A shell of its former self

Florida shrimpers watch as their once-proud way of life takes a beating from the rising costs of fuel and insurance, and an influx of imported shrimp. "It's a crying shame," one says.

Published June 26, 2006

TAMPA - Robert Long stood on the deck of the shrimp boat Fortuna one recent morning, a Busch beer in one hand and a scowl on his unshaven face as the boat's crew prepared to go out into the Gulf of Mexico.

Shrimp nets hung limply off the Fortuna's rigging against a flat, rainy sky as the captain revved the boat's engine, pouring black smoke across the waters of the Port of Tampa.

To Long, one of the Fortuna's crewmen, the deep, throbbing pulse of that engine was once the sound of money. But now, the noise is as empty as the nets hanging above his head.

Shrimpers are riding hard times these days.

Battered by high fuel and insurance costs, and especially squeezed by an ever-rising tide of cheaper imported shrimp, shrimpers say Florida's commercial food shrimp industry is in a marked decline from its heyday 20 years ago, when shrimp boats crowded the Gulf of Mexico like a galaxy of freckles on a child's sun-splashed face.

"It's a crying shame," said Long, 52. "If I had an education, I'd get me a land job. There ain't no future in this. Not with everything we face. I hate being on land. There's no police out there on the water. There ain't nobody to bother you or to tell you what to do. That's freedom. But we're a dying breed."

It's a common refrain among Florida shrimpers.

All shrimp-producing states have been affected, from North Carolina to Texas, especially Louisiana and Mississippi, where Hurricane Katrina literally left some shrimp boats in trees miles from shore even nearly a year after the deluge.

Shrimpers are trying to fight back, through federally funded advertising efforts positioning fresh, domestic shrimp as a healthier, fresher alternative to cheap, frozen imports. Most of the foreign imports, industry leaders point out, are farm-raised. If they can win over shoppers and diners, who might be willing to pay a premium for fresher domestic shrimp, shrimping might just have a bright future.

One advertisement by Wild American Shrimp Inc., the group set up to promote U.S. shrimp, tells consumers: "You've been bamboozled. ... You're not eating our shrimp."

The effort has been paid for by up to $5-million in federal money for the past three to four years, according to the Southeastern Fisheries Association, an industry lobbyist.

"The only chance we have is to get consumers to go to the market or restaurant and ask for all-American shrimp," said Bob Jones, executive director of Southeastern Fisheries in Tallahassee. "Otherwise, it's only going to be the hardiest souls on the face of the earth who will survive, the toughest of the tough."

The numbers add up to an industry under siege.

Domestic food shrimp makes up just less than 10 percent of the U.S. shrimp market, with imports filling whatever's left on supermarket shelves or on restaurant menus.

A decade ago, the market was about evenly split between imports and domestic shrimp.

As imports have more than doubled in the past 15 years to 532,159 metric tons in 2005, the number of shrimping trips landed at Florida docks have dropped by more than half since 1994, from 21,773 to 10,162 last year, according to state and federal figures.

The same holds true for Hillsborough and Pinellas, with shrimp trips landed at the counties' docks dropping from 882 a decade ago to 446 last year, state figures show.

In some places, shrimping has virtually disappeared. Pasco County, for example, saw the number of shrimp trips landed at its docks fall from 724 a decade ago to 32 last year.

In the Tampa Bay area, only Hernando County has bucked the trend. The waters off Hernando Beach are renowned as prime shrimping grounds, and food shrimping has increased there from next to nothing a decade ago to 144,111 pounds last year.

Jones estimates no more than 1,800 American boats shrimp in the gulf today, compared to 5,000 or more 15 years ago - the industry's high-water mark.

Some worry that a once-proud industry will be beaten out of existence not so much by the fickle winds of nature, but by crushing imports and fuel costs.

"A lot of people are just throwing their hands up and saying, 'Okay, it's all yours, I give up,' " said John Williams, a Tarpon Springs shrimper with six boats who is executive director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance. "We're just barely hanging on. And we can't do it much longer. Nobody in this business can."

When times were flush, Williams said, a crew member on a typical shrimp boat might earn as much as $100 to $150 a day before taxes. Today, he said, some are lucky to earn half that much.

And on some trips, after the boat's owner pays expenses, no cash might be left for the crew, who usually get a cut of the profits.

