Foreign imports have stifled the Gulf Coast shrimping industry for more than two decades, but the small fishing town of Delcambre has implemented a progressive new marketing program to extend its reach beyond the traditional scope — via the Internet.
Delcambre Direct Seafood was established weeks after the 2010 BP spill as a proactive way to connect Vermilion fishermen directly to their market through a website.
“Since the ’80s, the shrimping business has been going down because of imported products,” explained Thomas Hymel, an agent with the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center and the Louisiana Sea Grant Program. “A lot of our fishermen were going out of business. Delcambre Direct is a program that we started here in this community as a way to really revitalize the shrimping industry.”
The website — DelcambreDirectSeafood.com — provides photos, bios and contact information for participating fishermen and fisherwomen. A message board details when each boat is coming in with a “Fresh Catch” — as the message board is named — so the site’s followers are first to learn about the incoming product via email update.
Hymel said by guaranteeing the shrimpers immediate buyers, they can get double the price than if they were to sell wholesale.
“It creates this easy connection between people that are wanting seafood and people who are providing it, because we had kind of lost this community connection for local seafood,” Hymel explained. “Used to be everybody knew a shrimper. But now, you’ve got so many new people around, different people, and it’s not the same as it was.”
“When I started shrimpin’, I was young, and it was good,” observed Gregoire, now 48. He described a time years ago, when shrimp boats would line the canal the length of the marina. Now, on most Saturdays, Gregoire is the only shrimper around.
“There’s still good money to be made,” he added, “but it’s not like it used to be.”
After the BP spill barred fishermen from work for a while, Gregoire sought refuge working with cleanup crews and bounced back quickly. But fuel prices continued climbing, and the massive expansion of imported seafood continued driving down the prices local shrimpers could get for their catches.
Albert Granger, of Granger’s Seafood in Maurice, has been shrimping for more than two decades.
“When I first started shrimpin’ (in the ‘80s), they were talkin’ about the problem of overseas shrimp, and everybody was just like, in one ear and out the other,” Granger recalled. “And me too. We didn’t see it coming, and all of a sudden, they threw that market on us and it knocked our prices down. When I started shrimpin’, the shrimp that you get $1 for now, you got $2.50 a pound 20 years ago. Can’t compete.”
But with the new millennium came accessible new technology, and a struggling industry sought to harness this power to net customers and drive prices.
“People, they got knocked down really to the bottom, and so now, the old way of doing business is not viable anymore,” explained Hymel. “So for them to survive and go forth, they gotta sell some of their product in the market, fresh.”
Delcambre Direct Seafood was the prototype, and it was an immediate success that spawned three spinoff sites — for Cameron Parish, the South Shore of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans and LaFourche and Terrebonne parishes — all under the umbrella of Louisiana Direct Seafood and helmed by Hymel. The Gulf States Marines Fisheries Commission awarded a $560,000 grant to launch the programs.
Gregoire, who doesn’t even have an email address, said the site has boosted his business. He calls into the Port when he’s on his way in from fishing, and his load is usually emptied within a few hours.
“It just can’t get no better,” he said.
And the success of the program goes further than fresh: Louisiana shrimp now has its own brand.
Vermilion Bay Sweet, as it’s labeled, was revealed at the Delcambre Shrimp Festival in August 2012 and represents the first packaged, Louisiana-branded, frozen shrimp product available year-round on the market.
“It’s good stuff,” said Al Granger’s wife, Cheryl, who markets Vermilion Bay Sweet to local supermarkets and oversees its distribution to markets that have already picked up the product.
Specialty stores — like both NuNu’s locations in Youngsville and Milton and Hebert’s Specialty Meats in Maurice — already carry Vermilion Bay Sweet, which is locally caught, handpicked and regionally packaged as an additive-free, frozen product available in all seasons. They come in two sizes: a $19.99 package of 26-30-sized shrimp (which translates to 26-30 pieces per pound) and a 70-90 that goes for $8.
“It’s locally caught,” added Cheryl, “and that’s what makes it special.”
It’s also the first product to come out of Louisiana with the “authentic” Louisiana seafood seal.
Port of Delcambre Director Wendell Verret said the nationally trending drive to buy local and organic is the driver behind Vermilion Bay Sweet and Delcambre Direct’s marketing push.
“That’s the whole movement, and it’s goin’ on across the whole country,” explained Verret. “People are just tired of big-box mega-food. You don’t know where your food’s being produced, what they’re puttin’ in it. And plus, local is all about the flavor. It’s a lot better flavor. We’ve still got a long way to go, but we know we’re on the right track.”
Hymel agreed the program is unique to the region.
“We’ve got the most progressive seafood-direct marketing program probably in the country right here,” he insisted.
“And it’s only gonna grow,” added Al Granger. “It’s doin’ fine so far. We have a vision. It’s not completely better yet, but we have a vision.”