Settlement in a rich but fragile system

The US Gulf shrimp industry has its origin in the seventeenth and eighteenth century colonization of the New World, and in the seafarers and trade practices of that time. The industry's history centers around the early development of New Orleans (Louisiana) and Biloxi (Mississippi) and the settlement of the surrounding cypress swamps, grassy marshes, and barrier islands. It is a period in which Europeans, Africans, and Asians settled among native Americans in a rich, wild, and fragile environment of tremendous productivity, beauty, and hardship. Buffalo, bear, panther, wolf, and parakeets were abundant as were "crabs, lobsters, scallops, shrimp, and oysters" (Dumont de Montiguy, 1753; Lowery, 1974a,b). The "fish on its shores [were] in such abundance that the noise they made at night, wakened us several times ... Grande Ecaille [tarpon], Red Drum, and very large Catfish, and some Gars" (Cathcart, 1819). Smallpox, yellow fever, floods, and hurricanes were frequent visitors, as were pirates and buccaneers.

The Mississippi River flowed wild and sweet when the Europeans first arrived. Its mouth was not confined to the present narrow bird-foot delta of some 25 miles (40 km). Rather it extended for more than 160 miles (250 km) along the Louisiana coast through a vast series of bayous and bays characterized by oak-lined natural levees (cheniers) (Iberville, 1699 in Brasseaux, 1979; Du Ru, 1700; Collot, 1826). The natural flow of the River into its rich marshes and bays was such that, when in 1785 Don Jose de Evia explored the lower reaches of Barataria Bay (a fingerling bay to the west of the Mississippi delta), he reported that "on the bay, which is a large one, one always encounters a strong current." That strong current, absent today, was the flow of the

Mississippi River through its vast delta (Stielow, 1975). With European settlement, a process of leveeing was begun by at least 1722 (Kniffen & Hilliard, 1988). As for the quality of these waters which drained the heartland of America, Stoddard (1812, p. 164) noted that "The people who live on the banks of the Mississippi prefer its waters to all others. When filtrated, it is transparent, light, soft, pleasant, and wholesome."

French and Spanish interest in the region was minimal, because the colony lacked the "golden plunder" obtained in Central and South America. While trade was officially limited to the sovereign nation or its commercial designee, smuggling was a socially accepted practice, which was partially condoned by the Spanish governors out of a necessity to obtain supplies. A quasi-official smuggling route occurred between British/US-held Baton Rouge and New Orleans, while the bayous, swamps, and marshes south of New Orleans provided the smuggler an endless array of hiding places (Saxon, 1940). This early stamp of self-reliance and at times an almost casual disregard for regulations imposed from outside the colony was to persist.

The region around New Orleans was settled by a rich and diverse ethnic mixture: first the French (Creole and, later, Acadian) settled among the native Americans. They were followed by "Spaniards, Italians, Irish, Chinese, Portuguese, Danes, Greeks, Swedes, and Eastern Europeans - peasants driven from their native lands by poverty or repression, sailors who had jumped ship, adventurers of every kind." Fishing, trapping, and abundant household gardens became a way of life in these isolated communities each of which "clung jealously to its own customs and way of life" (Crete, 1981, p. 283). This isolation was broken by periodic, if not frequent, trips to the urban centers to market their fresh catch or contraband, and sometimes to bury their dead.

A white shrimp fishery

Hearn (1883) provides one of the oldest written accounts of a commercial fishing village in the region. The village was located some 25 miles (40 km) from New Orleans on the southern shore of Lake Borgne. It had been founded more than 50 years earlier by Malay fishermen, some of whom had left their forced participation in the Spanish Crown's Mexico-Philippine trade route. Raised on stilts of cypress, the village of thirty residents supplied dried fish and shrimp to the New Orleans market (Kane, 1944). The practice of shrimp drying was expanded by others, and enriched by the addition of Chinese nationals, who exported large quantities of dried shrimp to China.

