BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster has had an economic impact far beyond US borders. The Bay Islands’ lobster and shrimp fishing industry is on a firm path to benefit from the Gulf’s misfortune. The shrimp bonanza is years overdue, and after several lean seasons couldn’t have come soon enough. After the 2003-04 US embargo on Honduran shrimp, diesel prices going from 60 cents to $3 a gallon, and shortage of cash, the Bay Islands’ fishermen could use a break.
As of June, 87,000 square miles, or about 36% of Gulf of Mexico shrimp fisheries were closed to fishing and many shrimp buyers were reluctant to buy Gulf shrimp for fear of contamination. The prices of seafood in US rose and Honduras fishermen lined up to benefit from this opportunity. The 2010 Honduran fishing seasons opened early: lobster season opened on July 1, and shrimp season followed on July 22.
The current lobster prices are around 60% higher then last year. The buyers pay $14.15 per pound of lobster, compared to $8.50 per lb. paid last year. The increase is less with shrimp whose prices have risen around 25% and one pound of shrimp brings in $2.60. While the lobster prices are high, they don’t approach the record prices of $18.50 that were paid in 2001 and 2002.
The shrimp buyers pressure Honduran fishermen to sell their wild shrimp at prices similar to Pacific farm raised shrimp. The Honduran fishermen are beginning to develop a brand name to their product: the “Honduran pink”- as a select quality product. The idea is to disassociate the wild Honduran shrimp with lower quality, farm raised shrimp raised en masse in Honduras’ Fonseca Bay. Developing a brand name is a difficult matter and some see an up-hill struggle. “It will take a united effort on the part of the fishing industry and there has been little of that in the last 40 years,” says Shawn Hyde, GM of Mariscos Hybur, one of Roatan’s two working packing plants
The seafood industry is always changing. Ten years ago, 90% of Honduran shrimp was being sold and shipped to US. The 2003-04 US embargo on Honduran shrimp forced many boat owners to diversify where they sell their product and currently only 50% of Honduran shrimp is sold in the US. The rest is sold in Central America: Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. By exporting shrimp to the Central American market, “we can save around $1.25 in packing cost,” explains Evans McNab, Bay Islands Commissioner and fishing fleet owner.
With fuel prices spiking for the last five years the shrimp industry in the Bay Islands has been struggling to stay profitable. Shrimping in the Gulf of Honduras became a balance of paying for boats’ costs, diesel and crew salaries. In the last several years many fishing boat owners in the Bay Islands were forced to sell their boats and banks have repossessed dozens of others.
It takes between $30,000 and $50,000 to equip a lobster boat for the season. A shrimp boat is less costly, about $15,000-$25,000. In the past, boat owners could count on financial help from banks or packing houses to outfit their boats with fuel and supplies for the season. However, banks and packing plants are also strapped for cash and not so willing to help boat owners, many of whom now own only a fraction of their boat. “80% of the fleet has mortgaged 100% of the value of their boats,” says Hyde. “I know of only five [boat owners] that are solvent.”
Out of the 170 boats that hold lobster licenses now only around 60 are based on Roatan, with 60 on Guanaja, and the remainder in La Ceiba, a growing base for the Honduran fishing fleet. Roatan still remains the base for Honduras shrimpers with 80% of the 42 boats being based here. Only one of the four Honduran conch fishing boats is based on Roatan.
La Ceiba is also a location of growing number of packing plants – around a dozen now. In recent years two packing plants closed in the Bay Islands reducing the number to four operating packing plants: two on Roatan and two on Guanaja.
Every boat that is able to go out fishing means a regained livelihood for Bay Islands families. With eight people employed on a shrimp boat and 14 people on a lobster boat, Bay Islands has seen hundreds of fishermen lose their source of income. “Many captains are working abroad,” says Evans McNab. With a closing of Bay Islands’ packing plants, hundreds of employees, mostly women, have also lost their jobs.
On a good year, the Honduran fishing industry grosses around $100 million Lempira, or $5 million. While the 2010 season looks good, it comes after several years of break-even seasons and to an industry that is fragile and shrunk. “You don’t know how a season is going to be until it is over. There are hurricanes, etc,” says Hyde. “Still, while the world economy is bad, our prices have gone up.” [/private]