The Gulf Coast shrimping industry evolved from a local fresh market with a distribution controlled by how quickly the shrimp would spoil. Shrimp have been caught by a number of methods over the years from people just grabbing them with their hands out of shallow water to the modern offshore diesel powered shrimp trawler using four 50 foot otter trawls in the Gulf.
In the late 1800’s shrimp on the Gulf Coast were harvested using cast nets and seines because they could be operated in by hand in shallow water. There are records indicating the harvest of large amounts of shrimp in Galveston bay, Texas using haul seines from sail and oar powered small boats (Journal of Francis Sheridan). In the 1860’s a Chinese rice farmer from Canton named Lee Yuan brought the method of drying shrimp from California to Louisiana.
The first platform for sun-dried shrimp was built on Grand Bayou in Louisiana in 1873. The shrimp were boiled first in salt water then placed on a platform where they dried for three to four days. The shells were removed from the shrimp using a method known locally as the “shrimp dance”. Workers wearing special wooden shoes would slide across the dried shrimp cracking the shells making the meat easy to sift out. This method was so successful that it was registered with the US patent office. In 1884 the demand for this sun-dried product resulted in the establishment of a town called Manila Village deep in the marshes of Louisiana. There was 40,000 square feet of drying platforms, a store, post office and housing.
The vessels they used were called sailing luggers. They were shallow draft boats with a single square red sail set on a spar running diagonally across the mast. Another method of preserving shrimp other than drying was pickling, often called canning then, though the shrimp were usually placed in jars or barrels. With the advent and rapid spread of the otter trawl in 1912 and the replacement of sails with engines, the shrimp fishery began to ramp up its ability to produce product, especially after WWI.
In the 1920’s canning became was the major shrimp processing and marketing method with dried shrimp fading off the market. The shrimp vessel primarily used until 1938 was still the small shallow-draft lugger only now it was equipped with an engine instead of a sail. In many cases these vessels used butterfly nets instead of trawls to get into very shallow and weedy areas. This type of net was rigged off the bow with a spar straight out from the side of the boat using a net either on one side or both. With the advent of ice making equipment and refrigeration in the 1930’s the marketing range of shrimp was greatly increased.
During WWII 150 million pounds of shrimp or more were caught every year ranking shrimp in the top five fisheries in the US. White shrimp, as opposed to brown now, were the dominant species caught. Shallow water or near shore trawlers made up the bulk of the shrimping fleet in the Gulf. After WWII the abundance of white shrimp decline and was replaced by the brown shrimp in the catch. Shrimpers had to go father offshore to get the larger more marketable brown shrimp. Larger 50 to 60 foot vessels were used in this fishery and rigged with a single otter trawl up to 120 feet wide at the mouth.
It wasn’t until the mid-fifties that offshore vessels were “double rigged” with two otter trawls each 40 to 50 feet wide. It was found that even though the total size of the trawls were less than a single rig it produced 15 to 30 percent more shrimp. By the mid-sixties nearly all offshore vessel were at least double rigged with two 75 foot trawls, were refrigerated and used loran which enabled them to travel farther and stay out longer than ever before. The typical offshore trawler today is rigged to pull four otter trawls, has GPS, refrigeration and even a few are equipped to produce “Individually Quick Frozen” (IQF) shrimp.
Think Global – Act Local!