Gulf States Talk about Reducing the Shrimp Fleet to Aid Struggling Shrimpers
NEW ORLEANS Despite winning tariffs on imports of farm-raised shrimp from six Asian and South American nations this year, Southern shrimpers are still struggling and are now considering whether to limit the number of boats trawling for shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico.
A cap would be a radical departure for one of the nation's oldest commercial fisheries.
This week, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council held public hearings to get fishermen's views in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. The agency hopes to have a plan approved by federal authorities and in place by the end of this year.
The council is looking at a 10-year moratorium on shrimp permits in federal waters in the Gulf, which extend 200 miles offshore. The licenses could be sold or transferred from one fisherman to another.
Some fishermen like the idea because it would squeeze out people who get into the fishery only when the fishing is good. That hurts fishermen who rely on shrimp as their primary harvest, said Pete Gerica, president of the Lake Pontchartrain Fishermen's Association in New Orleans.
"The guys that are serious about going offshore, they know that something has to be done to stop this gold rush situation," Gerica said.
Environmentalists also favor restrictions because they could lead to less accidental captures of other species.
But some fishermen feel the moratorium would be unfair to those who have been driven out of business by hard times.
In the past five years, the dockside price for shrimp shrank by about half, driving many boats out of the business and prompting calls for an overhaul of the struggling fishery.
The number of vessels in the Gulf also has dwindled, according to the Gulf of Mexico council. There are about 2,500 boats today, down from 4,000 four years ago, the council said.
Southern shrimpers claim that imports were being dumped on the U.S. market at unfair prices and were driving them out of business.
Joel Waltzer, a lawyer who represents Vietnamese-American shrimpers, said many fishermen lost their boats and went bankrupt when prices dropped. By some estimates, Vietnamese make up about 80 percent of the offshore fleet in the Gulf.
"To arbitrarily deny these folks to re-enter the market punishes them when the real culprits are the countries dumping shrimp," Waltzer said.
Also, there are fears that a moratorium would consolidate the fishery in the hands of bigger fishing operations and end what has long been a family tradition in places like Louisiana.
Gerica dismissed those fears, saying licenses would become available as fishermen retire.
Fishermen also are debating who should be allowed to get a license.
The most restrictive option would allow only those who had licenses by Dec. 6, 2003, to continue in the fishery; a second possibility would include fishermen who bought licenses by May 18, 2004; and the least restrictive option would leave the fishery open to anyone who buys a license one year before a final rule passes.
The council is expected to take up the moratorium proposal next month.
Source: Associated Press