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Economy adding to shrimp industry woes

Season closing next week

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POSTED: January 9, 2009 1:49 p.m.
Photo by Lauren Hunsberger/

Joey Lawler works out of a van parked near the corner of Highways196 and 84 in the McIntosh community.

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Longtime seafood vendor Joey Lawler said he is known throughout the region as the fish and shrimp man.
Exclusively selling Georgia wild shrimp and locally caught seafood, he has supported his wife and three daughters for more than a decade. If you’ve spent time in the area, you know him; he works out of a white van at the corner of Highways 84 and 196 with a sign, “Fresh Shrimp” in huge red letters.
But as this year’s extended shrimp season ends next week, Lawler, like many local shrimpers and vendors, said with fluctuating gas prices, import competition, and the economic slowdown, it’s been a rough year.
“It’s been slower; about one-third has dropped off from business,” Lawler said. “People just aren’t spending money like they used to.”
He said he has relied on an ongoing love affair between Southerners and their shrimp to pay his bills and, soon, to put his three girls through college. But consumer spending is down, especially for luxury items like crab and shrimp.
“Thank goodness for the fuel break. Without it, I couldn’t stay in business,” he said.
Even with gas prices down from summer highs and a slight boost in sales during the holidays, business for Lawler is comparatively slow.
Unfortunately, Lawler isn’t the only one struggling. Economic problems have saturated the seafood industry, which supports many Southern coastal cities on a much larger scale.
“Our spring and summer productivity is off a considerable amount,” said John Wallace, president of Georgia Shrimp Association. “Because of gas prices a few [shrimp boats] had to tie up.”
On an even larger scale, John Williams with the Southern Shrimp Alliance, which is involved with shrimpers in eight Southern states from Texas to South Carolina, said it’s a national issue.
“It’s across the board,” he said. “It’s stabilized some, but it hasn’t gotten better.”
“We’ve lost thousands of jobs and continue loosing every day.”
Williams points out through a recent survey conducted by NOAA’s Fisheries Service that industry layoffs will eventually add up. He said the impact will be felt because the report showed that in 2006 (the most recent year available), seafood retailers generated $103 billion in sales, $44 billion in income, and supported 1.5 million jobs.
Williams said he’s already feeling the pinch and is in the process of getting rid of some of his boats.
If there is a silver lining for the industry, it’s that the causes are identifiable. Vendors and fishermen alike say the number one problem is the unbeatable price of imported, farm-raised shrimp. In a hard economic time, cheap shrimp are hard to compete with.
“Eighty-five percent [of places that sell shrimp] are using imported shrimp, if not higher,” Wallace said.
He said the problem with imported shrimp is complicated. He said they hurt both the local industry as well as the consumer.
“Farm-raised shrimp have high levels of antibiotics. We’re trying to get people to understand the difference,” Wallace said.
Lawler agrees that fresh shrimp are best for consumer’s health and taste buds, which is why he never sells imports.
“These guys slept in the creek last night,” he said holding giant fresh shrimp.
Shrimping experts also agreed high diesel prices and low consumer spending are the other major forces causing the problem to snowball.
As for the future, Williams said informing the public about the health, taste and economic benefits of buying local shrimp over imported is part of the solution, and he hopes, like most businesses, the economy will pick up again.
“We’re going to be around,” Williams said. “We’ll do whatever we’re called upon to do.”

 

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