By Veronica Del Bianco
On an evening before the new moon, I meet shrimper Nicky Alfonso at his dock in Delacroix, Louisiana, preparing for what he hopes is a productive night out on the water. His Igloo cooler is full of soda and water, his galley stocked with chips and homemade chocolate chip cookies.
There’s only one way in and one way out of the small fishing community of Delacroix. An hour outside of New Orleans, and just east of the Mississippi River, you’ll find the turnoff to Delacroix from a winding road that runs alongside a meandering bayou.
Like many of Delacroix’s residents, Alfonso’s ancestors came from the Canary Islands. But that was many generations ago. He’s married to his high school sweetheart, has two daughters for whom his boat, the Kristy Misty, is named. With the recent birth of his first grandchild, Alfonso is now a “Paw-Paw.”
As he steers the boat through the bayous and lakes, we pass one of his brothers, Lynn Alfonso, coming back from a two-day trip to deeper waters in search of larger white shrimp. He’s given up for now on the brown shrimp season.
The Secret Code of Shrimpers
I ask Alfonso where we are and where we are going, and he rattles off names that he says I won’t find on any map. “We have different names for places,” he explains, “even among families. Secret code names, so that we can tell family members where we are over the radio.”
Good fishing spots are the trade secrets of fishermen. If another boat shows up where we’re heading tonight, it could cut our catch in half.
So all I know is that our destination is a bayou where Alfonso has shrimped for the past 10 years, and that was once shrimped by his uncle.
Calculating the Night’s Catch
Since the opening of brown shrimp season on May 16, 2011, it has been described as weak, lean, and even poor. The average shrimp count — or the number of individual shrimp in a pound — is high, which means the shrimp are small. Catching all the juveniles isn’t good for the shrimp population, and what isn’t good for the shrimp isn’t good for the shrimpers.
Many shrimpers, like Alfonso, went shrimping in the first few days of the season, but catching 100/80 count shrimp at 45 cents per pound isn’t profitable when diesel costs $3.60 a gallon.
During and after the BP oil spill of 2010, the price of shrimp dropped because of consumer concern and misconception. “A lot of people up north don’t want our shrimp,” Alfonso sighs. “I think they are coming around, though. Just maybe not in time to affect this year’s brown shrimp season profits.”
With a glance over his notes on a yellow legal pad, Alfonso relates the catches of the previous two days, 500 then 900 pounds of 70/80 count shrimp. The columns tell him how many shrimp of each size he must catch to make it worth the fuel and effort to leave the dock for a night alone on the bayou.
Based on those numbers and his hand-written calculations, Alfonso grins and predicts that we’ll catch 1,300 to 1,400 pounds of 70/80 count shrimp tonight. It should be his best night yet this season.
Shrimping, Alfonso explains, is about figuring out how you can turn $700 of fuel into a profit to provide for your family. A large part of that is understanding the science of nature.
For example, if shrimpers skimmed during the day at this point in the shrimp’s life cycle, the catch would be a mixture of sizes of shrimp. However, at night, with a falling tide, the juvenile shrimp go back into the marsh to hide, while the larger, more mature shrimp rise to the surface and move to the center of the bayous to ride the current out into deeper Gulf waters. By shrimping at night, Alfonso allows nature to do the first round of sorting.
7 Hours, 9 Nets
Tonight, instead of traveling back and forth along the bayou, eating up fuel at 4.5 gallons of diesel an hour, we drop anchor and “hold the current,” allowing the outgoing tide to draw the shrimp into the nets of the skimmer.
Leaving the motor to run just enough to provide tension on the line, we burn only one or two gallons per hour, conserving fuel and profit.
Initially, we bring up the nets about every half hour and dump the contents onto the deck of the Kristy Misty. We shovel, scoop, sort and pick, throwing the bycatch of blue crabs and bait fish overboard. As the current slows, so does our pace. We complete our ninth and final harvest around 2 a.m.
Alfonso tells me to go lay down in the cabin. It’s an hour’s ride to the dealer’s dock. At first, I refuse, wanting to prove myself a worthy deck hand. But soon my exhaustion outweighs my pride, and I curl up on the bottom bunk for a quick nap that seems over before it really begins.
Good Catch … Maybe
A good shrimp season is defined by many factors, including the size, quantity and price of the shrimp. But price, says Alfonso, means more than anything.
At 60 cents a pound, our catch brought in $887.40, before subtracting the cost of ice and the 25 gallons of diesel gas we burned through.
It’s a good profit for one night, but it was just one night of the season, and each night is different on the bayou. There are nights when the shrimp or the current or both aren’t moving. On those trips, Alfonso’s yield will be lower, his diesel costs higher, and his profit margin thinner. Sometimes, all those equations on his yellow legal pad will tell him that leaving the dock isn’t worth it.
Three days after our successful catch, Alfonso calls to tell me that the price of shrimp has dropped 10 cents across the board. Weak, lean, and poor seem like appropriate adjectives for the Louisiana brown shrimp season, after all.