In 1810, Jean Lafitte, a young New Orleans blacksmith, joined a band of pirates or buccaneers who had settled in the existing communities on the barrier islands of Grand Terre and Grand Isle. Sailing under the flags of Central and South American nations, which were in revolt against Spain, Lafitte's band raided both Spanish and neutral ships for goods and slaves. Lafitte brought a harsh new dimension to the culture of these isolated communities, by some accounts taking no prisoners with the exception of African slaves. Lafitte held auctions in New Orleans and Grand Terre which were well attended by wealthy, respectable merchants and planters, eager for well discounted goods and slaves, especially given that the importation of new slaves was not allowed (Saxon, 1940).

The native self-sufficiency and fierce independence of those who inhabited this region (including Lafitte's band) were evidenced by the crucial role they played in helping to defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1814 (Frantz, 1937).

In 1875 the Dubois brothers refined the existing process of canning shrimp, and as a result this method, together with drying, became a way to export shrimp outside the local markets (Kniffen & Hilliard, 1988). In 1889, the first year for which complete estimated catch statistics are available, the Gulf shrimp catch was 8.3 million pounds (3.8 xlO6 kg) with an average ex-vessel price of US$0.015/lb ($0.033/kg).

Under sail

Scientific inquiries into shrimp and shrimping did not begin until near the turn of the twentieth century. At that time, the fishery was still mainly limited to the estuaries and shallow bays surrounding New Orleans and Biloxi. Harvesting was accomplished by crews of up to 20 men, pulling seines which were sometimes in excess of 2,000 feet (600 m) long. Harvests were limited by water temperature to the warmer months of the year and by access to market. Vessels were large row boats, fitted with sails. Principal products were canned and dried shrimp. There were two seasonal closures in Louisiana, which had evidently been enacted as a result of industry's concerns. Both were intended to prevent the harvest of "small" white shrimp less than 4 inches (10 cm) in length (Louisiana Conservation Commission, 1920).

The fishery was predominately dependent on white shrimp and occasionally used a smaller "sea-bob" shrimp (Xiphopenaeus kroy-eri) in the production of dried shrimp. The brown shrimp, which is currently a major portion of the US Gulf harvest, was "never as abundant as either the sea-bob or lake (white) shrimp, and consequently are almost negligible as a commercial proposition" (Tulian, 1920, p. 108). By 1908 the reported Gulf catch had increased by 50 percent (from 1889) to 12.6 million pounds (5.72 million kg) and the ex-vessel value had jumped to US$0.021/lb ($0.046/kg).

The fishery operated differently earlier in the twentieth century than it does today. Schools of white shrimp were hunted by the use of a cast net or by sightings of "white boils on the water surface" or "muddy boils" indicating feeding shrimp (Julius Collins, personal communication, 1990).

Frank Schoonover (1911) reached a shrimp and fish drying platform (Manila Village, Fig. 5.1) some 25 miles (40 km) south of New Orleans after "a day's journey and more by waterway through a great swamp." His account is instructive because the great swamp, the great schools of white shrimp, and the platform he found do not exist today and soon the remnant of the marsh will be gone.

As we drew near there spread before our eyes a great fleet of sailing boats with red sails drying in the sun; dugouts, painted green and red, were tied to a wharf that ran back to a huge platform [A] nd extending back along a narrow bayou were twenty or more houses, all raised high above the water on posts of cypress ... . There were French, Creole, Mexicans, Spaniards, half-tamed men of the Manila Islands, dark-skinned Indians ... (p. 81).

We could see the old Captain ... as he made cast after cast with a small net ... . After a time the schooner drops the peak of her sail and a seine fifteen hundred feet or more is played out. The Captain has found a great school of shrimp ... . Presently a lot of men, maybe a dozen, are splashing about, tugging and pulling in the marsh at a long rope [N] othing but their heads can be seen above the tall grass With long-handled dip-nets the live shrimp are lifted and dumped into the schooner ... . The Captain and the crew are fortunate, ... the catch is estimated to be a hundred baskets [7,000 pounds] ... (pp. 84-5).

Fig. 5.1 A drawing by Frank Schoonover (1911) showing a traditional turkey-red sail boat setting out from the drying platform (Manila village) in the early morning hours to hunt foj great schools of white shrimp.

