A dozen fresh red roses cradled in baby's breath sit on the console of the shrimper "Queen Mary" as she prepares to cast off from the Morgan City Dock. The flowers are an offering to the saints--Our Lady, Star of the Sea, St. Martin de Porres, St. John the Baptist, and St. Peter. Longvan Tran and his wife, Thom, pray the saints will protect them as they ply the open seas for shrimp.
The Vietnamese couple, who have been in the U.S. for 33 years, have a request for the next President of the United States.
"We need the number and price of shrimp to go up and the price of diesel to go down."
For whom will they vote?
"We don't know who will help us" comes the joint reply.
Their seemingly simple request leads to a complicated equation that bears some scrutiny. The Trans have raised the issue of supply and demand, import quotas, the price of fuel, transportation costs, the environment, and food safety. Theirs is not a simple and straightforward plea, but to be sure, extreme social, economic, and environmental problems are the legacy of a lack of a coordinated national policy for this region.
A global search of Obama's "Blueprint for Change" for the words "fishing", "commercial fishing," and "imports" comes up empty.
Doing the same for McCain produces one mention of commercial fishing.
"As President, John McCain will approach America's agriculture policy with the goal of ensuring our farm, ranch, timber and commercial fishing industries are competitive in the global marketplace."
No specifics from either candidate, and these issues are critical to not only Louisiana, but also an industry that impacts all of America's coastal communities and the security of our marine food supply.
Longvan Tran picked up the tiny carved wooden figurine of St. Peter and asked me to hold it. "Do you know who this is? If you get to heaven, he will open the gates for you," Tran laughs. It is significant that Tran says, "if."
For these Louisiana Vietnamese fishermen, there are no guarantees of reward in this life or the next. Hard work and hope are the anchors of their existence, but all Gulf shrimp fisherman know more than anyone that you cannot live on hope alone. Tran and his wife, Thom, have known the impact of war in Viet Nam. They have been in the states for 33 years pursuing the American dream. Ironically, they are working the docks of Morgan City, home to the same company that built the legendary Swift Boats used in Vietnam. The back bayous and shallow estuaries provided the perfect location for research and development of the machines that are now being manufactured for the Egyptian government. These vanishing estuarial testing grounds are also Mother Nature's nurseries for shrimp.
The Trans have salt water in their blood and hope in their hearts that the shrimp will be found today and that the saints will protect them and their little vessel as they buck the winds and tides. A Canadian cold front has just swept through southern Louisiana and fighting tides and winds (15-25 knots) will devour the diesel fuel in their tanks as they make their way to the fishing grounds with no guarantees. Their understanding of nature is primeval. We are within three days of the new moon. The tides will have wide fluctuations, and that combined with the flow of warm water out of the estuaries where the shrimp grow will hold the promise of a good catch.
The first thing one notices about a well maintained shrimper is the beauty of the nets strung across the sky in a lacy canopy that suggests the promise of a harvest to come. The nets are everything, but will produce nothing if the shrimp are not there, or if the prices are so low that it hardly makes it worthwhile to spend two weeks on the open sea. You end up burning up to 3,000 gallons of diesel, only to get $.80 per pound for your efforts after back-to-back hurricanes force quick sales of the catch. Functioning processing plants and ice are required to keep the catch from spoiling. $.80 per pound was the reality after Ike.
Checking the retail price of frozen wild caught shrimp in Minnesota reveals it is over $14 per pound. So why the disconnect?
David Bourgeois the area agent for Louisiana State University's (LSU) Sea Grant Extension Program. His beat is Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes, which took the brunt of hurricanes Gustav and Ike this year.
He understood immediately where I was going with my question about the Tran family and how they could possibly make up a $15,000 investment in fuel and other expenses from one shrimp run.
"21-25's (25 shrimp per pound) are now going for about $3.25 off vessel and 40-51's are going for about $2.75 per pound. Fifty 100 pound boxes is a really good catch for one trip," he said as I was doing the math over the phone.
We both came to the same conclusion. If the Trans had a very good catch they would barely break even, while the same shrimp would be selling for over $14 per pound in northern retail markets. The cost of transporting that shrimp north in terms of gas, trucking fees, licensing and various middlemen makes it a no brainer to sell the shrimp at the deflated price straight from the vessel in Cocodrie, Grand Isle, or Morgan City.
Part of the problem is that there is little infrastructure left to support the fishing industry. Katrina forced the closure of many of the processing and ice plants. It is imperative that fishermen move their catch as quickly as possible. When there was no ice after Ike and Gustav, off-vessel prices plummeted, IF you could sell the shrimp. Many catches were left to rot on wrecked vessels that could not unload or were washed up onto Louisiana highways.
Bourgeois told OfftheBus that the $41 million promised post Katrina for the South Louisiana fishing industry took over three years to make its way through the South Louisiana Economic Development Council. $19 million in checks have finally gone out to the 10,000 to 15,000 commercial fishermen who qualify. ($1300 per fisherman). The remainder of the $41 million has yet to reach the infrastructure of dock owners and warehouses.
"We need the number and price of shrimp to go up and the price of diesel to go down."
I told Bourgeois what the Tran family hoped from their elected officials.
I also related what they told me about dirty water that drove the shrimp away and about the huge volume of trash and debris, which still litters Louisiana waters.
Bourgeois repeated what you will hear a hundred times or more in these devastated parishes. The estuaries have been all but destroyed by the oil industry. Katrina wrecked what little was left of the wetlands and Ike and Gustav just about finished them off.
