With twelve large canneries shipping more than fifteen million cans of oysters each year, early twentieth-century Biloxi had the greatest seafood-packing capacity in the world. In 1890, Biloxi’s packers processed more than 2,000,000 pounds of oysters and 614,000 pounds of shrimp; a dozen years later, those numbers had risen astronomically, reaching 5,988,788 pounds of oysters and 4,424,000 pounds of shrimp. With more capacity to process than supply, packers outfitted schooners and hired captains and crews of between six and twenty to seine for shrimp in the marshes of Louisiana. In 1915 fishermen organized with the International Longshoremen’s Association and presented packers with a contract for wages and working conditions. Because packers controlled the boats and gear, fishermen could stop the supply of shrimp only by interfering with the equipment. Packers complained to the Louisiana Conservation Commission that their shrimpers were being intimidated in Louisiana waters. With Louisiana law enforcement agents ensuring their control of boats, gear, and workers, the packers refused to negotiate, and the union voted to end the strike and return to work under the old wage scale.
Around 1918 shrimp trawls and motorized boats were introduced in Mississippi. Because two men could handle a trawl and individual fishermen could afford powerboats, boat ownership shifted from factories to fishermen as packers got rid of their fleets and purchased shrimp from individual shrimpers. By the end of the 1930s schooners had fallen out of use. Because most fishermen owned their own boats and gear, they were independent of processor influence. With control of their boats and New Deal legislation supporting workers’ right to organize, fishermen formed unions. In August 1932 Biloxi shrimpers went on strike. A federal negotiator worked out an agreement under which packers would recognize the union and pay the union’s price for shrimp. In a 1955 court case, however, the union was found to be violating antitrust laws, fined, and outlawed, and its officers were sentenced to jail. In 1949 some fishermen began exploring the waters of the Gulf of Mexico for shrimp. Word of their success got out in February 1950, large boats converged on distant fishing grounds, and shrimpers began to build boats for rougher waters and longer voyages. Investing in mechanical processing equipment and freezing technology, packers further increased their capacity and began to import shrimp. Within a few years independent shrimpers found themselves squeezed between the need to earn enough money to pay off debts incurred by investing in new technology and big boats on the one side and declining shrimp prices on the other.
Processors encouraged heavier shrimping efforts to increase the amount of shrimp. Some lent money to shrimpers or advanced ice and fuel against their catches, while others helped to establish Vietnamese immigrants in shrimping beginning in the 1970s. By 1989 about half of Mississippi’s shrimpers were Vietnamese. Today, about three-quarters of the state’s shrimp harvest is brown shrimp, which are most abundant from June to October, while white and pink shrimp are plentiful in the fall and spring.
Factors affecting shrimpers in the twenty-first century include the influence of environmentalists and regulations requiring the use of turtle excluder devices, natural disasters (Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005), and human-caused disasters (the 2010 Gulf oil spill). Researchers at the Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center estimate that Katrina and Rita caused more than thirty-five million dollars in damage to the state’s commercial fishing fleet and more than one hundred million dollars in damage to Mississippi’s 69 seafood-processing plants, 141 seafood dealers, and 5 land-based support facilities. Prior to 2005, the state sold an average of nearly eighteen hundred shrimp licenses each year; subsequently, however, that number has averaged around one thousand. The reduction in the number of shrimpers has generally meant better conditions for those who managed to rebuild their businesses after the hurricanes.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill resulted in the closing of Gulf fisheries for nearly a year and led to lingering—though largely unfounded—concerns about the safety of Gulf shrimp. Despite its short-term negative effect on Mississippi’s shrimp harvest, the closure of the fisheries may prove helpful in the long term, as it allowed shrimp to reproduce unimpeded.
By the second decade of the twenty-first century, the state’s commercial shrimp industry generated $57.44 million in income, had a total economic impact of $141.77 million, and created more than three thousand jobs.
- E. Paul Durrenberger, Gulf Coast Soundings: People and Policy in the Mississippi Shrimp Industry (1996)
- E. Paul Durrenberger, Human Organization (1992, 1994, 1995, 1997)
- E. Paul Durrenberger, It’s All Politics: South Alabama’s Seafood Industry (1992)
- E. Paul Durrenberger, Labor’s Heritage (1994)
- E. Paul Durrenberger, Maritime Anthropological Studies (1988)
- Christopher L. Dyer and Mark Moberg, Maritime Anthropological Studies (1992)
- Robert Nathan Gregory, “Shrimp Business Bounces Back for Some, Not Others,” http://extension.msstate.edu/news/feature-story/2015/shrimp-business-bounces-back-for-some-not-others (27 August 2015)
- Ed Lallo, “Biloxi’s Seafood Industry Is Brown, White, and Pink,” http://gulfseafoodnews.com/2014/09/24/biloxis-shrimp-industry/ (24 September 2014)
- US Department of Commerce, Bureau of Fisheries, Report of the US Commissioner of Fisheries (1899–)
- Hannah Waters, “Breaking Down the Myths and Misconceptions about the Gulf Oil Spill,” http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/clarifying-myths-and-misconceptions-about-gulf-oil-spill-180951136/?no-ist (17 April 2014)