Under power

As would be repeated, the advent of scientific inquiries brought about an expansion of the industry. Atlantic coast fishermen observed scientists from the US Bureau of Fisheries using trawls. The fishermen modified the gear for their purposes and began pulling trawls in 1912 (Johnson & Lindner, 1934).

The trawl entered the Gulf in 1917 and the fishery began a period of further expansion and mechanization. The roar of gasoline engines replaced the ruffle of sails and ripple of oars and were themselves replaced by diesel engines. Open skiff's were fitted with cabins. The fishery was no longer limited to the height of a man pulling a seine or by a scarcity of manpower brought on by World

War I. By 1920, in Louisiana at least, the fishery had tested the Gulf waters out to 18 miles (29 km) and found, according to management, "an immense fishing ground where a boundless supply of adult (white) shrimp always exist, with endless possibilities for the future of the shrimp industry" (Tulian, 1920). In comparison to 1908, the 1918 reported catch of 29 million pounds (13 million kg) indicates a near tripling of the catch. Ex-vessel value also rose by more than 50 percent to US$0.034/lb ($0.075/kg).

Management considered the trawl more advantageous than the seine, as it was "generally operated in deeper water," "usually took only bottom species" which were generally "second class fish" in comparison to "the important shore and surface feeders which were taken incidentally in seining" (Tulian, 1924).

Scientific management also became concerned with growth overfishing and saw a necessity to limit the harvest of shrimp less than 6 inches (15 cm) via closed seasons (Viosca, 1924). Management was largely unconcerned with recruitment overfishing, feeling that adult shrimp in the Gulf were "largely protected by natural conditions" and suggested that laws be enacted which would allow fishermen to harvest adults "whenever and wherever they may" (Viosca, 1928).

After 1900, the northern Gulf coast entered into an era of commercial industrial expansion based upon the exploration for and exploitation of oil and gas. Refineries and chemical plants were set up near major oil and gas fields, many being built along the Mississippi and other major rivers and bays (Louisiana Writers' Project, 1941). By 1989 these activities would play a major role in making Louisiana and Texas the leaders in emissions of toxic gases and liquid wastes in the nation.

The highly destructive 1927 flood of the Mississippi River ended the somewhat patchwork-like system of discontinuous public and private levees. The US Army Corps of Engineers was charged with developing and maintaining a series of continuous levees south of Baton Rouge, Louisiana to the mouth of the Mississippi. It would construct a system which would deprive the surrounding marshes of most of the Mississippi's freshwater and mineral-rich silt, while sending much of the latter cascading down the continental shelf. Bays such as BaratarĂ­a would no longer be characterized by constant currents that resulted from the vital flow of the Mississippi River.

In the 1930s, oil and gas exploration activities, including seismic blasts, entered the marshes. The account of Louisiana's Lafitte Oil Field, located in the estuarine heart of the Gulf shrimp fishery, is instructive. "Additional canals, essential because the ground will not support the weight of a man are being built. Storage tanks and field buildings are set up on the edge of the canals." The canals and marsh buggy scars will speed the inflow of saltwater into marshes already deprived of much of the Mississippi's flow (Louisiana's Writers' Project, 1941).

The landings and value of shrimp continued to increase. By 1928 the reported catch was 79 million pounds (36 million kg) and ex-vessel value was US$0.038/lb ($0.084/kg). This was 2.5 times the 1918 catch, though ex-vessel value was similar [US$0.034/lb ($0.075/kg) in 1918].

A major expansion

In 1931 a state-federal cooperative shrimp investigation was initiated between the US Bureau of Fisheries and the natural resource departments of the states of Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. These efforts were initially designed to develop yield models consistent with management's concerns about growth overfishing. They represent the first period of scientific concern over the finite nature of the resource.

