With the fading of last Louisiana wild yellow iris comes the budding of the brilliant pink of the Mimosa blooms and the beginning of the May brown shrimp season.
Last Sunday night, dozens of small inland skimmer boats idled past the house, chug-chugging slowly down the bayou, creating as little wake as possible in patient procession to the three-mile inland waters where they would anchor for the night and sleep until the official opening of the brown shrimp season Monday morning at six.
These inland skimmer boats average about 30 feet in length, and stay out on the water for days at a time. As long as the boat has supplies, storage space for the catch, and enough ice to keep the shrimp very cold, fishermen can fish as many days as possible in order to maximize their poundage before coming in to sell.
Friday morning, I visited with Kim Chauvin, who owns (in partnership with her husband) a couple seafood docks in Dulac and a processing plant in Chauvin. They also own three shrimp boats in the mid-size range, which she informed me are called “beach boats”. Both the smaller skimmer boats and the beach boats stay within the three-mile range from the coastline. The larger 75-100-foot boats trawl the deeper waters of the Gulf beyond the three-mile mark year-round and not seasonally like the inland boats.
This particular morning she was working at their most recent acquisition, Bluewater Shrimp Company, in Dulac, where she allowed me to hang out and document the process of buying shrimp from the boats. Let’s begin with a shrimper I will call TuLee, because he didn’t want me to use his name.
Evidently TuLee runs his skimmer boat entirely by himself. It is not uncommon for small shrimp-boat fishermen to do so. This way, they reduce expenses and make as much profit as possible.
While he is out catching shrimp, TuLee “grades” the shrimp by size. He dumps the shrimp from the big skimmer nets onto the “picking table” and then picks out all the trash fish, crabs, etc. Secondly, he picks out all the big shrimp and puts them into the ice storage box. Then he shovels all the small shrimp into a separate ice box. After both boxes are full and his ice supply running low, it’s time to come in and sell his catch.
Once the boat is docked, it’s time to offload the shrimp. The small shrimp are sucked through a vacuum hose, dumped onto a conveyor belt, which then moves them up, dumping them into 1000-pound transport boxes.
With the belt running, the dock foreman takes a random sample of the shrimp in order to determine the “count” per pound. Taking into account the weight of the colander, he adds shrimp into the colander until the scale says .65. At that point, he dumps the shrimp back on the table and counts how many it took to make a pound. In this case. the small brown shrimp count was about 70 shrimp per pound.
After all of the small brown shrimp were vacuumed off the boat and funneled into the storage boxes, they then went into a big holding cooler, to wait the arrival of an 18-wheeler that would take them to processing plants.
Next, it was time to offload TuLee’s larger shrimp, which were removed from the ice boxes by hand, using large dip nets. That way, none of these beauties would be bruised or damaged. These happened to be adult white shrimp that were moving inland to spawn. The count of these white shrimp came in right at 17 per pound, which in the market are called “16/20′s”. That means it takes between 16 and 20 shrimp to make a pound. Most of the large shrimp would be sold either wholesale, or retail to customers right there at the dock, or they would be blast frozen to be sold at a later date.
Meanwhile, a wholesale buyer from New Orleans came in wanting to buy 1,000 pounds of shrimp right off the boat. The shrimp were hand shoveled into very large ice chests for her to transport back to a seafood market in the big city where she would probably resell the 16/20′s for about $4.00 a pound.
The most amazing thing to me was not the shrimp, because I’m accustomed to seeing such beautiful seafood, but it was the efficiency with which these dock hands worked together. Their workflow was flawless, like a well-choreographed dance. They work nonstop from the time the first boat arrives until the last one of the day is offloaded, because fresh shrimp wait for no man.
So, it made me wonder if this might be a good summer job for my strapping 17-year-old son, Termite? Shoveling all that ice and shrimp about eight to ten hours a day would be all the “workout” a kid like that could need, with the bonus of a paycheck at the end of the week. Besides, it would be yet one more way for him to connect with his Houma Indian shrimping heritage.
When it was time for me to leave, shrimp boats were lined up waiting to offload which would indicate a great start to the brown shrimp season. However, “Zip” the dock foreman, informed me that back before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, they took in twice the amounts of shrimp as they do now.
It is not known for certain why this is so, but we can speculate about a couple of things: For one, there are less shrimpers because they’ve been forced out of business due to the economics of higher fuel costs and lower prices at the dock due to foreign imports.
Another possibility is that many of the shrimp boat owners were paid off after the oil spill, and the compensation was enough that they got out of the business and don’t intend to return.
Lastly, the shrimp production might be down due to the after-effects of the chemical dispersants that were sprayed for miles within the reach of the oil plumes in spring 2010. No one knows the long-term impact of those chemicals, and many shrimpers believe that the shrimp reproductive systems and cycles were disrupted and have not yet recovered. If I’ve learned one thing in my 35 years on the bayou it’s that the old-time shrimpers know that of which they speak. Woe be it unto me to dispute that wisdom.
Whatever the cause, there are still the tenacious few fishermen who will continue to line up for the Blessing of the Fleet in April, tank up for opening day of Brown Season, fish it until the final day, and then rest up for opening day of White Season in August. It’s what their forefathers did, and it’s what ties them so closely to the bayous where they live. It is, in essence, who they are.
On the way home, I stopped back by their larger shrimp dock called David Chauvin’s Sefood, and bought some of those gorgeous 16/20′s for the freezer.
The Captain made short work of breaking the heads off the shrimp for me. I’m thankful I had some help. I butterflied a mess of them and friend them up for supper. From the water to the table. Does it get any fresher than that?
There’s something to be said for having a sense of place and for sticking it out for as long as you can. Somehow, I was led to this wondrous place as a young woman full of wonder and became rooted and entrenched in this amazing life in the Louisiana wetlands. For that, I’m very grateful, as grateful as I am for fresh shrimp!
Now, I have a present for you. Kim Chauvin gave me a size large Bluewater Shrimp Co. T-shirt to give away. Please leave a comment on this post and you will be entered into a random drawing for the shirt. Drawing will be done Thursday (right after my “very special son”, Miah, graduates from high school!)
Bring on those comments!