0

Georgia's shrimping season a disaster

The Brunswick News

BRUNSWICK (MCT) — City Market seafood store owner Frank Owens stood next to a stack of boxes of Georgia-caught shrimp in the walk-in freezer at his dock Friday and wished the stack was higher at the 1508 Glouscter St. business.

“I have some frozen, but not as much as I usually do,” Owens said.

His shortage of Georgia fresh shrimp is the result of what shrimpers are calling one of the worst fall seasons in recent memory.

The paucity of the plump, food-size shrimp customers want prompted the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to close the shrimp season in state-managed waters at 6 p.m. New Year’s Eve. That prompted the Georgia Shrimp Association, a trade group, to petition DNR to ask the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to declare a fishery disaster in its South Atlantic Ocean area. If that happens, shrimp fishermen may be eligible for financial assistance or lower loan rates.

Jim Page, a marine biologist with the DNR Coastal Resources Division, says sample trawls along the coast show shrimp catches had been well below average throughout the fall season.

“Food shrimp is the most valuable component of Georgia’s seafood industry. Thus far, during the 2013 season, slightly over 1 million pounds has been reported, with a value of around $5 million,” Page said.

That is a low harvest compared to other years, when shrimp caught between September and December usually accounted for more than half of the total annual yield. Page has said previously that black gill disease, which does not affect humans, and an influx of fresh water in the estuary after a rainy summer likely contributed to low shrimp populations.

For retailers like Owens and the shrimpers who sell him shrimp, the weak supply meant they missed out on what could have been one of the most successful years ever.

Owens said the limited stock came at a time when local shrimp prices were the best they have ever been, in the face of a dwindling international supply of cheaper farm-raised shrimp. He said shrimp fishermen have been able to clear about $7 to $8 a pound for the best large shrimp, or about $700 to $800 a box.

John Wallace, marketing director for the Georgia Shrimp Association, says it was a sad year for a business that once represented an iconic lifestyle along the Georgia coast.

But as fuel costs have risen, overseas farm-raised shrimp have flooded the American market and regulations have made shrimping more difficult, Wallace says, and fewer people are getting into the business.

This year could have been a boon for many of the shrimpers who Wallace says have had a rough go of it lately.

“We were primed to make some money,” said Wallace, who still is an active shrimp boat captain in Darien. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and I’ve never seen a fall this bad. And the saddest thing is, we had record prices.”

The shrimp association several years ago began marketing Wild Georgia Shrimp as the tastiest and best shrimp around, a move which has helped boost prices and create a more stable niche market.

But because there is so much cheap internationally farmed shrimp available, Wallace does not foresee Georgia’s shrimp industry ever returning to the days when there were more than 1,000 licensed shrimpers along the coast.

Today, biologist Page says there are about 300 licensed shrimp fishermen in Georgia, but Wallace believes there are fewer than 100 who live here and run boats full-time.

Page has noticed the decline in shrimp fisherman has tracked the increase in value of waterfront property the past 15 years, leading to more residential development and less dock space. Combine that with the competition from farm-raised shrimp and fuel costs, and Page says the business is not what it used to be 20 or 30 years ago.

“We’re about a quarter to one-fifth the number of licensed commercial trawlers we had in the ’80s,” Page said.

With that decline comes a generational shift in the attitudes of young people about continuing their families’ shrimp fishing traditions.

“So you see fewer and fewer guys passing on the tradition,” Page said. “It’s a sad thing to see what’s been a vital part of our coastal culture start to diminish.”

But if you ask Owens, shrimp fishing will not go away completely and the shrimp harvest will improve.

“Its like farming. You have your good years and your bad years,” Owens said.