With restaurants hurting, gulf shrimpers prepare for consecutive bad years

Dozens of shrimp boats are seen at the Brownsville Shrimp Basin Tuesday morning during the Blessing of The Fleet as shrimp crews prepare for the 2018 shrimping season.

HARLINGEN — The coronavirus-related shutdown of the state’s restaurant industry, bar those eateries with a drive-thru or curbside pickup, has cast a wide net when it comes to damage.

The Texas shrimp industry, already hurting from a poor year in 2019, is looking at a potentially worse 2020 with sit-down restaurants just now tip-toeing their way out of COVID-19 hibernation.

“Right now, unfortunately, we’re coming off of a bad year. 2019 was just a bad year; there wasn’t hardly any shrimp out there basically due to too much fresh water flowing into the gulf,” said Andrea Hance, a shrimp boat owner and executive director of the Texas Shrimp Association. “Long story short, it created a salinity level problem there wasn’t a lot of shrimp. When you’re coming off of a bad year and your going into a second bad year, that hurts.”

Problem is, commercial buyers are saying no to Texas shrimp being caught now.

“Probably about three weeks ago, our buyers started calling us, and there’s only a handful of buyers in the United States for shrimp, and they started calling us and said, ‘we’re not going to be able to bid anymore,’ and we’re like, crap,” Hance said.

“I have a lot of people all the time say why don’t you just sell it directly to the public?” she added. “Unfortunately, especially down here in South Texas, we shrimp for big shrimp, and our boat came in last week with about 12,000 pounds on it and it’s just too much shrimp.”

Big business

The Texas commercial shrimping industry generated $522 million in 2016, according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries division.

Of that, according to an earlier study from Texas A&M AgriLife’s Texas Sea Grant, Cameron County produces about a third in both weight and value of the state’s annual shrimp harvest.

The shrimp industry in Texas comes in two forms: daily small-boat operators in a near-shore fishery targeting mostly bait shrimp and the big boats that fish year-round in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana for table shrimp.

Of the 900 or so big boats shrimping in the Gulf of Mexico, about 550 of them are home-ported here in Texas. These are the shrimpers Hance’s association represents.

“A huge investment,” Hance said. “And I can tell you that primarily it’s kind of funny because most of these shrimpers, it’s a family-oriented industry or business, most of the shrimpers are generational, the dad leaves it to a son or whatever.

“Unfortunately, over I would say the past 20 years that hasn’t been happening because obviously it’s such a struggling industry,” she added.

Cost of entry

And for the big boats setting out across the gulf for 30 to 45 days at a time pursuing shrimp, it’s a very expensive industry, too.

Hance reckons a boat goes for $150,000 to $200,000, with another $50,000 to equip it, then about $30,000 for fuel per trip (prices are cheaper for this now) and provisions for the crew costing a couple of thousand dollars per trip.

“Going back 12 years ago when my husband and I bought our first boat, and went and videoed it going out of the channel, and we’re adding up everything that we just spent money on and then we’re going, OK, now we’re shipping this boat out with $30,000 worth of fuel. And we’re like, what the heck did we just do?” Hance said.

Like all things financed, even though shrimp buyers are passing on Texas shrimp, few lending institutions are giving passes on boat and equipment payments.

“There’s a lot of money tied up in these boats and unfortunately, one hiccup, I mean one little hiccup, is going to cost several thousand dollars,” Hance said. “You just look at these boats and you’re like, what else could go wrong?”

Valuable crews

In the Texas offshore shrimp industry, crews willing to risk the dangers and isolation of gulf waters for a month to a month-and-a-half are getting harder to find.

“You’re going to put three or four guys on the boat that you barely know,” Hance said. “One of them’s the captain, and they’re great guys, they’ve been in the industry for years. Unfortunately, as you go down the list, literally nobody wants to go out on these boats and fish for 30 days so you’re literally pulling people off the street, which is scary.”

Many of the shrimp boat crew positions are filled through H-1B visas, which is even more problematic for shrimpers since President Trump last month signed a temporary executive order halting immigration into the United States.

Hance said few shrimp boat owners qualify for the Paycheck Protection Plan emergency funds because the crews are employed as contract workers. And many shrimp boat captains were out on the gulf when the first tranche of PPP money was allocated and weren’t able to apply anyway.

“Everybody right now, we’re in the same boat and we’re all like, do we send the boats out knowing that we’re not going to make money?” Hance said.

“But you have to keep the crew. You cannot lose that crew,” she added.

That puts shrimp boat owners in a predicament. Go out into the gulf and catch shrimp you can’t sell and lose money, or stay home and lose money because you have to keep your crew intact.

“I think that’s what we’re going to do,” she said. “It’s just easier to pay the crew out-of-pocket.”

Buying local

Hance is hoping sit-down restaurants can quickly adapt to whatever dining world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it’s tables spread apart or limits on the number of patrons allowed into the restaurant.

These local restaurants, unlike the chains, are the ones that use big Texas shrimp the most.

Hance says consumers can help Texas shrimpers by doing all they can to make sure they’re dining on Texas gulf shrimp, which isn’t as easy as it may seem given the United States allows 1.7 billion pounds of shrimp to be imported annually.

“We ask the public to please read the labels and read them closely because there are so many loopholes,” she said, referring to grocery store shrimp. “I read one the other day and it had an American flag on it and it had in big letters, ‘Processed in America,’ but when you keep reading, it said the product comes from Thailand. It just meant it came to the United States and got breaded.”

At a sit-down restaurant, Hance suggests asking your server where the shrimp originated, although she concedes many will say the gulf without really knowing.

“We can only supply 10 percent of the shrimp that’s consumed, that’s it,” she said. “So there is a need for imported shrimp, we get that.

“We just want people to be able to make a choice as to what shrimp they want to pay a couple of extra dollars for.”