It’s been a month since I spent 36 hours on a shrimp boat on Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans, sorting twitching white shrimp by size, fighting with crabs, and trying to toss baby croaker back overboard before they died. I went right before Chefs Collaborative presented a panel on the shrimp industry for the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs conference.
Why has it taken me so long to write about this trip? Well, in part, fall is a busy time of year here at Chefs Collaborative–we’re stacked with fundraising events, harvest festivals, speaking engagements, and piles of regular old desk work.
That’s my excuse. But the real reason might be that the trip was humbling. We got caught in a big storm–seasickness ensued–and I spent two nights in a tiny bunk under a scratchy blanket without my toothbrush. I peed in a bucket.
When Ray Brandhurst, the boat captain, called me into the wheelhouse to tell me he didn’t intend to bring me out on the boat to do actual work, I told him it was fine-fun, even-because I didn’t have to do it again tomorrow.
But he did. He’s still out there, pulling 16, 22, 36-hour stints on the water, trying to haul in as much shrimp as he can before it gets too cold and the shimp migrate offshore. Sometimes his deckhands disappear, so Ray works alone, driving the boat, searching for shrimp, hauling nets, sorting the stuff, cleaning up, and starting over.
If he sells his shrimp to processors, he can barely get $2 per pound for it. Operating this way causes shrimpers like Ray to lose money. Meanwhile, fixed costs for commercial fishermen keep rising, as does everyone’s cost of living, and we continue to import over 90% of our shrimp supply from shrimp farms in developing countries like Thailand, India, and China–flooding the market and driving down domestic prices.
Between the low prices at the dock, the rising operating costs, and the competition from cheap farm-raised imports, the odds are stacked against someone trying to make a living this way.
That’s why Ray and his wife Kay have taken on a second job–marketing, sales, promotion and shipping of their shrimp. They target restaurants and chefs in markets that are less saturated with fresh head-on shell-on shrimp than their own. Places like San Francisco, Boston, and New York are prime markets for this great domestic product, and when you can get it delivered to your door less than 48 hours out of the water, you can’t argue with the quality. By going directly to the end user, the Brandhursts get a better return on their investment of equipment, time, and labor.
And the benefit goes both ways. Chefs pay a little less than they would for a premium product that goes through traditional supply channels, and diners get an experience: the sweet-briny taste of the shrimp and the story behind it.
Until the FDA steps up their efforts to ban shrimp imports of questionable quality, domestic shrimpers will continue to get obscenely low prices at the dock. It’s an unfair situation with at least one relatively straightforward solution.
Whether they’re buying direct from a shrimper like Ray, or going through their purveyors to get spot prawns, Maine pinks, and other shrimp harvested in a sustainable manner, chefs and consumers can choose to support this domestic industry. It’s one way we can help change the game.