September 9, 2016

Shrimp-boat orders swamp Gulf builders

The Gulf Coast will be swarming with shrimp-boats as over 100 steel vessels are being built for fishing companies which have been cashing in on the favorable ex-vessel prices and their new-found prosperity and rosy outlook. Shrimp fishery in the Gulf Coast towns such as Bayou LaBatre, AL, is also booming because of low fuel prices and insurance premiums. Many new boat buyers are Asian-Americans who have fled Vietnam.
More than 100 steel shrimpers are either under construction or on order at yards along the Gulf Coast. Solid ex-vessel prices, available money and optimism are fueling the boom.

Imagine a place where fishermen have lots of money in their pockets to spend on new boats, and smiling boatbuilders’ only problem is finding enough welders.

Although such a place may seem like fiction, it actually exists. Welcome to the Gulf Coast town of Bayou LaBatre, Ala.

Speeding north from this town of 2,500, where virtually everyone is a fisherman or related to one, are trucks laden with high-dollar shrimp. Inbound are truckloads of steel and yellow engines. Spurring the activity is the simple fact that shrimp which sold for $2/lb. two years ago now bring $4/lb. at the boat.

Joe Rodriguez, along with his family, owns three Gulf shrimpers, a major construction yard and an interest in a supply house. He says his three fish boats, with hired captains, are making twice the money they did two years ago. The Rodriguez Boatbuilders yard by mid-year had delivered 10 Gulf shrimpers to U.S. fishermen and had orders for another half-dozen.

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“A combination of events has brought about a turnaround in the shrimp fishery,” he says. “As an example, fuel prices are low–I’m paying 58 [cts.] a gallon. Insurance rates dropped for my boats. Caterpillar is loaning money at reasonable rates to fisher men who install Cat diesels in new boats–often to fishermen who could not get a bank loan. Shrimp ex-vessel prices have doubled in the past two years. Also, certain shrimp species, the extreme example being rock shrimp, are bringing good prices. Only a few years ago, we dumped rock shrimp. Now, we sell five species of shrimp and the once lowly rock shrimp brings $1.40/lb.”

Rodriguez, whose yard has built more than 100 fish boats including offshore crabbers, longliners, draggers and scallopers, says that, “In the past eight years, most of the warm water shrimp trawlers we’ve built went to foreign owners or fished in foreign-based fleets.” He’s now delivering vessels a lot closer to home for work in the Gulf

Most of those buying new boats are from Asian-American families who settled along the Gulf Coast after fleeing their Vietnam homeland. “Our last 10 boats went to Asian-Americans,” says Rodriquez. He adds that its next 10 boats will probably go to Asian-Americans from Texas to Florida.

U.S. fishermen began ordering 80′ to 100′ shrimp boats at the steel boat yards of Bayou LaBatre last fall. At mid-year, the yards had delivered or had on order some 100 fishing vessels, all finished as Gulf of Mexico shrimpers, and orders are still being placed. Ninety-five of the new fish boats are going to Asian-Americans.

Among the non Asian-Americans who have taken recent deliveries are Frank Weckesser of Fairhaven, Mass., and his partner, Steve Strader of Bayou LaBatre. The new 90′ Freedom joins the 86′ Mary Jane, originally a dragger that was converted first to a scalloper and then two years ago to a shrimper. Weckesser and his son, Buddy, also operate the steel shrimper Donna Marie. Buddy Weckesser, the family’s south coast port manager, says more Weckesser boats will head south.

Another veteran fisherman with faith in the Gulf is Ralph McIver of Crescent, Ga. McIver replaced his old Desco fiberglass shrimper with a Rodriguez-built 82′ x 22′ Cat 3412-powered freezer boat .

Rodriquez says the yard also has an order “for the largest, most powerful, shrimper we’ve heard of.” That boat is the 100′ x 26′ Lucky Peter under construction for Peter Tran of Port Arthur, Texas. Tran put two Cat 3412s in his new freezer boat and specified 72′ outriggers from which he’ll tow four 70′ nets.

