Last man standing

The year 1983 was shaping up to be the best of times in coastal Louisiana. Every town was a boomtown, and shrimp was the gold that was being raked from the state’s waters. The twin villages of Lafitte and Barataria were no exception. Corvettes and Cadillacs were parked in many garages. Hundred-dollar bills were the coin of the realm.

The prices that fishermen received for shrimp had been escalating faster than the consumer price index. An increasingly affluent world wanted more shrimp and was willing to bid up the price of the available supply.

Not only was every pound of shrimp becoming more valuable each year, more pounds of Louisiana shrimp were being caught every year.

Louisiana’s catches continued to ramp up and would do so until 1986. Biologists generally agreed that because of the biology of the animal, it would be almost impossible to overfish it. There seemed to be no end to the amount of shrimp the state’s waters could disgorge.

Ronald A. Dufrene, then 24, of Barataria was one of a whole generation of young South Louisianians who jumped wholeheartedly into the commercial fishing industry, viewing fishing as a career with a future. Typical of Cajun Country residents –– who seem to all have nicknames –– young Dufrene was and still is known to everyone as “Jug.”

“Fishing is what people in my age-class did,” says Dufrene. “Kids now go to college. This was our college. Everybody who was anybody got a boat.” On top of that, Dufrene stemmed from several generations of commercial fishermen and marshland fur trappers.

His pride and joy was his 98-foot-long steel-hulled deep-sea shrimp trawler, the Mister Jug, which he purchased in partnership with his father, Milton. Built in 1980, the same year that he acquired his bride, Jan, the boat cost $400,000. So heated had the demand for offshore shrimp-trawling vessels become that shipyards building them could almost name their own price. Four years before, a similar vessel could be purchased for half that amount.

Still, Dufrene was confident. Diesel fuel prices were plummeting after the short-term petroleum scare caused by the Iran-Iraq war, and shrimp prices were still increasing. Good crewmen were relatively easy to find, and he believed in his own abilities to find and catch shrimp.

Besides, could so many people be wrong? Lafitte-Barataria was home port to more than 600 commercial shrimp boats, including 120-plus big offshore trawlers like his. By 1987, the peak year for commercial shrimping license sales, 4,044 trawls and 1,772 skimmer nets were licensed for use in Jefferson Parish, where Lafitte-Barataria is located.

But in 1983, a hemisphere of the earth away, a revolution was taking place. The first major crops of farm-raised shrimp were being harvested in Ecuador. Their appearance caused a tremor in the relatively well-ordered world market for shrimp.

Each successive year, more aquacultured shrimp appeared in the marketplace. The tremor became a temblor, and then it became a major earthquake. World shrimp markets were buried under an avalanche of shrimp. In spite of increasing world shrimp consumption, prices began to tumble, a trend that continues today.

This year, the Mister Jug sails as the last survivor of the once-powerful fleet of offshore shrimp trawlers from this port.

As the three deckhands, 50-year-old Mike Dick of Avondale; 34-year-old Troy Whitfield of Picayune, Miss.; and 30-year-old James “Woody” Ronquille of Lafitte, cast the mooring ropes off their pilings, Dufrene powers up the boat’s twin Caterpillar engines enough to ease the leviathan into midstream in Bayou Barataria.

From a well-worn captain’s seat in the wheelhouse, Dufrene studies his home community pensively as it passes by, Lafitte on the eastern side of the bayou and Barataria on the western side. Its character is changing from that of a fishing community where everyone knows everyone and their business to that of a gentrified waterside suburb of Greater New Orleans.

Some of the waterside homes border on luxurious, and almost all of them, large and small, have immaculate fiberglass sport fishing boats stowed in boathouses or elevated in slings over the water’s surface. The bayou itself is alive with cruising sport fishers, oil field service boats and a handful of smaller working commercial fishing boats.

Occupying the chair next to the captain’s chair is Dufrene’s constant companion, a 6-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, named –– somewhat incongruously, given the setting –– Sweetie Pie. “My wife, Jan, named her,” he offers, not too convincingly.

Dufrene stands to stretch. He’s a big guy, almost Bunyan-esque, at 6-feet-6-inches tall and 350 pounds. Although he sports a devilish grizzled goatee, his low-key voice and warm brown eyes divulge a gentle side.

His long hair is pulled back into a ponytail, which he is growing out for Locks of Love, a group that provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children who have lost their hair due to chemotherapy. “It’s aggravating,” he murmurs. “You really gotta wanna grow long hair to grow it.”

During the five-hour run to Barataria Pass, the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico, the three crewmen do the odds and ends needed to get the boat ready for the trip. They stow equipment, pump fuel between tanks and roll up and store spare trawl tails.

Mostly, though, they reserve their energy, for they know what is coming. For the next two weeks, the vessel’s engines will never shut off except for brief maintenance. The boat will fish “clocks,” meaning that trawling will be done around the clock, 24 hours a day, with the crewmen resting between trawl drags. Dick will spell Dufrene at the helm daily so that the captain can get some rest.

