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Texas shrimpers look to feds for help as imports threaten the Gulf shrimp industry

Shrimp boats in Port Isabel.
Gaige Davila
/
TPR
Shrimp boats in Port Isabel.

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Once known as the “shrimping capital of the world,” Port Isabel’s shrimp basin has been relatively quiet this season. Only 20 of the basin’s 41 boats went out for the opener in July, with even fewer going back to the Gulf of Mexico for another trip.

In the first five months of this year, Texas shrimpers harvested 6.8 million pounds of shrimp, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But across the Gulf industry, boats made less than $3 a pound for their shrimp in May, the lowest prices ever reported for that month since 2002.

In comparison, 800 million pounds of shrimp were imported into the U.S., mostly from India and Ecuador, just in the first half of this year, usually selling for under a dollar a pound. This forced domestic shrimpers to decrease their prices to compete.

The shrimpers TPR spoke to — both on background and on the record — all pointed to imported shrimp as the major cause of the industry’s struggles this year, with fuel and labor following behind. Operating costs can’t be covered with shrimp prices so low — that’s if shrimpers can sell them at all. Most wholesalers have already bought imported shrimp and don’t need more.

Now a multi-state effort is underway to secure help from the federal government before it's too late.

Shrimpers at Bodden and Caddell, Inc, in Port Isabel unload shrimp from the boat's freezer.
Gaige Davila
/
TPR
Shrimpers at Bodden and Caddell, Inc, in Port Isabel unload shrimp from the boat's freezer.

Along South Shore Drive, near Garriga Elementary, is where to find most of the shrimping businesses in Port Isabel. The basin rests along the city’s oldest neighborhood, providing the city’s oldest continuous industry outside of tourism.

A few Port Isabel shrimpers are trying to keep the industry going. E.J. Cuevas, a third generation shrimper who runs Cuevas Trawlers, attended a shrimper’s meeting in Palacios, Texas, in early September. Matagorda County County Attorney Jennifer Chau hosted the meeting, which brought shrimpers across the region together to take stock on the industry’s biggest issues. When the 60 or so attendees were asked if they planned to tie up their boats for the season, most of them raised their hands.

“I think, overall, we all have a general consensus that we're all in dire need of help, and we want to do what we have to do to prolong this and keep our family traditions and keep the industry alive,” Cuevas told TPR from the office of Twin City Shrimping Company, also based in Port Isabel.

Cuevas Trawlers has the biggest fleet in the city, it's sent out its boats with the hope to make some money for its crews. Kalei Boudreaux, who runs Twin City Shrimping Company, sent all four of her boats out for a second trip of the season.

“Last year, we didn't catch hardly anything. This year there's shrimp out there, but the prices aren't good because of the imports,” said Boudreaux, whose grandfather was among the Louisiana shrimpers who came to Port Isabel in the 1960’s. “You just got to keep the faith and hope that when they go out, it's going to be good. But we don't know until they come in if it's going to be worth the next time going out.”

Boudreax also attended the meeting in Palacios. “We're hearing you just got to go up the chain,” she said. “And that's what we're trying to do, because we do need help.”

E.J. Cuevas.
Gaige Davila
/
TPR
E.J. Cuevas.

That chain leads to the office of the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, which can declare a state of disaster for fisheries in the U.S. if enough governors request them. So far, according to the NOAA, only Louisiana’s governor, John Bel Edwards, said he would make a request.

Louisiana heavily advocated for the shrimping industry this year. In Alabama, at least one city has declared a disaster declaration for its shrimping industry. Matagorda County declared a state of disaster for its shrimping industry — the first to do so in the state. Port Isabel soon followed, along with Cameron and Chambers counties.

“We want the attention to be called to this because it is a problem that needs to be solved by the federal government,” Port Isabel City Manager Jared Hockema told TPR. He added that import issues have been present since the 1980’s. “And the federal government has the tools already at its disposal. It merely has to act.”

Some of those tools have been used before. This summer, the NOAA approved a disaster declaration for shrimping industries in Louisiana and Mississippi impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The government also can purchase excess domestic shrimp if there’s a market surplus, called the Section 32 program, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Laws Ensuring Safe Shrimp Act, or LESS, was introduced to Congress by Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves this year. The bill would direct import taxes to funding more imported shrimp testing and purchasing shrimp from U.S. shrimpers. McAllen Congressman Vicente Gonzalez co-sponsored the bill.

One of Cuevas Trawlers' shrimp boats.
Gaige Davila
/
TPR
One of Cuevas Trawlers' shrimp boats.

The Southern Shrimping Alliance (SSA) wrote letters to eight coastal state governors, including Gov. Greg Abbott, and asked them to request a fishery disaster declaration from the Commerce secretary. Abbott’s office did not respond to TPR's request for comment on the state of the Texas shrimping industry or on the disaster declaration request.

A spokesperson for the NOAA, which oversees U.S. fisheries, told TPR that market conditions aren’t a valid reason for a disaster declaration. “When a resource exists and is accessible, and the decision not to fish (i.e., not to access the resource) is based on economic factors (e.g., low market prices) rather than an inaccessibility of the resource, the allowable cause criteria for a fishery resource is not satisfied,” the NOAA statement read.

That cause criteria is under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which lists “natural causes; undetermined causes; discrete anthropogenic (man made) causes; or a combination of a natural cause and an anthropogenic cause” as reasons for a disaster declaration.

SSA President John Williams disagreed with the NOAA. “If you have your entire fleet tied to the dock because they can't go to work, that's a disaster,” he said.

The SSA recently released a report detailing how global financial institutions have helped create an overabundance of imported shrimp by funding shrimp farms in Asia and Latin America. This fact, Williams said, should qualify as a man-made cause under the NOAA guidelines for disaster declaration.

Zimco Marine's marina in the Brownsville Shrimp Basin. .
Gaige Davila
/
TPR
Zimco Marine's marina in the Brownsville Shrimp Basin. .

Zimco Marine has one of the largest shrimping businesses in the Port of Brownsville, where fourteen shrimp boats, all built by the company, operate out of.

Zimco Vice President Greg Londrie, who is the third generation in his family business, said his predecessors faced the same issues as today, but this year it’s different.

“So the price of shrimp, volume of shrimp, price of fuel, when one of those is off, you're still okay, when two of those are off and, like they are now, at such extreme polar distances,” Londire explained. “What we're paid for our product and our largest operating expense has gone in the opposite direction. And that difference is what has driven a lot of the boats to the dock to tie up.”

Londrie says these issues also lead to boats not getting regular maintenance, with operators forced to fix what they can to keep afloat until, if and when, more money comes along.

In Port Isabel, Cuevas and Boudreaux chatted in the Twin City Shrimp Company office about the support the shrimpers give one another. It’s often what keeps them going, Cuevas said, in an industry that often feels like a “circus.”

“I always think of it as like, we're living on a prayer. It's a giant prayer, you know,” Cuevas said. “This industry is too good, it's filled with too many good people, with hard working people, to not put up a fight and survive.”

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