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Louisiana Shrimpers Look To Technology To Increase Profits

Tegan Wendland
Thomas Hymel, a seafood specialist with the LSU AgCenter and Sea Grant, talks with shrimpers about freezer technology at the Louisiana Fisheries Forward Summit.

Families who fish for a living in Louisiana struggle to remain competitive in a changing market. They’ve seen prices fluctuate wildly over the past decade and have been hit repeatedly by hurricanes, and then the BP oil spill. It’s hard to make a living. Now they’re looking for new ways to make money by selling direct.

Bobby and Christine Lovell are shrimpers in St. Bernard Parish. It’s hard work and in the past they never knew how much money they were going to make. “A lot of people struggled last year with the price of the shrimp and they are still struggling today because the price… is so low,” says Lovell.

Last year they decided to invest thousands of dollars into new technology for their boat. They bought a new flash freezer with the help of some grants. Much of the good shrimping happens in the fall, and last fall they were able to freeze their shrimp right away, so they could sell it whenever. “Come January, February, March - our income is like a roller coaster downhill,” says Lovell. “We don’t have very much income. It kind of stabilized that income.”

In the past, they would go out into the bay, cast their big nets, and scoop up the shrimp. Then they’d dump them onto the deck, sort them, and store them until they got enough to head back to shore and sell them. It’s hard work.

Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO
The mobile seafood education unit includes a brine freezer.

Now, with their new flash freezer, they can freeze their catch right there on the boat. Fresh is best, but freezing takes out some of the guesswork. The Lovells get to decide to whom they sell their catch and when they want to sell, rather than dumping it all on the dock and settling for whatever the price is that day.

“I go out and I don’t even care what the dock price is,” says Lovell. “I come home and I know my shrimp are being frozen.”

He sells to local restaurants in New Orleans and on the northshore.

Thomas Hymel is excited to hear that shrimpers like Lovell are trying to do this. He works for LSU’s SeaGrant program and wants to help fishermen connect with high-end markets and get more money for their fish and shrimp. In order to compete against cheap foreign imports, fishermen need to create a new supply chain.

“We’re finding… with the whole foodie movement and the interest in buying local, buying fresh… it’s created this whole new opportunity for little processing plants and fishermen to do all kinds of new and novel things,” says Hymel.

Hymel is kind of an evangelist for those new and novel things. He built a model of a boat decked out with all of the latest fishing technology and pulls it behind his truck.

Today he’s at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner for the Louisiana Seafood Summit. Fishermen climb the short stairs to the open-air trailer to learn about new ways to improve their catch. Hymel opens the metal door to a large bin that looks like a cooler. It’s full of briny water. He pulls out a tray of frozen shrimp.

“Here’s some brine-frozen shrimp that we’ve run through it. They turn kind of white looking – and they’re frozen absolutely solid,” says Hymel.

The fishermen and shrimpers watch as he moves over to a big standing freezer and swings open the steel doors. It’s another way to freeze shrimp fast. Plate freezers quickly drop the shrimp to -10 degrees. “Here we have a pack of shrimp. It’s packed in such a way that it can go out through FedEx and get shipped in an insulated box and go all around the country,” says Hymel. “This was all done on the boat!”

It can be a hard sell. The equipment is expensive, big and heavy.

Acy Cooper is vice president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association and a shrimper himself, in Venice. Watching Hymel’s demo he looks a little concerned. “It’s a lot. You’re going to have to have a nice size boat in order to do something like this.” Cooper explains that smaller boats wouldn’t be able to hold all of the equipment, “Now the bigger boats – yes – it’s the way to go.”

Hymel says he’s seen the investment pay off for some already.

Seagrant is helping fishermen in Delcambre get equipment like this and connect with buyers online through a program called Louisiana Direct. “The quality of shrimp that fishermen bring in now because they’re selling it to the public and it’s worth more money has just transformed their businesses and access of wild shrimp to the public,” says Hymel.

Lovell says times have changed, “My dad, he’s set in his old ways. He looks at me and he shakes his head. But all we do is keeping moving forward everyday.”

This new technology has helped him and his wife to continue to make a living off of what they love.

Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. 

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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