Hurricane Katrina

Plenty of big shrimp the one bright spot

Mississippi's shrimpers face a number of challenges as their season begins Wednesday, and a fishery official expects to see half of the boats returning to ply the waters.

"It's kind of sad to see these guys take such a hard hit," said Mike Brainard, director of the shrimp and crab program at Mississippi's Department of Marine Resources.

Along with the damage or loss to a significant part of the commercial fleet by Hurricane Katrina, the industry faces hardships because of significant destruction to coastal infrastructure like icehouses, fueling stations and seafood processing plants.

Richard Gollott, one of the owners of Golden Gulf Coast Packing, said four of the eight seafood processing plants in Biloxi have reopened and all are facing staffing shortages, another hit to the industry. He said the plants are processing around 200,000 pounds of shrimp from non-Mississippi waters every day, about half of what they could before the storm.

"I just don't know what will happen in the next week or two when the season starts," Gollott said. "Our plants can only process so much each day. Also, the lack of ice for the boats will be a serious problem."

A DMR statement warned those going out trawling to use extreme caution because marine debris has not been cleared from state waters, posing hazards to boats and nets.

A document with the locations of marine obstructions will be available at the Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi.

But Katrina did not start the decline in shrimpers. It began before that, with steadily rising fuel costs cutting into profits and imported shrimp from countries like Vietnam and Thailand decreasing the market price of local shrimp.

As of Wednesday, Mississippi's Department of Marine Resources had issued 215 commercial shrimping licenses. Last year it gave out 588, a "considerable decline from previous years," according to Brainard.

The fishermen who make it out, though, could be rewarded with bigger shrimp and more of them, Brainard said.

Little rainfall and warm waters have provided good growing conditions for the population, with DMR weekly samples showing high numbers of larval shrimp coming out of the Coast's marshes.

"The shrimpers getting out will most likely do pretty well," Brainard said. "That's if they don't get their nets torn up. But that's all speculation - it is fishing, after all."