It's the Sunday after Thanksgiving. And in case you're tired of turkey, we have a helping of shrimp and a few questions.You may not think much about how the seafood gets to your plate. But the question of who's catching it and where is at the center of a global controversy. To understand why, we head south to the Louisiana Bayou. It's where an industry that survived Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill is finding itself threatened with extinction by foreign competition. These fishermen could be Shrimpers Lost… and theirs could be a lesson for us all.
Today we’re going shrimping in Venice, Louisiana. Acy Cooper is our guide.
Sharyl Attkisson: How important is the shrimping business to your personally?
Acy Cooper: It’s everything to me. You know, my family does it. My dad’s 80 years old, he still fishes. And my two boys has entered the business, and my daughter she married a fisherman.
Louisiana’s shrimp industry has been a family affair for more than a century.
Historic Film, 1939: While the men condition the boat, the womenfolk industriously tend their knitting. Down where Louisiana is neither land nor sea, the bayou dwellers home becomes the base of annual operations which keep mom, pop and the kids busy as the dickens!
Venice is one of the South’s shrimping capitals. Cooper’s sons make four generations of fishermen.
Sharyl Attkisson: Who’s that coming up here?
Acy Cooper: That’s my son. My youngest one
After dragging our nets in the Gulf of Mexico, we brought up an assortment of sea creature mostly shrimp. You’d think there’d be automatic job security today in the family business, considering America’s appetite for shrimp. We each eat an average of four pounds per year. Shrimp is now more popular than tuna fish.
Sharyl: Were there good times in the last 20 years?
Acy Cooper: There was, there was good times. At, at the beginning before they started coming in look we were making a living, we didn’t, we had to work hard because we had to push ourselves to go out here every day. We fight the elements. You know we work hard to make a living. But we did good. My dad did good, he taught me well. We did good. Now my sons and all they starting to struggle now, because of what’s going on.
He’s talking about foreign shrimp flooding the market from places China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand.
The U.S. has become a massive importer of a resource we have right here at home. About 94 percent of the shrimp we eat comes from abroad, selling for a fraction of the price of the ones caught at home. There’s no getting around it: The US shrimping industry is dying.
Acy Cooper: There’s no way we can survive this this the way it’s going. You know we can’t keep up our boats. We can’t keep deckhands because nobody wants to work, because they’re not making any money. We can’t make it where the price is at now.
Take the haul from this boat, the Ba Ken. After 12 days out, it returned with more than a ton and a half of shrimp. But after paying for fuel, ice and four deck hands, the owner will clear just $166 dollars for each day at sea.
Hardly enough to keep the boat running, let alone help pay the bills in the off-season.
Robert Nguyen and his son face the same harsh reality.
Nguyen came to the US as a refugee from Vietnam, and ended up in Louisiana in 1985. He became so prosperous as a shrimper, that by the mid 90’s he owned his own dock, a big boat, and had nine employees.
Over a seafood lunch at his home a few miles from the dock, he shows pictures of how his family weathered Hurricane Katrina. Cheap imports flooding the market are today’s threat. As shrimp prices have fallen, Nguyen has sold his dock, downsized his boat and now relies on his son to be his deckhand.
Nguyen: Shrimp, it not like before. Every year it going down. Going down.
Foreign competition could mean the death of a lot of family businesses.
Why does foreign shrimp cost so much less? Other countries may use cheaper methods banned in the U.S. In Thailand—some seafood farmers recently got caught using slave labor.
Videos posted on the Internet appear to show images of foreign workers injecting gelatin into shrimp to make it plumper.
Acy Cooper: Our government doesn’t allow us to put anything in it, but yet they can test, and they only test about one percent that comes into this country.
He’s right. The FDA is responsible for the safety of imported shrimp-- but tests only one percent of imports each year. In October, the FDA issued an Import Alert warning about shrimp from China, saying its “use of unapproved antibiotics or chemicals raises significant public health concerns.”
Beyond the health concerns, Cooper says it’s hard not to think of shrimping as another American industry that could be lost to foreign competition.
Sharyl Attkisson: Do you see this as a reflection of anything else going on in the country?
Acy Cooper: You have farmers that have been generations after generation. The steel workers. We gonna be the same way, just like these guys.
He thinks the only thing that can save the shrimpers is for our government to step in and limit imports.
Acy Cooper: Pull it back, put a cap on it. We know we’re gonna have to have imports in this country. You know, you’re not gonna stop it. And we don’t we don’t expect them to stop it. But we do expect them to hold it back enough to where we can make a living
Our trip was just a few hours. But shrimpers routinely work 15-hour plus days during the season.
Cooper says he’ll be lucky to get 60 cents a pound for the small, brown shrimp we caught.
Sharyl Attkisson: How much is this worth?
Acy Cooper: Probably about $120 dollars for 200 pounds. It’s not much.
We work hard for our for for our way of life, and our and as I sat it's a way of life. It’s not something that we just pop up and said that we gonna do.
Acy Cooper: It’s been something that’s been going generation, after generation, after generation. We just want the government to listen to us a little bit, and help us out here. Don’t put us to the brink of where we’re broke and out of business. And that’s where we’re at at this point in time. We on the verge of out of business.
One potential win for American shrimpers.. could be the election of Donald Trump.
He has promised to kill the Trans Pacific Partnership.. a trade deal that some claim could open the doors to unsafe foreign shrimp.