5. The steel hulls

In the 1960’s, 1970’s and increasingly so in the 1980’s, the agencies in the federal government associated with the Gulf shrimp fishery encouraged and subsidized the building of large sea going vessels, particularly steel hulls to participate in the Gulf shrimp fishery. In Texas large shrimp processing plants were building fleets of boats that could supply them with shrimp all year and shrimp plants in Louisiana were following suit. In the winter, water temperatures in the shallow inshore lakes become too cool for shrimp to survive and they migrate to the deeper waters of the Gulf miles from the shore as they have done for millennia.

The steel hulls
The steel hulls

In the early years of the Louisiana shrimp fishery the shrimp fishing vessels were not constructed to brave the turbulent winter storm in the offshore waters and winter shrimping was restricted to the beaches on the sparse calm days after cold fronts. With the advent of steel construction, vessels could be made bigger and stronger to brave the winter elements and fish year around; however this new technology came at a tremendous environmental price.

The steel hulls were hundreds of times more expensive to build, maintain and operate than the traditional small wooden boats and required a tremendous amount of fishing effort to be profitable.

Up to this time there were few full time shrimp fishermen in Louisiana, shrimp fishing was a seasonal activity when the shrimp were plentiful, when the shrimp moved into the far offshore waters the fishermen turned to other means of seasonal income like oyster fishing, fin fishing, crabbing, farming, trapping , farming and seasonal labor such as carpentry, working in shipyards and local construction projects.

Once the fishermen made the huge investment of an offshore steel hull he could not let it sit idle and had to fish it all year to be profitable; most of the income from the sale of shrimp went to support the operating cost of the vessel ( cost of harvest), and most fishermen had to borrow money to build the vessels and dept obligations had to be paid even when the vessel was moored to the dock, but the overall shrimp production increased and the owners of the large shrimp processing plants were becoming millionaires over night.