Caught in the Bayou

It’s impossible to describe everything that happened last Saturday, the boiled peanuts, the slave plantation, the narrowly averted wild Bobcat attack, the drive-thru beach, so I’ll just start at the point when I’m standing on a shrimping boat getting sniffed by a carnivorous dog named Hunter, who’s known as much for his love of Arby’s roast beef sandwiches as his habit of falling overboard.

Sitting at the helm is Hunter’s master, Jeb, unquestioned commander of this ship, the Captain Lee. Jeb’s been shrimping off the coast of Florida for 30 years. The clutter in the bow seems to date back just as long. I stand awkwardly in a mess of overflowing ashtrays, dog food, screws and specialized fishing tools I’d never seen before. A tacky pin-up girl shares space on the wall with a crucifix and twice already the dog has stuck its snout up my sundress. This ship is obviously designed for men to spend weeks together at sea. It wasn’t made for girls in floral prints.

Jeb’s been painting and fixing up his boat to prepare for the shrimp season that begins May 1. Despite the improvements he’s made all around, he’s reluctant to replace the splintering front windows. They’re made of a special baby blue tinted plastic that isn’t manufactured anymore, but Jeb can’t imagine clear or brown tinted windows on the Captain Lee. It just wouldn’t look right. Such aesthetic concerns are the unknown woes of the shrimp fisherman.

Window colours seem trivial compared the Jeb’s financial troubles. Since diesel went from 80¢ to almost $4 a gallon, fuelling up means he leaves port $30 000 in debt before he catches a single shrimp. Even if he has a good catch, prices of wild Atlantic shrimp can’t compete with Asian and South American farmed shrimp. Almost all the restaurants in the area are chains – Popeye’s, Red lobster, Papa John’s – and they all sell imported, farm raised shrimp, despite the local fishing industry.

Almost as though on cue Jeb admits to the great Fisherman cliché; after so long at sea, he can’t imagine doing anything else, though he understands why his own son isn’t interested in the business. Despite a love for motorcycles, it’s obvious that Jeb’s attention rarely goes beyond fishing. Lost in the mess on the counter are four seasons of HBO’s Deadliest Catch and a copy of The Perfect Storm, DVDs about fishing to help him get through the long boring hours of actually fishing. Jeb picked them up cheap at Blockbuster when it went out of business last year. Blockbuster video couldn’t compete when people started downloading movies from the Internet, or renting them for a dollar from the DVD booths at McDonald’s.

I leave feeling depressed. Since Jeb started fishing farmed shrimp has taken over 90% of the American market. I wonder what will happen to him and Hunter. Will the Captain Lee be sold off in pieces like Blockbuster? Its baby blue windows, nets and front helm may end up decorating a booth at the local Red Lobster, inviting us to imagine genuine American fisherman while we enjoy $20 all-you-can-eat shrimp, farmed fresh in Thailand.

Jeb and Hunter wave goodbye

(Here’s a great feature article on the shrimp industry, from my favourite left-wig environmentalist magazine: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/4395)

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2 Responses

  1. Dude, well-written but incredibly depressing points.

    Very insightful, as ever.

  2. I probably read it five times by now. There is no way to describe the situation better than you did!

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