"We need all the help we can get"
Those were the first words Acy Cooper said to me as I crawled onto his small shrimp boat docked at a Venice marina.
Removed from the hustle and bustle of the charter fishing marina an inlet over, the dock was quiet and lined with small shrimp boats. It seemed an appropriate meeting place for the story: a community standing as a physical example of the Louisiana seafood industry's decline over the last decade.
Old, abandoned lodges stand empty, much like Rome's Coliseum, an ancient relic to a much grander time. A little more than 75 miles southeast of New Orleans, it seems as if Venice is at the end of the world.
"It's something that gets in your blood, and you can't get out of it"
The community has played home to generations of shrimpers passing their craft down to their children, who then in turn pass it on to their own children.
Cooper likens his family's long history of shrimping to a physical trait.
"It's something that gets in your blood, and you can't get out of it," he told me.
But when we talked about the future of the industry that's so ingrained in his family legacy, the conversation took a more dismal tone: "If we don't change things, there won't be an industry in Louisiana in 10 years the way we're going," Cooper said.
For more than a decade, Louisiana's shrimping industry has suffered one disaster after another, from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, then the BP oil disaster in 2010. But the industry's resiliency may now be at a breaking point.
"It we don't change, there won't be an industry in Louisiana"
Julie Falgout retired from shrimping more than a decade ago, and she's now the seafood liaison for the LSU AgCenter. She says it may be foreign imports that push the industry to the edge.
Since the 1980s, imported shrimp have flooded the U.S. market, providing a mass amount of seafood that's cheaper than the wild-caught shrimp common to the south Louisiana dinner table. The quantities are increasing steadily, with the total reaching about 1.2 billion pounds last year.
NOAA figures show 90 percent of all the seafood consumed in the U.S. each year is imported, and that number is up from 60 percent just two decades ago. The majority of those imports are shrimp, and shrimpers say they just can't compete with the foreign prices.
Falgout believes that there's a role for imported shrimp, saying the country's appetite for shrimp is simply too great to be sourced only from local fisheries. The problem is not necessarily that we're importing seafood — she says it's that we import more than we can eat.
That excess is of seafood is being felt at the docks, keeping the per-pound price lower for the shrimpers and fishermen bringing back their catch, even as the cost of doing business increases.
Seafood imports do make it cheaper for consumers to buy shrimp. But Cooper and Falgout warn that consumers who put a premium on fresh local seafood may not be getting what they think.
"People need to be reading, look at the back, don't look at the country that processed the shrimp. You want the country of origin," Falgout said.
Local processors can buy imported shrimp but process it in local facilities, which can lead to consumer confusion on the food's origin. Such shrimp, although imported, can still be sold as local, Louisiana shrimp.
Cooper's advice: "Ask for the box. If you go to a restaurant and ask where their seafood comes from and they say Louisiana, ask for the box."
"Ask for the box"
The concerns over imported shrimp go beyond the finances, as a recent Government Accountability Office report raises questions about the health quality of seafood products shipped to the U.S.
Half of all seafood imports originated in an aquafarm, where seafood is raised and harvested in a controlled environment. The industry has seen enormous growth over the years, and while aquafarms have helped in keeping seafood prices low, the use of antibiotics and steroids — some of which are illegal in the U.S. — leaves residue in the product that ultimately makes it onto our plates.
The FDA, which is responsible for monitoring the quality of our food, has admitted its limited ability to actually test for these drugs. The GAO report suggested that the FDA tighten up its regulations like other places have done, such as the European Union, saying that some of the imports coming in to the U.S. wouldn't be allowed in Europe because of unsafe drug residues.
Falgout says that the answer to the testing is simple: "We need more testing at the ports, physical testing." But she concedes with the FDA's position that it does not have the resources to physically test all of the incoming product.
Cooper, who's also president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association and supports increased testing at the ports, tells me he sent the FDA a letter expressing his concerns with the quality of the shrimp entering the U.S. market. He said the FDA assured him that they tested the seafood 100 percent, but with one caveat: those tests were done electronically.
Currently, the FDA relies on a computerized screening system to determine which seafood is admissible and which products should be physically examined. It's based in part off of past complaints against companies that may have failed tests because of unsafe amounts of drug residues.
As of this year, 85 different companies from several different countries had been flagged by the FDA for providing a poor product, with many of the complaints dating all the way back to 2009. But the current testing mechanism still only leaves leaves seafood importers with a 1 in 1000 chance of selection for additional testing.
Out of all the seafood that was refused, more than half of it was shrimp. According to the GAO report, only 550 samples of the more than a billion pounds of shrimp imported in 2015 were tested for drugs. Of those samples, 12 percent of the tested shrimp contained unsafe drug residues.
So what does the future look like for Louisiana's shrimping industry?
"We have some good families who are business oriented," said Falgout, sounding cautiously optimistic — if not almost hopeful. "There will still be an industry. It'll be smaller, but there will still be an industry."
That same optimism wasn't shared by Cooper, whose years working on a shrimp boat have made him a little more guarded. We talked about his family both past, present and future and their ties to making a living from the sea.
"You try to get your kids to do something else, but they're not going to do anything else — it's in their blood," he said.
I asked him if he was hopeful about the future of the industry. He paused and looked out over the water before he had an answer: "I don't know."
By the end of our interview, the water had begun reflecting the reds and pinks of the setting sun. And as I stepped off of Cooper's boat, he closed our conversation with the same plea that opened it:
"We need all the help we can get"