Writing in the mid-1930s, the chief federal government scientist, Milton Lindner, noted the recent dramatic expansion of the Atlantic shrimp fishery off the southeastern coast of the US, and called for all the states to implement a program for obtaining daily catch statistics (Lindner, 1938). Lindner, like other federal scientists, was concerned about the possibility of spawner-recruit overfishing. They noted that if the annual shrimp spawn was dependent upon a single year class, then the fishery lacked stability and that the results of recruit overfishing could be sudden and severe (Weymouth et al., 1933). "Because of the constantly increasing drain on the shrimp population," Lindner (1938) pointed out the necessity of knowing "whether or not there is a reserve supply of shrimp available beyond the range of the commercial fishery" and for taking appropriate actions if such a reserve did not exist.

Ironically, Lindner's desire to determine the extent of a spawning reserve resulted in a rapid expansion of the fishery. Fishermen from Florida's east coast migrated with their large Florida-style vessels to Morgan City, Louisiana in 1937, once they learned from Lindner, that same year of his initial efforts to map it, the extent of the large schools of white shrimp off the Louisiana coast (Lindner, 1940). In that single year, the Louisiana annual reported catch jumped from 60 to 76 million pounds (27 to 34 million kg), a 27 percent increase which was credited to the new offshore fishery (Louisiana Department of Conservation, 1944). At the same time the ex-vessel value increased by 28 percent.

"A year later (1938) another invasion (the Morgan City vessels being the first), this time by oil drillers, took place" and the continental shelf of the north central Gulf eventually became one of the most important oil exploitation regions in the nation (Kniffen & Hilliard, 1988).

In 1938 and 1939 Lindner mapped the shrimp concentrations of the US Gulf "between the beach and the one hundred fathom contour from the Mexican border to Carrabelle, Florida." He found that shrimp were so abundant that "a small nine-foot trawl towed at full speed ... [took] ... as much as eight gallons of shrimp ... in a half-hour." These studies revealed no additional concentrations of shrimp comparable to those being exploited off the central Louisiana coast and concluded "that there appears to be little likelihood of other offshore areas being [similarly] developed" (Lindner, 1940, p. 391, p. 393). He mentioned no commercial concentrations of brown shrimp, although he was well aware of this species. It is noteworthy that great concentrations of brown shrimp would be reported later in a similar survey in 1950.

A summary of Lindner's findings was published for the general public in Walford's (1947) Fishery Resources of the United States. Walford's pictorial description on the extent of the fishery clearly defines it as a nearshore white shrimp fishery with the Louisiana coast as its geographical center (Fig. 5.2).

The advent of World War II essentially ended these scientific studies and any efforts Lindner might have contemplated to protect the stock of white shrimp whose spawning grounds were now completely covered by the fishery.

The offshore component of the shrimp fishery continued a rapid rate of growth and expansion over the period from 1938 to 1948, with a majority of the fleet retaining Morgan City (Louisiana) as its home port. White shrimp continued to account for 95 percent

Shrimp occur along the Mexican coast, but how extensively they are distributed, how abundant they are, and whether there is intermigration between them and the stock occurring along the United States coast are unknown.

Commercial Catch Intense s Most Catch

Fig. 5.2 Prior to 1948, the US Gulf and South Atlantic shrimp fishery was mainly restricted to the locally known concentrations of white shrimp. This illustration, taken from Walford (1947), shows where those concentrations were greatest.

of the catch and Louisiana continued as the center of production (Anderson et al., 1949). Beginning in 1946, US shrimpers began fishing off the Mexican coast, and in 1947 at least 48 vessels transferred from US to Mexican registry, so as to shrimp legally in these waters. Others continued to fish outside the Mexican territorial sea. By 1950 the reported US Gulf catch was 143 million pounds (65 million kg) and the reported Mexican Gulf catch was 47 million pounds (21 million kg).

A new fishery: shifts in species dominance and abundance

In 1948 some shrimpers began to notice increasing catches of brown shrimp. These were difficult to market in Texas, though catches were small, but not in New Orleans where they found a ready market (Denham, 1948a,b).