As the Mister Jug nears the pass, Dufrene takes the boat out of gear to lower the massive 65-foot outriggers, the large steel booms on each side of the vessel from which the trawls will be pulled. Each outrigger weighs 7,000 pounds.

Then the crew engages winches to deploy the metal trawl doors and their companion dummy doors from their storage spots on the deck out to the end of the outrigger. The 3,200 pounds of doors and chains go over the rail on each side of the vessel with a thunderous boom. “Many a hand has been broken or finger lost doing this,” Dufrene says matter-of-factly, never losing his concentration on the task at hand.

On each side of the vessel hang $10,000 worth of gear and nets, a lot to lose if the boat snags its nets on an underwater obstruction. Hard as it is to believe, this equipment is smaller and less expensive than what Dufrene used before downsizing as part of his “survival strategy.”

As the vessel passes the brick ruins of historic Fort Livingston on the eastern side of the pass, it meets the rolling groundswell of the open Gulf of Mexico. In the open water, the great white charger heaves to life and begins to plunge across the Gulf. It seems to know that it is going to work and strains at its bit to reach its destination.

At their planned shrimping location, the crew mans the huge main winches to let out enough metal cable to set the trawls well behind the vessel. Each of the four trawls is 32 feet wide. On the starboard, or right, side of the vessel, a smaller winch is used to set out a small 12-foot test trawl to the inside of the two big trawls on that side.

Dufrene uses the test trawl as his sampling spoon. While the large nets are retrieved once every several hours, the small test trawl is retrieved and checked much more frequently. Its catch, while small, gives Dufrene an indication of how well the big trawls are catching. If he does really well with the tester, he can swing the boat through the area of good catches. If he does poorly, he makes a mental note to avoid the area.
Back in the cabin, Dufrene sets the two 400-horsepower engines to the task of pulling the bottom-hugging nets at slightly under 3 knots. They begin gulping $1.58 per gallon diesel fuel at the rate of 20.5 gallons per hour.
As darkness descends around the vessel, Dufrene sadly and resignedly talks about the darkness that has enveloped the Louisiana shrimp industry. “We put too many boats in the fishery in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so the catch per boat went down,” he says. “Then prices went down, down, down.”

The numbers bear Dufrene out. A recently released 2007 shrimp marketing report from Jack Isaacs and David Lavergne of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries shows a decline of 45 to 50 percent in the real price for shrimp that shrimpers received at dockside from 1995 through 2007. And the biggest declines in price had already taken place before 1995.

Dufrene goes on: “Diesel prices increased, and so did other costs of upkeep. Pulling a boat like this out of the water for its needed once-a-year bottom maintenance costs $30,000 to $50,000. Profits became smaller, and good crewmen drifted to other, better-paying work.”

Large shrimp boats like the Mister Jug, while highly profitable when things were good, were pinched most severely. Some boats were repossessed by financial institutions, and others were sold. The first buyers primarily were ambitious Vietnamese immigrants, who carried a strong work ethic and were willing to work close to the bone.

But as profits continued to plunge, the demand for used vessels declined in the Gulf shrimp fishery and a diaspora began. Boats ended up being sold into commercial fisheries from Alaska to Maine and from South America to Africa. Some remained as shrimp boats; most were converted to crabbers, scallopers, long liners and bottom-fish draggers.

Dufrene checks his watch and declares it is time to pick up the nets. He slows the great engines. Dick and Whitfield manhandle the winches, which howl and groan under the strain of retrieving the big trawls.

Soon the crewmen have four massive trawl bags, weeping seawater and bulging with shrimp, swinging over the vessel’s deck. Like parts of a well-oiled machine, each crewman knows his task. The trawl bags are swiftly emptied, and the trawls reset.

While Dufrene has the vessel trawling up more shrimp, the three crewmen quickly hand-sort the shrimp from the other contents of the catch into several plastic baskets. Each basket holds a different size category of shrimp.

After sorting, the shrimp in each basket are thoroughly washed in clean seawater and poured into mesh bags similar to onion sacks. The sacks are immersed in a large brine freezer on deck where they are individually quick-frozen.

As soon as they are frozen, the bags of shrimp are removed for storage in the freezer hold at 10 to 20 degrees below zero. The shrimp are frozen within an hour of hitting the deck and look as fresh and lifelike as live shrimp.

So goes the routine, 24 hours a day for the next 10 days. The shrimp come first. No one sleeps when there are shrimp on the deck.

Sitting in the wheelhouse in the darkness, with only the glow from his electronic instruments to light his face, Dufrene explains that what he is doing now is his survival strategy. “I sell direct to the public, as well as to restaurants and retail markets that want a product that is at the peak of its quality.” 

He continues:  “I offer fair prices, but what really sells my shrimp is the pride that I take in my product. People know where the shrimp come from, and they know that they aren’t imports and don’t have phosphates added to them. They get to talk to the guy that caught them the shrimp for them.”