Long, for example, said he recently returned from a 10-day trip that brought him not a penny after expenses.

"A man can't hardly make it now," said fellow crew member Danny "Red Dog" Rabon.

The Fortuna belongs to Sal Versaggi and his brothers, Fred, John and Joe. The Versaggi family has shrimped in Florida since 1912, a long history that is common among the shrimpers working the gulf's waters.

The family's six boats can leave Tampa's port for a month at a time, pulling back in with a hold full of shrimp ready for processors and supermarkets. Today, Sal Versaggi said, increased costs and slipping shrimp prices have led him to keep half his small fleet tied to the dock.

He estimates the family has been forced to lay off nine crew members in the last year.

"It's hard to compete with countries," Versaggi said, noting big importers like China and Vietnam have state-subsidized shrimp industries. "I'm beginning to have serious doubts about how we're going to survive. We could become the TV market of the U.S. We don't make any televisions in this country anymore. Where does it stop?"

Bill Walker, a Hernando Beach shrimper with six boats, said he recently spent $26,000 to replace a burned-out engine on one of his boats. Despite the cost, he hopes increased fuel efficiency with the newer engine will make up for the heavy expense.

With diesel hovering around $2.50 a gallon, he noted that each of his boats can burn through 50 gallons a night, costing him $750 daily. Diesel prices are about 25 cents lower in Tampa.

As to insurance, he simply laughed. Most owners, he said, don't carry it anymore because it's too expensive.

"The insurance is so high on these boats, if one of them sunk, you could bring it up cheaper than pay the insurance," Walker said. "I don't know anybody who's got insurance anymore. So you're just flying by the seat of your pants."

Shrimpers complain that farm-raised imports often use antibiotics to extend the life of their product, a method banned by the United States on any domestic seafood or shrimp brought into the country. And the federal government, limited in manpower and funding, can't inspect more than 2 percent of shrimp imports.

"They can pay their workers $1 a day," Versaggi said of imports. "They don't have the environmental laws we have. They can use antibiotics, which is really taboo here. How do we compete against that?"

If fuel or insurance costs would drop, the pressure from imports might be indirectly relieved. But costs have shown no sign of slacking.

American shrimpers received a helping hand in 2004 from the International Trade Commission, which ruled that six countries had illegally dumped shrimp into the United States. Duties have been imposed on the imports from Brazil, China, Ecuador, India, Thailand and Vietnam. The U.S. Department of Commerce had determined the six nations had dumped shrimp at below market prices.

But even with tariffs approaching 112 percent on some of these countries' imports, shrimpers say the playing field is tilted against the U.S. industry. For one, state-sponsored shrimp industries in China and Vietnam can easily absorb the cost, Versaggi said.

"We suspect these countries simply ship much of their shrimp through other countries without a tariff," Jones said.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game," Versaggi said.

Officials of the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the use of the antibiotics, did not return calls for comment.

Shrimp importers counter that the antibiotic issue is overblown and say domestic shrimpers can't provide all the product demanded by U.S. consumers, whose per capita shrimp consumption is 4.2 pounds.

"I think the antibiotic issue is a smokescreen," said Travis Larkin, vice president of the Seafood Exchange in Miami, which imports about 5-million pounds of shrimp annually, mostly from Thailand and Ecuador. "The U.S. shrimp market is so huge, over a billion pounds annually, there's not enough product produced domestically to cover the need."

Larkin said one of the bigger problems is domestic shrimpers have allowed quality standards to slip and can't produce a consistent product year-round, a statement vehemently denied by industry leaders.

Tariffs haven't affected consumer prices significantly, Larkin said. "You can apply tariffs all day long, and the domestic industry still won't be able to carry the weight," he said.

But to Florida shrimpers on the frontline, foreign imports are the obvious culprit in the slow, agonized demise of an industry.

"Why should Americans support the imports?" said Ernie Donini, 43, vice president of Superior Seafood Inc. in Tampa, operator of six shrimp boats. "They're not from our country. But there's so much money supporting the imports, it's hard to fight them. The government should limit them."

Donini said each of his boats lost $50,000 last year.

Long, the Fortuna crewman, said he figures he will stay in the business as long as he can hold out. As he microwaved a pizza inside the boat, he talked about one day finding a job on land.

"We're going out of business," he said. "I know it."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3436.