A few hundred yards from the Rodriguez yard, Master Boat Builders Inc. delivered 13 Gulf shrimpers in the second half of 1994. Since January, the yard has launched 14 shrimp trawlers and, at mid-year, had 18 shrimpers on order. “We’re having our best business year in a decade,” says yard Manager Andre Dubroc.

Dubroc underscores that the building boom is cyclical. “Fishing is good and prices are good but, additionally, the timing is right. Boats built in the ’80s are getting old and some of our Asian-American customers treasure a new boat.” Also, he says, among Asian-Americans there seems to be some rivalry–if one gets a new boat, his friend wants one also–maybe a foot or two longer.”

Dubroc reports that the new boats are 80′ to 100′ with most getting dual Cat engines in a mix of paired 3406s, 3408s and 3412s. He notes that a pair of Cat 3412s puts out more than 1,000 h.p., which he says he has seldom seen before this year in a Gulf shrimper. “As a builder,” he says, “I can’t imagine a skipper will net more shrimp with two engines, but some say they do.”

A typical single-engine order at Master Boat Builders is the 95′ x 24′ Prosperity, a 620-h.p. Cat 3412-powered trawler with 6:1 Twin Disc gear, a 5″ shaft, a 65″ nozzled wheel, a deck-mounted brine tank freezer and a freezer hold for storage of bagged shrimp stiffened in the brine tank. The Prosperity went to Traong Mai of Dickinson, Texas, in June.

At LaForce Shipyard Inc., owner Francis La Force has turned down a dozen boat orders while delivering eight shrimpers since January, with six more scheduled for fall delivery. Except for a Cummins KT19-powered 80-footer built for Bryan Cumblie of Bayou LaBatre, the La Force Boats typically sport Cat engines. La Force says the building boom may last until the end of the year.

Across a fence from the La Force yard, the sign on the gate of Johnson Shipbuilding reads, “Now Hiring.” The yard has three 98′ shrimpers under construction for Asian-American fishermen based in Biloxi, Miss., and Aransas, Texas, and orders to start when the 98-footers are launched. The Johnson boats will have tandem Cat mains and gensets and brine tank freezers. Frankie Johnson describes them as “typical Gulf shrimpers except for the second screw.”

A few miles from Bayou LaBatre, Williams Boat Works near Coden, Ala., this summer launched a 78′ shrimper for Joe Garcia of Palacios, Texas. The 78-footer was his sixth boat for the Garcia fishing family. The Garcias evidently have faith in the Gulf because, as their latest boat hit the water. Williams started on the first of five more boats for Garcia brothers and cousins.

The Williams yard is essentially a one-man operation-until Winston Williams gets an order large enough to hire help. “People kept coming to me to talk about new boats,” he says. “I finally said, `Give me a down payment and I’ll build you a boat.'” Handed a fistful of money, the small builder is now gearing up to build a shrimper in 90 days, just like the big yards in Bayou LaBatre.

To get an idea of the shrimp money flowing around south Alabama this year, with most of it filtered through Caterpillar Financial Services offices in Atlanta or Nashville, the spec and price sheets of Rodriguez Boat-builders are useful.

Joe Rodriguez, competing with a half-dozen major yards in Bayou LaBatre and nearby Coden, and large and small yards nationwide, sells a 100′ shrimp trawler with dual Cat 3412 power for $665,000, minus electronics, nets and trawl doors. “The electronics and fishing gear packages add about $60,000 to the cost of $725,000,” says Rodriguez.

Rodriguez sells an 85′ single Cat 3412-powered ready-to-fish ice hold shrimper for $516,500 and an 85′ freezer boat with a Cat 3412 main for $564,500. “Chances are,” says Rodriguez, “our prices are within a few dollars of the yards who want to be a part of the current building boom.”

The 80′ to 100′ shrimp boats from Rodriguez and, with few exceptions, neighboring yards, will have 3″ x 4″ x 1/4″ angle frames, a 3/8″ plate bottom with some 1/2″ plate near the wheel, 5/16″ plate on its sides and a 5/16″ work deck. Beams range from 22′ to 26.’ Fishing gear includes a chain-driven McElroy winch turned by the main engine from a front power take-off through an intermediate shaft.

The Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery is somewhat of a mystery to many fishermen outside the region. A key to understanding the fishery’s ability to withstand additional fishing pressure is that shrimp are a self-seeding yearly crop.

Dr. Richard Wallace of Auburn University Sea Grant in Mobile, Ala., says, “Chances are, there are as many shrimp in the Gulf as when Columbus cruised the Caribbean. With a large fleet pulling bigger nets through the Gulf, fishermen may have to fish more and longer trips to pay off a boat, but a collapse of the shrimp fishery is unlikely.”

The reason the Gulf shrimp fishery is sustainable, according to Wallace and other scientists, is what larvae from the three primary shrimp species migrate to protective estuaries soon after spawning occurs offshore. These species — the white, brown and pink shrimp — remain in bays and tidal lands for a few months before returning to deep water. “A `spring season’ to a Gulf shrimper,” says Wallace, “means that size-saleable brown shrimp are leaving their wetland nursery. Later, during the summer, white shrimp will make their swim out of estuaries, signalling the start of a second shrimp `season’.”

Pink shrimp are most populous in Florida Keys waters and, as do brown and white shrimp, spawn offshore and are believed to spend their post larval stage at the edge of the Everglades of south Florida. “Critical to the numbers of young or new shrimp of the year,” says fisheries biologist Wallace, “is the shoreline estuary and tidelands climate–not the number of boats chasing shrimp.” What keeps the fishery reasonably healthy, he says, is the “fantastically large number of eggs laid by a female shrimp each year.”

Two other species of shrimp sought by Gulf Coast fishermen are the royal red and rock shrimp. These species account for a small portion of landings. Wallace estimates less than two dozen boats drag for royal reds, which are found offshore at depths of about 2,000′. He says little is known about the life cycle of royal reds but that they are believed to spend their life in deep water — not migrating to wetlands nurseries.

Rock shrimp, also believed to be non-migratory, are fished off Florida’s Atlantic coast and a few pockets have been found in the Gulf of Mexico. Wallace suggests there could be an overfishing possibility with royal red and rock shrimp since they don’t appear to migrate to safe areas.

“Prices are high now to fishermen due, in part, to a decline in Chinese imports which reportedly is due to aquaculture failures,” says Wallace. “What prices will be in the future, I don’t know, but I’m confident the shrimp will be there if it pays to net them.”

Some native Gulf Coast shrimpers question how and why their Asian-American colleagues are buying such powerful and expensive vessels. There’s suspicion that the U.S. government is somehow subsidizing the buildup and speculation that the Asian-American fishermen plan to return to Vietnam with their new boats to shrimp or sell them at a tremendous profit.

But according to Vincent Mai of Gulf Tex Seafood, there’s no truth to any of the talk. The Dickinson, Texas-based company air ships crab meat to East Coast fish houses.

Mai’s father, Tam Mai, escaped from Vietnam in 1978 with his wife and six children. “My father became a crabber and fisherman because there was little else he could do in a new country,” Mai says. “When you don’t speak English and you have to feed a family, what can you do but fish?”

Today, Mai, 31, manages Gulf Texas, and his mother supervises its 40 pickers and packers. His brother Truong Mai, 29, is a two-year teach school graduate who worked for six years as an electronics technician for an airline before coming to work for the Mai family operation. Another brother, Tung Mai, will graduate in a year from the University of Houston as a mechanical engineer, and Mai’s youngest brother is studying business management. One of Mai’s sisters is a business school graduate, while a second is a community college student.

The family recently took delivery of the 95′ shrimper Prosperity; Truong Mai is being trained as captain by experienced shrimper Tien Huynh, a family friend. “We ordered a boat because we think it is a good business decision and Caterpillar offered favorable loan terms,” Vincent Mai says. “To think that my family is getting special treatment by the U.S. government or plans to sail for Vietnam is silly. We have no plans other than to work the boat in the Gulf of Mexico and land as much shrimp as we can. I think I speak for all Vietnamese boat owners — I’ve heard of no other plans.”

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