The U.S. shrimping industry and the unique cultures it represents are rapidly declining.
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On the inviting teal-colored water in the shipping channels off the coast of southern Louisiana, Phillip “Rooster” Dyson pilots his bright red shrimp boat named Papa’s Shadow through a landscape he no longer recognizes.
His practiced gaze sweeps over the water, but very little remains of the small fishing community of Cameron, where he has lived all his 40 years. The rickety wooden social clubs, bars, homes, and colorful shrimping boats are gone, most of it replaced by giant liquid natural gas terminals, and many more are planned for Louisiana’s fragile coast.
The shrimp are also more challenging to find these days.
“It costs $400 just to take the boat out,” he said in his strong Southern southern accent, adding that July can often be a slow month for shrimp. “But this is the slowest it’s ever been. I’m not sure if I can buy the things my kids need for school right off the bat [and] pay utilities.”
Not more than a decade ago, when Dyson bought his first boat, he could make $5800 a day trawling for shrimp in the channels close to his home but also far out in the rich vastness of the Gulf of Mexico.
One of his most recent catches in mid-July brought in a measly $200, to be shared between himself and the two men that work on his boat. Dyson has eight kids, while his employees also have families.
But the relentless search for shrimp isn’t just a simple standoff between Dyson and the water. It’s yet another warning sign of a creeping cultural and environmental shift with implications far outside the small town boundaries of Cameron and beyond the chipped red paint and rusted deck of Papa’s Shadow.
As American dependence on vast amounts of imported seafood remains steady, local fisheries desperately wane along America’s southern coast and in other places where fishing nets are cast. If those disappear, there will be a loss of experienced voices in the fight against climate change and the unraveling of the vibrant Creole and Cajun cultures – a centuries-old way of life intricately woven on land and water. These vibrant coastal communities, especially in Louisiana, are in danger of morphing into ghostly reminders of a purposefully disregarded heritage, replaced by giant buildings whose only job is to send fossil fuels thousands of miles away in return for big profits.
And while those risks and rewards are weighed by the community leaders and high-ranking politicians, Dyson is searching for brown shrimp this month so he can pay his men and keep doing the only job he knows how to do.
“I really don’t have no education, so I have to make this work best I can,” he said.
Hurricanes and the Mississippi River
Threats to the U.S. shrimping industry have grown over decades, eating away at livelihoods and gutting small towns that, for many people, remain the lifeblood of every coast in the country.
Climate change has ravaged parts of those coasts, with hurricanes dramatically reshaping the Gulf Coast landscape and reducing the abundance of shrimp and other marine life. But hurricanes, expected to become more frequent and powerful in the coming decades because of warmer oceans, are one of the catalysts that can send a small town into a spiral and prevent them from bouncing back.
And without a thriving fishing industry to help, many small towns can slowly decay. Cameron was already on the outs before it got a direct hit from Hurricane Laura in late Aug. 2020. Hurricane Katrina’s destructive force began the exodus in 2005.
In other parts of coastal Louisiana, like Dulac and Houma, two areas south of New Orleans, hurricanes have hobbled the once-famous fishing fleets, and not everyone can bounce back. Dulac’s population, for example, has almost halved since 2019, according to census records. Hurricane Laura and Ida hit in back-to-back years, making a fishing resurgence more difficult. The same can be said for the dozens of communities that survive on stilts all the way from New Orleans deep into parts of south Louisiana where indigenous, Creole, Cajun, and other groups still live.
Bigger boats are better equipped to survive because they can go far out to the Gulf to get away from storms or make a bigger catch, whereas the smaller vessels may be damaged or destroyed, meaning the shrimping season is over for that boat.
But even the bigger boats face difficulties out in the Gulf.
Dead zones, or red tides, as some fishermen call them, are areas with very little oxygen in the water. That means no sea life can survive there. The zones can grow to as big as 7,700 square miles and typically start where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, about 100 miles south of New Orleans. The lack of oxygen is caused by fertilizer runoff collected from farms the entire length of the Mississippi’s 2,350-mile route as it winds through some of the country’s most fertile and essential farming land.
As one industry thrives, another dies.
That means fishermen must go further out to catch shrimp, yellowfin tuna, cobia, or red snapper. Those areas cost more to get to, and there are no guarantees of success.
Alongside environmental changes, importing overseas shrimp and other seafood has hugely undercut the U.S. fishing industry. At the same time, the arrival of oil and gas terminals all over the Gulf of Mexico has also made the job of fisherman much harder.
Why are we buying overseas seafood?
While we know climate change is an existential threat to all life, U.S. shrimpers are particularly wary of the rapid rise of imported seafood from Southeast Asia and Central America. Studies show that between 65% and 85% of our seafood is imported. Some have put that number as high as 90%.
That has driven down the price of what Dyson and other fishermen can get at the market. Dyson said he earns about $1.10 to $1.15 for a pound of shrimp today. That’s between 10 and 15 pieces of shrimp, depending on the size.
He said it was around $3.50 a pound when he was a boy.
”If we could put a stop to the imports or reduce it a whole lot, I promise these waters have plenty [of] shrimp for everyone, and they always have,” said Adley Dyson, Phillip Dyson’s uncle. “And maybe if that does happen, one day tourists will come back to see all the big catches come up from the Gulf like they used to.”
The increase in imports comes down to several factors. First and foremost, it’s cheaper than buying locally. But as the U.S. population has increased, jumping from 250 million in 1990 to 330 million in 2020, so has the demand for seafood, up by 41% during that time. U.S. seafood imports also doubled, jumping from 3 billion pounds a year to 6 billion pounds.
