Shrimp industry’s struggles hit Grand Isle

Published 11:45 pm Saturday, November 24, 2007

This old fishing town is losing one shrimp dock, and now it may lose the only one left on an island where life has always been about fishing.

The loss of the Wayne Estay Shrimp Co. is one more sign of the shrimp industry’s deep problems. It is struggling to cope with a flood of cheap imports and rising fuel costs; and those hardships were exacerbated by the devastating 2005 hurricane season.

“It just wasn’t profitable, and I didn’t have it in my heart to do this work after (Hurricane) Katrina,” Estay, 58, said.

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He closed on Oct. 31, but the shrimp boats that use the dock have until mid-January to find somewhere else to tie up. His ice-making plant and storage facilities were destroyed in Katrina.

When he first took over the business in 1981, 90 boats a day jockeyed for dock space to unload their product. During one week in the 1990s, he unloaded 1 million pounds of shrimp. (South Carolina brought in 3.5 million pounds of shrimp total in 2006).

However, starting in 2001, the price at which Estay could sell shrimp to processors kept sinking due to an influx of cheaper imported seafood. Domestic shrimp now makes up for less than 10 percent of the total value of shrimp brought into the United States.

Now the owner of the last dock, Dean Blanchard, says he is considering to shutting down because of a costly dispute over tariff money and a $3 million offer from a condominium developer.

“I’ve got people begging me not to close. It’d be a tough, tough decision — very, very tough,” Blanchard, said.

Blanchard’s troubles stem from a $1.2 million payment he got from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which distributes tariff money paid by the shrimp industry’s foreign competitors.

Processors and fishermen who signed an antidumping petition with the International Trade Commission in 2003 are eligible to receive payouts from foreign seafood companies based on their expenses. Blanchard did so, but was recently told to return the money after Customs determined he was a dock owner, not a processor.

He’s appealing the decision, but said he would have to sell his business if he fails.

Grand Isle is one of the most important places along the coast for shrimpers because it is so close to the Gulf of Mexico and so near good spots to catch shrimp. Even after Katrina, the two docks accounted for nearly 15 percent of the shrimp brought into the state. At one time there were eight docks.

Community leaders worry that a centuries-old tradition on the island may be lost.

“I never thought I could deal with this in America, especially in my hometown,” said Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle, also a licensed commercial fisherman. “We’ve got the best seafood in the world in our back yard … that’s all they know how to do, get on the boats and make a living.”

Since 2001, the number of active Louisiana shrimpers has been cut nearly in half and as the number of wholesale seafood dealers dwindles shrimpers have to travel farther to sell their catch and buy ice. And from 2001 to 2006, more than 100 licensed seafood dealers statewide have gone by the wayside, according to permits.