Lafitte shrimpers fighting to stay afloat
By Lara L Arceneaux, Lafitte Lagniappe Columnist featured on nola.com
South Louisiana is known for amazing food, and people even travel to New Orleans from all over just for the food.
One of their favorites is shrimp. An estimated 70 percent of the shrimp that supplies the New Orleans market comes from Lafitte, but shrimpers say they are finding it harder than ever to continue their trade.
Fourth-generation shrimper Larry Alexie recently beat Hodgkin's lymphoma, and is now fighting to remain in the business he's been in his entire life. Alexie, whose boat is named the Billie Jo after the daughter he lost to a car accident in 1999, is determined to overcome this most recent adversity as well.
"My great-grandpa, Martin Alexie, used to sell shrimp off the platform at Manilla Village. He trapped mink and otter too, and he started this way of life for this family. They called him Punko, because he lost an arm, but he didn't let that slow him down either," Alexie said.
Punko lost his arm in a hunting accident, when his gun went overboard, and while pulling it back up, the gun went off shooting off his arm. He was transported to the hospital by train, because in 1908 there weren't other readily available means of transportation. Punko passed down not only a way of life to his offspring, but his determination as well.
Today, Alexie is forced to retail his own shrimp, something the shrimpers refer to as peddling, in order to make a profit. For most of the season, prices at the dock hovered around $1.25 to $1.40 for 16/20 count shrimp.
"That's not enough to cover my expenses. I have to retail this shrimp or I'd be losing money," Alexie said. If he could sell his shrimp all at once at the dock, Alexie would be back out on the water tonight to make another run and bring in another catch, but selling shrimp a few pounds at a time takes days, which cuts into profits as well.
As the wife of a shrimper, Stephanie Lynn Enclade understands the dilemma and says they are trying to stick it out through this rough patch. "My husband has been a commercial fishermen for over 25 years. There have been good years along with bad years. We feel the good outweigh the bad and he will continue to do what he loves to," she said.
Enclade says many people have misconceptions about life as a shrimper and think it is something like going fishing for recreation every day. "In the bad years, like we are currently experiencing right now, many people will tell my husband, 'Why don't you just go get a real job?' He loves what he does, but it is by far one of the hardest jobs he has ever had," she said.
Enclade explains that shrimpers must not only understand where and how to catch shrimp, but that they must be able to work on the boat, including the motor and rigging. They must be mechanics and welders, and usually put in so many hours that their pay averages well below minimum wage, and that is in the 'good' years.
Shrimper David Carmadelle is feeling the pain as well. "One breakdown and you're out. There isn't enough profit to keep going," he said. He said if his brother-in-law hadn't helped him peddle his shrimp, he wouldn't have made it this season.
"The prices are finally up some. The docks are at about $1.75 for sixteens, but it's too little too late now. The big shrimp are gone," Carmadelle said.
Alexie said he isn't certain why the prices are so low this year, because the prices in stores and restaurants have remained steady. The question then is, who is making the extra money if local shrimpers are being paid so little, but retail prices remain the same? Many shrimpers point to the various middle men who buy and distribute the shrimp, but they haven't gotten a straight answer for their inquiries.
What they are being told is that the foreign market shrimp are forcing the prices lower.
"The public needs to understand what they're getting when they eat at a restaurant, or when they buy shrimp at a store. These foreign shrimp are farm-raised in conditions that are not up to our country's standards. These farmed shrimp feed on pig and goose feces and are kept on dirty ice made from tap water the government determines not fit to drink," Alexie said, citing a Bloomberg report that was published in October of 2012.
Quoted in the report, Michael Doyle, with the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety says this practice presents a danger to the American public. Doyle has studied the prevalence of foodborne diseases in China, and said, "The manure used as feed is frequently contaminated with microbes like salmonella." Escherichia coli, commonly known as e. coli, is also a prominent danger when manure is used as a feed product.
The Bloomberg report also states that due to limited resources, the FDA is able to inspect less than 3 percent of all imported seafood, but that since 2007 thousands of inspected shipments were rejected due to filth and bacterial contamination.
Enclade believes that if consumers don't see something in writing about where the seafood they are buying comes from, that they should ask, and that they should ask for wild caught American shrimp wherever they are – grocery store, seafood market, or restaurant. "American shrimpers want to provide the public with a safe, quality product, but they can only continue to do that if the public supports their efforts," Enclade said.
While public health concerns and a quality product are important, the importance of buying Gulf shrimp and seafood has even farther reaching implications. Seafood is a $2.4 billion dollar industry for Louisiana, of which shrimp account for $1.3 billion, more than all the other seafood combined. In fact, according to the Louisiana Seafood Board, one out of every seventy jobs is, in some way, dependent on the seafood industry, and the shrimp industry specifically accounts for around 15,000 jobs statewide.
"I know men who have been doing this their whole lives who may not make it this season. They're being forced out and will have to find a new career, a whole new way of life. So what happens when little by little, we're forced to leave this life behind?" Alexie said.
Jean Lafitte National Park
Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve is now accepting applications for special hunting licenses for hunters wishing to hunt on park grounds. This park is one of only a handful nationwide that allow any hunting within the park. Interested hunters should apply at the park's Barataria Preserve Visitor Center Wednesday through Sunday from 9:30 a.m to 4:30 p.m. Applications will be accepted until Oct. 1.
Each week, the park offers a ranger guided walk of their trails and raised boardwalks that allow visitors deep into the swamps and marshes without getting their feet wet. Visitors can learn about the delicate ecosystem of the swamp and marsh, as well as sight some of the many animals and interesting plants that make the area their home. Walks take place each Wednesday through Sunday at 10 a.m. This event is free and open to the public. For more information about any event at the park, call 504-689-3690 ext. 10 or go online to www.nps.gov/jela.