“Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it gets worse,” said Pat Mathews, the owner of the Lazaretto Packing Co. on Tybee Island, as he walked away from a truck idling in the loading zone.
Early on a Monday morning in October in the height of shrimp season the driver had come to pick up a load of freshly caught shrimp from the James W. Salyers, a shrimp boat captained by David Attia. The driver delivered disappointing news, informing Pat that this would be the last load he would be able to pick up for the foreseeable future.
The Mathews family has been in the seafood business for over a century. Where they once owned several seafood markets, their business now centers on the dock they own at Tybee, one of the few hubs of the industry that has been an iconic business on Georgia’s 100-mile coast.
Americans eat more shrimp than any other seafood— yet for decades, the shrimping communities in Georgia and across the South, from the Atlantic to the Gulf Coast, have faced choppy financial seas as they have lost market share to low-cost, imported shrimp from countries like Ecuador, India, and Indonesia. The National Fisheries Institute said that of the 921,000 tons of shrimp sold in the U.S. market in 2022, only 1,018 tons came from Coastal Georgia.
This year Georgia shrimpers say the glut of foreign shrimp is so large — and fuel prices so high — that they aren’t launching their boats. Those who are trawling say they can’t sell their catch because the distributors that have served as their regular customers have no space to store more product. Warehouses, they say, are full from a post-Covid pandemic surge of imported farm-raised shrimp.
As a result, some of the remaining crews trawling for shrimp say this season may be their last. “If you can’t sell your product, they can’t stay in business. It doesn’t matter how good you are,” Mathews said.
Farming takes hold internationally
Ask anyone on a shrimp dock what caused the industry to decline, almost everyone will begin with political finger pointing. They cite cheap farm-raised shrimp imported from China or policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that opened America’s borders to cheaper goods from Mexico.
A study by Texas A&M researchers suggests more complex reasons: In the early 2000s, Asian countries expanded shrimp farming efforts thanks to subsidies by international development organizations.
Coca-Cola even entered the industry, partnering with the University of Arizona and the University of Sonora in Mexico to build an experimental one-acre shrimp farm in that state. Five years of research led to a breakthrough allowing shrimp to reproduce in captivity with a low-cost food source. Suddenly shrimp farming became more profitable, and agencies such as the United Nations, Inter-American Development Bank, and the Asian Development Bank joined the World Bank in financing aquaculture.
Between 2000 and 2003, Asian suppliers sold shrimp to the US at 40% below the international market’s average price per pound, flooding the domestic market, according to the Texas A&M study. Georgia-based shrimpers felt the impact immediately: They saw the average price for local shrimp drop in half, according to data provided by the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
For the next two decades, shrimpers continued to face challenges, including a sharp rise in fuel costs and more intense hurricane seasons.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and local shrimpers saw a brief revival. Imports dried up, and during this time the domestic market, with no imports to contend with, experienced a boom with wholesale Georgia shrimp prices jumping to $5.34 a pound from $3.95 a pound, according to DNR records.
This was one of the few times that the cost per pound of white shrimp caught in Coastal Georgia increased since the 1980s. According to the Coastal Resource Division of the Georgia DNR, in 1980 the average price per pound a captain would receive was $3.22 ($12.03 adjusted for inflation). As of November, this year it’s $3.90 per pound, but it can dip as low as $0.98, depending on size. Meanwhile, the cost of the commercial diesel used in shrimp boats was $3.85 a gallon this fall.
“Around the pandemic… those two years were some of our best years. We didn’t have a flood of imports coming in,” said Aaron Wallace of the Anchor Shrimp Co., a shrimp processing plant in Brunswick.
But, imports from shrimp farms in Asia and Latin America came roaring back in 2022 when global shipping started again. Quickly, overseas companies began dumping frozen shrimp on the U.S. market at below-average prices.
John Smith of Smith and Sons Seafood Company in Darien, one of the last two processing plants in Georgia, said the effect was overwhelming and devastating. “You may have had an order for five loads spaced out over time, and now you get five at one time,” he said, referring to the increased volumes of frozen, imported shrimp that totaled more than America’s average annual consumption.
