Shrimpers angry over award of Katrina debris removal contracts

Published 7:46 pm Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A group of Mississippi shrimpers are angry that contracts to remove debris from Hurricane Katrina from coastal waters have gone to out of state boat owners.

The group, Mississippi Gulf Coast Fishermen’s Organization, demanded either its 365 members get the U.S. Coast Guard debris removal contract or the cleanup be postponed to minimize damage to the coastal shrimp fishery.

“All of us will take our boats out there and get in front of their boats,” said Ocean Springs shrimper Mike Kopszywa, president of the organization. “I hope it doesn’t come down to that, but we’ll do it. The fishermen are fired up. They are endangering the livelihood of Mississippi fishermen.”

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Kopszywa and other fishermen protested Monday at the offices of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.

Kopszywa said the cleanup is using outside fishermen who are not familiar with local waters or conditions and is being timed to cause the maximum amount of damage to brown shrimp stock.

Shrimp season generally starts in June, when the shrimp grow to a certain size, and extends to the end of April south of the Intercoastal Waterway. He said the nets would be raking through the Mississippi Sound just at the time that juvenile shrimp are flushing out of coastal estuaries to grow and live in open waters.

Dan Rackard, a representative of Matthews Marine, said the company would withhold comment on the contract until Friday, when it is officially awarded.

“We meet all environmental requirements on this and it’s not what everybody makes it out to be,” Rackard said.

The company used more than 80 percent local workers for the first contract to clean from the shore to a half-mile out, Rackard said.

MDMR, which regulates shrimping in state waters, said the contract to clean marine debris from a half-mile offshore to four miles out was awarded by the Coast Guard to Matthews Marine and Gulf Equipment Ventures. Work has not yet begun, but is expected to take three months to complete.

Matthews Marine is located in Pass Christian and Gulf Equipment Ventures in Theodore, Ala.

“We support our Mississippi fishermen and every opportunity we have to do that, we do so exclusively,” said MDMR spokeswoman Lauren Thompson. “The U.S. Coast Guard issued this contract under federal regulations.”

Thompson said the Coast Guard gave the Mississippi and Alabama companies a joint contract through an open competition that requires they use at minimum 15 percent local residents. Thompson said MDMR does not agree with the low percentage of locals required but does not have control over the hiring.

Fisherman Danny Ross Jr. said the cleanup would drag trawl nets through shrimp habitat at the time when they are shedding their shells and are most vulnerable.

“If you are to drag those nets, you will molest and kill those shrimp,” Ross said. “If they would have given this contract out in a timely fashion, then at least we could say, ‘Well, at least we’ve got shrimp season coming up.’ But now we’re going to lose this season’s catch, too. I’ve lost my income from 2005, 2006 and now 2007.”

MDMR director Bill Walker said dragging nets on the Sound’s bottom could do some damage to several fish and shrimp species. He believed the contract would stipulate that nets have larger holes than normal to lessen the damage. He said trawling time would be limited to control the damage and specific areas would be targeted for net dragging.

Very large or heavy hazards — like tractor trailer rigs identified off the port at Gulfport — that could be a danger to boaters would be cleaned up using cranes or other heavy equipment that would not damage young shrimp, he said.