The dominance of white shrimp in the fishery and fishing grounds appears to have ended abruptly in the late 1940s and early 1950s (Burkenroad, 1949; Viosca, 1958). Available literature (e.g., Werlla, 1954) from that time suggests that it was a cataclysmic drop in abundance of white shrimp which coincided with a sudden increase in abundance of the nontraditional brown shrimp (Fig. 5.3). Toward the end of the decline (in 1957), the white shrimp harvest in Louisiana was reportedly 10 percent of the pre-1952 average (Viosca, 1958), representing a 70 million pound (32 million kg) reduction. The decline was felt by Viosca to be associated with spawner-recruit overfishing and the severe drought of 1952-57 - the impact of the drought was magnified by the greatly restricted flow of the Mississippi River into the marshes (Viosca, 1958). However, growth-overfishing, the spraying of DDT on nearby sugar cane fields (Charles Lyles, personal communication, 1989), and early oil and gas exploration, and manufacturing activities should not be discounted as having had adverse effects

Fig. 5.3 New shrimping grounds for pink and brown shrimp discovered by shrimpers and the US Bureau of Fisheries during the decline in abundance of white shrimp. (After Springer, 1951.)

Despite the then-national pre-eminence of the Gulf shrimp, it appears that no major national research efforts were undertaken to assess the extent of this decline in white shrimp production or to measure the magnitude of this possible species shift. Rather, national attention focused on the two new fisheries for large brown and pink shrimp.

The last expansion

In 1948, two vessels from northeastern Florida found fish-able concentrations of pink shrimp on the coral-rich bottoms of southeast Florida's Dry Tortugas and a fishery developed almost overnight. Two boats fished the grounds in January; 125 to 175 boats fished in February; and by March 1, there were 250 to 300 boats from all of the US South Atlantic and Gulf states, except Louisiana (Idyll, 1950). The total catch for that first year, 17 million pounds (7.7 million kg) (tails), was the maximum ever recorded for these grounds.

Despite what must have been a "gold-rush" development, no caution was suggested by management, at least at the national level. The view was that "much of the area is protected from fishing gear by coral" and that shrimp is an annual crop and the catch does not depend on the accumulation of several age groups... . [T ]here appears to be no necessity to regulate the fishery ... [unless] later, it appears that small shrimp dominate the catches [to prevent growth overfishing] (Idyll, 1950, pp. 15-6).

For at least the third time scientific information helped the fishery to expand. This time it was deliberate. The US Fish and Wildlife Service undertook exploratory fishing operations to assist the industry in the expansion of the newly discovered pink shrimp fishing grounds. Beginning in southern Florida, the fishery continued around the US Gulf coast in a band which later proved to fully encompass the depth distributions of brown, white and pink shrimp. By 1950, these efforts had documented the extent of most of the US-associated habitats of these species (Springer, 1951).

Lindner's suggestion that a spawning reserve was needed, or Viosca's concern that white shrimp had been spawner-recruit overfished, did not surface again to any appreciable extent. The scientific management of these species entered a period where it was apparently believed that it was essentially impossible to overfish these resources, for a variety of reasons, including high individual egg production rates and areas of untrawlable bottoms. Lindner's concerns over the potential of a cataclysmic decline in such fisheries and Viosca's dramatic depiction of such a decline for white shrimp became buried in the literature. Until this writing, they have remained as muffled calls of concern from the past.

The period from 1950 to 1976 is marked by continued growth of the fleet, full use of the domestic fishing grounds, and continued expansion of the foreign fishing grounds into Central and South America (Fig. 5.4). Reported US landings increased to 210 million pounds (95 million kg) with an average ex-vessel value of US$1.31/lb ($2.89/kg) in 1976, as compared to 143 million pounds (65 million kg) and US$0.06 to US$0.28 ($0.13 to $0.62/kg) ex-vessel value in 1950.

Fig. 5.4 Average annual offshore harvest of brown, white, and pink shrimp for the period 1959 to 1963. Catch composition was 52 percent brown shrimp, 26 percent white shrimp, and 22 percent pink shrimp. (After Osborn et al., 1969.)

In 1976 the Fishery Conservation and Management Act (FCMA) was passed, and the Gulf shrimp fishery entered a new era with the adoption of a federal fishery management plan for US Gulf shrimp.

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