His competitor in Brunswick agreed. “They just dumped everything in here. It’s stupid, the prices you can get these imports for. There’s no way to even near compete with (them).” Aaron said.
Competition on global scale
Georgia shrimpers primarily blame shrimp farming countries like India, Ecuador, and Thailand for flooding the U.S. market with shrimp at costs they can’t compete with. They also are frustrated with U.S. lawmakers for not protecting local industries by enforcing existing laws meant to protect American jobs.
Many overseas workers employed to harvest shrimp from man-made ponds or to de-head and shell shrimp are subjected to conditions likened to modern day slavery, according to an investigation by journalists of the Associated Press.
Despite the U.S. ban on imported goods produced with enslaved labor, U.S. Customs records show that these shrimp regularly make their way into stores such as Kroger, Walmart, and Whole Foods, according to the AP.
The European Union, worried about the health effects from antibiotics fed to farmed shrimp, banned such imports. America has not.
The economic pressures can be seen in the idle empty boats up and down the coast, and the families who say their sons and daughters can’t or won’t be following on in their traditional family business.
In 2000, Georgia issued 523 permits to commercially trawl for shrimp. In 2023, 184 permits were issued. Of those, only 117 were issued to Georgia residents. Of those, only 61 boats have reported actively shrimping this season, according to data provided by the DNR.
The evolving business climate, they said, changes the landscape of their lives and the communities they have called home for generations.
The small shipyards that once dotted the coast and serviced shrimp boats have almost disappeared, with only two remaining. One in Valona, north of Darien, and one in Brunswick.
The docks that the boats have called home, in places like Darien and Thunderbolt, outside of Savannah, have been bought up by developers, torn down, and replaced with riverfront condos. Wynn Gale, a lifelong resident of Darien who started shrimping in 1985, sees the changes as a sign of generational loss.
“Yeah, we lost the railway where they pull the boats out to service them. We lost the fuel dock. We lost the ice dock. And 200 feet or more of waterfront to tie the boats up to dock. So, a substantial piece of waterfront we lost,” he said.
All but two of the plants in Coastal Georgia that de-head, peel, package, and freeze shrimp for distribution have disappeared along with the hundreds of jobs they once provided.
As of this shrimp season, only one plant in Georgia, and another in South Carolina, are buying shrimp from Pat Mathews’ dock. Smith’s plant, Mathews added, is paying a dollar more per pound than the one across state lines.
Looking for hope
Paige Morrison of Savannah is trying to get state officials to protect the at-risk industry.
She has rallied shrimp harvesters and dock owners to form the Georgia Commercial Fishermen’s Association, and since October they have been lobbying for fairer trade practices, better labeling so consumers know the country of origin for imported shrimp. They also want to see a new label to market Georgia seafood as a luxury product to overseas destinations.
They also work with the U.S. Shrimpers Coalition, a group representing the shrimp industry in eight coastal states, in an effort to impose tariffs and enforce anti-dumping regulations on countries such as India and Ecuador.
The GCFA has also teamed up with state Reps Jesse Petrea (R-Savannah) and Buddy Deloach (R-Townsend) to push Gov. Brian Kemp to sign a declaration of disaster. This action could open up relief funding from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
But back in the deep blue seas where the shrimp run, few safety nets exist for boat captains trying to eke out a living.
Fishing has always been a risky business, dependent on weather, good luck and some ingenuity.
Less profits, meanwhile, mean less money to invest back into the main vessels that make fishing happen: the boats. Now, boats have to travel further to get their catch to dock, increasing the potential for breakdowns.
Capt. David Attia, working with his brother Marcus on the boat James W. Salyers invested in a high efficiency diesel engine to burn less fuel and purchased a freezer boat, rather than an ice boat, to ensure a higher quality product. They are also looking for new markets. “To be honest, we have been seeking markets further away from the shorelines in efforts to move our product closer to populations desiring fresh wild-caught seafood,” Attia said.
For those focused on Georgia’s coast, however, the tight profit margins of the industry and the tight labor market means captains have a hard time finding boat crews. The average age of a boat crew is 55, and younger workers aren’t there to take their place, they said.
“You’ve got Mom and Pop places that are just closing their doors. Getting rid of the boats. Can’t find help to do it. You got to have money to get help,” Wallace said.