Cold Weather, Pesticides, Imports Blamed : Georgia Shrimp Industry Falls on Hard Times

Times Staff Writer

Leonard Crosby, who has made his living with a shrimp boat for nearly half of his 45 years, strolls down an empty pier alongside a fleet of white boats swaying at anchor on a breezy, overcast March day and worries aloud about the hard times that have befallen Georgia shrimpers.

The shrimping season along the Georgia coast is still weeks away, but Crosby, who is president of a local fishermen's cooperative, and his friends are already apprehensive.

"Last year was the worst year I've had since I've been shrimping," he said. "We got some good fishermen around here. We just need something to catch."

Last year's harvest of Georgia white shrimp, known as some of the tastiest found in American waters, fell dramatically from the 1983 crop, and prospects for this season are uncertain. Up and down the coast, shrimpers are puzzled about the reason for their empty nets. Most in this coastal community agree that a combination of cold weather, the influx of commercial development and overharvesting have contributed to the poor harvest.

But there is bitter disagreement about how much harm is caused by the pesticides used to fight mosquitoes and kill corn and tobacco worms. Shrimpers and their supporters contend that the spraying is killing shrimp larvae as well. Buddy Stanley, co-owner of Cooke Seafood in Tybee Island, Ga., has little doubt about it.

"It's for damn sure it's not just the weather," he said. "I think the spraying has a hell of a lot to do with it, myself."

However, state and county officials say that the pesticides are blameless. "The materials we use do not harm the shrimp," said Oscar Fultz, director of the Chatham County Mosquito Control Commission. "We take every precaution to be good husbands to the environment."

Whatever the cause of the low yields, many shrimpers, deep in debt and living from one trip to another in their homemade boats, have been driven out of business. In Georgia and in other hard-hit states, some have turned to the Small Business Administration for loans. Thus far, 56 in Georgia have been lent a total of $3 million. Shrimpers in South Carolina and Florida have received $1.7 million and $178,000, respectively.

Foreign Competition Cited

The shrimpers' economic problems are not caused by poor harvests alone. Foreign competition has driven some shrimpers here to compare themselves to auto workers seeking federal protection from the production of other nations.

"If anybody has been put out of business or lost a job because of imports," Crosby said, "they know exactly why we're fighting so hard."

The shrimpers feel that they are under attack on several fronts.

There is the weather. In the winter of 1983-84, temperatures plummeted so much that young shrimp died from the cold, and when trawlers dragged their huge nets over the ocean floor last spring and summer, they often came up empty. Now, many here wonder whether January's cold snap bodes ill for this year's crop.

The proliferation of shrimpers has not helped the situation. With Americans' increasing appetite for seafood, many saw golden opportunities in the shrimp business. So they built or bought boats, outfitted them and headed for the estuaries where, they believed, wealth lay on the muddy bottom.

Dream Goes Sour

Ira Williams of nearby Savannah is one of these men, his dream fueled by 38 years of part-time shrimping. Williams, 59, retired in 1979 after 28 years of teaching and, with a $105,000 loan, built a 62-foot fiberglass boat, naming it the Vertell W., after his wife.

But since the time that he made his big financial commitment and went seriously into the business, he said, "everything has gone sour."

Three of the last four shrimp harvests in Georgia have been below the 10-year average of 3.5 million pounds.

Last year, the catch off the Georgia coast amounted to only 1.8 million pounds of shrimp, down from 4.8 million pounds in 1983, said John Vondruska, an economist at the National Marine Fisheries Service in St. Petersburg, Fla. The estimated value of the state's shrimp harvest fell from $22 million in 1983 to $8.9 million in 1984--a drastically diminished share of the nation's $480-million shrimp business.

For Williams, it means a struggle to pay the $1,800 monthly note on his boat. He has tried to sell his boat, he said, but nobody has been able to come up with the $185,000 asking price. Last October, he applied to the SBA for a $28,000 loan.

235 Applied for Loans

SBA spokesman James Jennings said that 235 Georgia shrimpers applied for the 3% interest loans after the federal agency last October certified their industry in Georgia as "economically injured." But many shrimpers are sending their congressmen the message that such assistance is not enough.

Rep. Thomas F. Hartnett (R-S.C.), who represents coastal areas, said that most of the shrimpers are unable to go to Washington personally to protest. "They haven't come in, bless their hearts, because they can't afford the airline tickets," he told a reporter, "but they sure have been reaching out and touching someone," a reference to the slew of telephone calls to Washington.

Rep. Lindsay Thomas (D-Ga.), who represents this area in Washington, said that many shrimpers call to complain that foreign competitors benefit from the subsidies of their own governments and from inexpensive fuel. His shrimper constituents have complained that they are thus subjected to unfair competition, he said.

Congressional researchers estimate that 73% of the shrimp eaten in America is imported, with 32% from Mexico and 20% from Ecuador.

A congressional aide puts U.S. shrimp imports at $1.2 billion a year, more than the $1.1 billion this country exports in all other seafood combined. And shrimpers further complain that Mexico imposes a 100% tariff on U.S. shrimp while this country imposes no tariffs or quotas on shrimp.

The shrimpers' laments have a familiar ring in the nation's capital. From the avocado growers in California to the textile executives in North Carolina, the entreaties to Washington are the same: Provide more protection.

And the pressure is mounting. As a member of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, Thomas, who supports free trade, said that he has so far resisted calls for subsidies, import quotas or tariffs. But with his constituents "hanging on for dear life," he is "getting mighty close" to changing his view, he said.

The issue of foreign competition is so volatile that shrimpers have persuaded the International Trade Commission to investigate its impact. A commission hearing is scheduled for March 21 in New Orleans, and a study will be conducted in August. Shrimpers hope that the research will bolster their case for legislation.

Meanwhile, the men in the shrimp boats go south to Florida, where the crops are better, the weather warmer. Or they venture outside the three-mile limit off Georgia's coast.

And they wait for June, when state officials are expected to open the season for shrimping within three miles of shore. "We're going to keep on trying," Ira Williams said, "and hoping and praying that we'll have a good season."

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