And while people think they are getting a deal on shrimp and other seafood from apparently exotic locations, it’s not all as it seems. Samples of imported seafood have found traces of antibiotics and other veterinary drugs – used to keep fish healthy in confined and harsher conditions.
And believe it or not, some of the shrimp on your plates could have been fished by slaves, according to a detailed Human Rights Watch report. Trafficking of fishermen from southeast Asia continues despite being widely known. The fisherman are prevented from leaving or changing jobs and are often not paid or paid below minimum wage.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office notes that around half of imported seafood is raised on farms, and many use antibiotics, which could potentially cause harm to the consumer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is seeking commitments from the Indian, Indonesian, and Ecuadorian shrimp industries to test for drugs to ensure a better product. It follows similar 2018 agreements with China, Thailand, and Vietnam about catfish.
There have been some moves to protect the local shrimp fishermen in Louisiana by forcing restaurants and other food establishments to indicate on their menus if they are serving imported shrimp and crawfish. However, the law lacks teeth. Since 2019, Louisiana health inspectors have recorded more than 2,600 violations of the law but have handed out no fines because the department has no authority to enforce them.
The rise of Louisiana’s gas terminals
Far from the globalized seafood markets that have flooded American grocery stores and restaurants with a cheaper product, remnants of Cameron’s triumphant past litter the side of the road. Old portable cooling containers, boats, trailers, and other items paint a portrait of uncanny change in this part of Southern Louisiana.
A sign with the words “srimp,” the spelling of shrimp in these parts of the south, is a small sign of how things used to be in the Cameron of old. The picturesque bayous, once a living, breathing ecosystem of local marine life and bustling old-timey shrimp boats, now lay still against the backdrop of the latest neighbors.
Giant liquid natural gas (LNG) terminals. The terminals export natural gas to other parts of the world.
There are currently two operational terminals in or around Cameron, built on thousands of acres of land, swamp, bayou, and whatever else was just in the way. A majority of the fishing grounds that have been used since the 1800s are now either partially restricted or totally restricted by the terminals. Pipes pass through old bayous and natural channels carved out by the water and engineers Those are much harder to navigate now.
Fishermen have said that they are forced to stop fishing if one of the colossal ships, some three times as long as a standard football field, is coming or leaving. That can mean a half day of fishing lost.
“They said these terminals would bring life to Cameron,” said Travis Dardar, a local fisherman and resident of Cameron. “It’s killed this town and the fishing industry and is damaging our health.”
Dardar’s wife, Nicole, has had severe health problems since the closest LNG terminal began operating in 2019. She believes that chemical particulate matter emitted from the plants is causing health problems for many residents living in the wider area of Cameron Parish.
It’s one reason why so many are selling their land to the LNG companies, another thing that is emptying towns like Cameron. In short, many don’t believe there’s anything left to protect.”
We’ve been screwed over by the leaders in this town,” said Nicole Dardar, who was linked to a heart monitor as she spoke. “No town should have to go through this. We really have lost everything.”
A 2022 study by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a New Orleans-based environmental group, noted thousands of emissions violations at one of the natural gas facilities in its first year, claiming that the plant has not been in compliance for 83% of that time. The plant’s owner, Venture Global, said it would fix the violations by applying for air permit increases.
Another plant is currently under construction, which, according to locals, would all but end the trawling for shrimp in the once-rich channels off the coast of Cameron.
Cameron continues on, for now.
Dyson is one of the few shrimp captains who still fish the waters around Cameron, a place he and locals proudly tell you was once the heartland of the country’s seafood industry. In 1984, the Port of Cameron was the most productive fishing fleet in the country, bringing in 679 million pounds of seafood, almost double the next port.
Those heydays have long since gone.
Back on shore, the mostly deserted harbor and few quiet streets of Cameron’s once-bustling way of life sit idly as the giant flare emitting from a natural gas plant burns day and night, a beacon of a new era on Louisiana’s coast.
Dyson’s friends and even extended family have all mostly moved on. About 20 years ago, 2000 people lived in Cameron. Less than 10% remain, according to the most recent census records.
“This was the place if you had a shrimp boat and wanted to make money,” said Adley Dyson. “It used to be full of boats right here.”
“I don’t see another year or two,” added his nephew, Phillip Dyson.
Some shrimpers retired and moved away with their families, thankful to have made it through a long shrimping career before it began to turn on them. Some took the insurance checks after hurricanes tore apart their boats, while others had their homes and land bought out by the fossil fuel industry.
Today, a successful trawl will see Phillip Dyson put $200 in his pocket after the boat and crew have been taken care of.
“That’s barely enough to live on,” he said, contemplating mid-August when it’s time to look for white shrimp, which are bigger than brown shrimp and can make them more money.
His boom and bust story is echoed by fishermen throughout the Gulf of Mexico and on other coasts. Their occupation stands not only as a job but as a testament to the lineage and culture of these unique coastal communities. Their survival is tightly linked to the success of the men and women who trawl the waters.
“This is happening all the way from here to Florida,” said Phillip Dyson. “I really think we might be the last generation.”
And he might be right.
He will keep trudging along as the captain of Papa’s Shadow, pushing against the changes that have made him a stranger in his own ancestral waters and helped destroy the only town he has ever called home.
“I don’t know why I stay,” he said. “I’m just here.”
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