Huge chunks of floating broken marsh, "marsh balls," have broken off with mud attached-- fouling nets and equipment. After the recent hurricanes, Bourgeois say that the state of Mississippi hired its fishing fleet to go out and remove debris from the waterways. The same did not happen in Louisiana and the result is that "there is so much junk in the water it is damaging boats and props and equipment."
The Trans are from Thibodaux, one of the towns along with many in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes that saw residents lose homes, boats and other property in the last three years of hurricanes. Even though Terrebonne Parish receives $150-175 million in additional taxes from the fishing industry, that money "does not buy what it use to," Bourgeois says. It is a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of doing business and maintaining a crumbling infrastructure of roads and local levees that are broken and require immediate repair.
Sister Helen Vinton (Southern Mutual Help Association), who has worked in south Louisiana since 1980, says of the fisherfamilies, " I don't know of any group of people who have been so beat up and just want to get back to work--it is a culture with no rival."
Michelle Obama told Chicago media last week that her husband loves to eat shrimp.
Perhaps the beleaguered Louisiana Gulf shrimping industry can gain Obama's attention by explaining what is in the foreign shrimp that is found in Chicago supermarkets. Of course, the article did not indicate whether his family consumes foreign farm-raised shrimp or fresh caught American. One could guess that faced with a choice on the supermarket shelf of shrimp that looks exactly alike, but has a $4 price difference, that the choice would seem obvious.
Bourgeois says that a five-pound box of 21-25's of imported shrimp goes for 4.25 a pound, peeled and deveined. The same fresh caught shrimp would be double the cost in a local market here in Louisiana. Labor and fuel costs figure heavily into the equation once it goes north.
In July of 2004, the Bush administration ruled that China and Viet Nam were dumping shrimp at prices well below market price. The New York Times, "China, Farming Fish in Toxic Waters" (December 2007) reported Chinese water supplies are "contaminated by sewage, industrial waste and agricultural runoff that includes pesticides."
"Farmers have coped with the toxic waters by mixing illegal veterinary drugs and pesticides into fish feed, which helps keep their stocks alive yet leaves poisonous and carcinogenic residues in seafood, posing health threats to consumers.
Environmental degradation, in other words, has become a food safety problem, and scientists say the long-term risks of consuming contaminated seafood could lead to higher rates of cancer and liver disease and other afflictions.
No one is more vulnerable to these health risks than the Chinese, because most of the seafood in China stays at home. But foreign importers are also worried. In recent years, the European Union and Japan have imposed temporary bans on Chinese seafood because of illegal drug residues. The United States blocked imports of several types of fish this year after inspectors detected traces of illegal drugs linked to cancer."
Africa is not happy about China and Asian commercial fish farms either, and is especially worried about the use of antibiotics and chemicals in farm-raised shrimp by Sulalanka, a Srilankan company, Shell Oil, and USAID. Pressure by Non-governmental Organizations and community-based organizations in Nigeria stopped Shell and USAID.
In a stunning disconnect of economic, environmental and food safety policy, USAID is now working in Bangladesh to increase fish farm outputs by 100 percent while south Louisiana shrimpers are barely hanging on.
"The USAID-funded Price project and the WorldFish Center announced an immediate initiative to raise shrimp farm yields for the benefit of the entire shrimp sector. Under a subcontract with Price, the WorldFish Center would implement the GHERS (Greater Harvest and Economic Returns from Shrimp) initiative with partner depot owners to provide embedded extension services to 2,000 bagda and golda farmers for the 2009 farming season."
Lafayette's Independent Weekly, "Shrimp Dealers Still Struggling," (October 3, 2008) reports:
"A recent study by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is interviewed with 52 Louisiana shrimp dealers. Among its key findings was "a steady decrease in the price of dockside shrimp since 2000 - a pattern commercial fishermen have been reporting anecdotally for more than a decade."
It is no wonder, considering the support USAID and Shell Oil is giving to foreign fish farms.
Another document prepared by Public Citizen is an eye-opener and supports warnings from consumer groups that foreign raised shrimp contain a cocktail of antibiotics and other chemicals.
Even though many of these substances are banned in the US, dockside spot checks cannot begin to ensure that our food supply is safe.
"The consumer health risks associated with eating imported farmed shrimp have been given very little attention in the U.S. While shrimp tops the list of popular seafood choices, consumers are usually unaware of the health impacts. By the time shrimp arrive in grocery stores or are served in a restaurant, it has been injected with antibiotics, doused in pesticides, and fed chemical-laden food."
Consumer groups have cried loudly about tainted dog and cat food from China, but seafood is still flying well below the radar.
"The FDA can only manage to sample just over one percent of all seafood coming to the U.S. from overseas." (GAO. "Food Safety: FDA's Imported Seafood Safety Program Shows Some Progress, but Further Improvements Are Needed." GAO 04-246. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. General Accounting Office), January 2004. p. 4.)
The problems are painfully evident, the studies exist, and white papers abound. Once again, the onus is on South Louisiana, which supports so much of the United States on the back of its labor force, sustaining the nation with its wealth of energy, food, and refineries.
It is 24 hours since the Tran family left port. The wind is still bowing hard and cold in South Louisiana as dry Canadian air settles over the region. Somewhere, fifteen miles or more out in the Gulf, the Tran family is working the nets of the Queen Mary. Thom is tending to the fresh flowers for the saints, hoping the blooms will not wither before their two weeks at sea is over. Gourmet restaurants in northern cities are serving shrimp that may or may not be from these waters. As they cast off from the dock they asked me to pray for a good catch. They figured I was Catholic because of my knowledge of the saints. Being a religious agnostic, and sometimes a political one, I thought perhaps this post would be a more helpful effort.