© 2024 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Fewer shrimpers are hitting the water in North Carolina

Jennifer Lang
A shrimp boat.

You remember what Forrest Gump says after he becomes a shrimp boat captain: "Shrimping is tough!”

Well, that’s certainly true in North Carolina, where shrimp is the second-most commercially harvested seafood. The total dockside value of shrimp in the state in 2022, what seafood dealers pay before it gets sold wholesale, was about $10 million. That’s down from about $30 million in the 1980s and 1990s.

The slip in value has led to a decline in the number of licensed shrimpers hitting the water, to the lowest on record in 2022. Reporter Johanna Still looked into what’s behind it all and wrote about it for The Assembly. She joins me now.

Marshall Terry: You say Americans eat more shrimp than any other kind of seafood, about six pounds each a year. So if it’s not coming from North Carolina, where is it coming from?

Johanna Still: So if you're eating shrimp in America, it was probably imported, and it was also probably raised on a shrimp farm. India and Ecuador are the biggest importers, and Indonesia and Vietnam are also up there. Domestic wild-caught shrimp makes up as little as 10% of what Americans consume and there are a lot of reasons for that — but it's not because there aren't enough shrimp in the ocean. Those other countries are able to, with comparatively much weaker regulations and strong subsidies, ship over much cheaper shrimp, which is, of course, attractive to bulk buyers.

Terry: You profiled the Davis family who runs Davis Seafood on the North Carolina coast. Tell me about them. They’ve been shrimpers for decades, right?

Still: Yeah, the Davises live on Davis Lane in Sneads Ferry, and that's a little fishing community outside of Jacksonville. Family members own the whole peninsula, they're in on the business, cousins, fathers, brothers, you name it. Shrimp is 90% of what they do, and they sell a lot to Wilmington-area buyers. Compared to their peers in the industry, they've actually been in not as bad of shape because they have such a loyal base of retail customers, and that's just regular people who make the trip to see them and buy dozens of pounds at a time to last them through the season.

Terry: You write this goes beyond just financial concerns. How so?

Still: Right. So, shrimpers primarily are frustrated that the system isn't financially fair, given imports coming in at a price that are cheaper than it costs to even produce them. But there are also a bunch of ethical and health concerns at stake, like banned antibiotics, slave or exploitative labor or environmental destruction with the shrimp farms. And then there's also this cultural question: Do we, as a community, want to lose the shrimp and fisheries infrastructure? Do we want to see those places turned into condominiums? Because that's what the industry is saying will happen if nothing changes.

Terry: How complicit are restaurants and consumers in all of this?

Still: So, I learned from my reporting that it's an open secret that a majority of waterfront restaurants here on the coast mostly serve imported seafood. I grew up my whole life going to these places, and I just never really would have assumed otherwise. So, I was totally naive to that fact. And I think a lot of other consumers probably are too. If customers aren't insisting on or asking for local, and a restaurant can pay a fraction of the cost, then it's pretty tempting for them to take that route.

Terry: So, what are shrimpers like the Davis family doing to try and turn things around?

Still: Well, the fact is, there's less and less shrimpers around. In 1995, there were about 1,000 commercially licensed fishermen who sold shrimp, and that number dropped to around 300 in 2022, the lowest number on record. So, they're just going away. Shrimpers along the east and Gulf Coast have been fighting for change. One way is through federal bulk buys, where the government will come in, buy the product at a fair price and use it for public purposes like a school lunch or something. That hasn't happened yet in North Carolina, but it has happened further south. Shrimpers are also gunning for a share of the tariffs that some importers pay that are assessed because they're not playing fair. But right now, they're not seeing any of that money.

Terry: How likely is anything to change anytime soon? Is this on the radar of lawmakers?

Still: Well, there are some shrimp friendly laws that have been filed recently. In January, our local representative, Republican David Rouzer, he represents southeast North Carolina, he co-sponsored legislation in the U.S. House that would give shrimpers some of those tariff proceeds and it would also create a more robust antibiotics inspection program. In the grand scheme of things, though, North Carolina isn't as big of a shrimp producer compared to Louisiana or Texas. And it seems those states have been able to make a little bit more headway on this front so far. But I guess the rest is, you know, we'll see.

Sign up for our daily headlines newsletter

Select Your Email Format

Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.