survive, they need consumers to care more about taste. Texas brown shrimp, with their robust, briny flavor and firm shells, are considered by some to be the best.

LOUIE ORNELAS: (Inaudible).


BURNETT: At Cocteleria Levanta Muertos in Brownsville, owner Louie Ornelas only serves Gulf shrimp.

ORNELAS: The farm raised shrimp is real white, pale. The texture, it's like real rubbery. So it's a big, big difference.

BURNETT: If you order his shrimp ceviche, expect to pay a little more. Ornelas says he pays his supplier $5.25 for a pound of Gulf shrimp.

ORNELAS: And I was to get imported shrimp, I could probably do a dollar, $1.50 less. So we have to educate our clients on letting them know, yeah, like, you might pay a little bit more for the Texas wild caught shrimp, but it's worth it because of the taste.

BURNETT: Charles Burnell wishes there were more restaurants like that. He's worked on and around shrimp boats for nearly 70 of his 89 years. He gets around in an electric wheelchair with a bumper sticker that says friends don't let friends eat imported shrimp. I asked him how he likes his shrimp.

CHARLES BURNELL: Well, I'll tell you what my father told me. He says, you got to be a damn sorry cook to ruin a shrimp. Anything you did, to him, is good. I like plain old fried shrimp, you know, a little salt and pepper and flour. Just put them in a batter and fry them.

BURNETT: Back in Port Isabel's heyday, Burnell had 14 boats. Today he just has one.

BURNELL: The Blood and Guts - she's pretty well-known. Nobody forgets that name.

BURNETT: The Blood and Guts is not going out this season. With the industry in such a sorry state, he can't afford to fix her mechanical problems. Burnell and other shrimpers don't see anything to halt the gloomy trends. Farmed shrimp, now a commodity like chicken, is plentiful and economical. Wild caught shrimp has become a pricey specialty niche food. But Burnell says it won't disappear.

BURNELL: There'll always be a mom-and-pop operation, you know, like husband and wife got a little boat, you know, come in and have the shrimp on deck. And they sell them to customers right off the boat, you know? Well, they don't have any overhead. They can make it. But you take a boat like this here, we can't do that.

BURNETT: Charles Burnell has some advice for consumers who love that salty taste of wild Gulf shrimp - ask for it. Or the Blood and Guts may never sail again. For NPR News, I'm John Burnett in Port Isabel, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Burnett