COUNCIL BLUFFS — If everything you know about shrimp fishing comes from watching “Forrest Gump,” one thing is certain: You don't know much about shrimp fishing.
In order to appreciate how shrimpers who trawl the Gulf of Mexico haul in the 110 million pounds of “whites and browns” that land in U.S. supermarkets and restaurants each year, you have to go where the shrimp are.
That means a trip to the bayou. A team from Hy-Vee made the trek just before Christmas to get a gull's-eye look at the U.S. shrimp industry and visit the source of the wild-caught Gulf shrimp that will be featured in the company's seafood promotion in February.
Mitch Streit, store director at Hy-Vee's Mall of the Bluffs store in Council Bluffs, was among the Hy-Vee employees who made the excursion. He said the trip was designed to educate employees about the advantages of domestic seafood compared with the farm-raised and imported shrimp that has flooded the marketplace over the past decade.
“Seafood prices are more competitive with beef than they've ever been,” Streit said. “The demand for it is growing. We want to meet that demand and grow it in the process.”
A flight to New Orleans was followed by a bumpy, three-hour bus trip past rural trailer parks and marshes, past sugar cane fields and Red Cypress groves, to Intercoastal City, a tiny unincorporated community on Vermillion Bay in southeast Louisiana. Intercoastal City is basically a collection of heliports and boat docks, one of which is home to the 92-foot Sea World II and Capt. Chuck Nguyen.
Nguyen has been netting shrimp for 28 years. He and his crew of three sell their catch to Paul Piazza & Son Inc., a fourth-generation New Orleans company that was washed away by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 but battled back to become one of the top shrimp processors in the country. Piazza & Son moves up to 30 million pounds per year.
“The difference between us and our competitors is that we pack and sell our own shrimp,” said Alex Laperouse, who is part of the Piazza sales force. “We know our sources personally. And that means we can better control quality and consistency.”
Piazza's president, Kristen Baumer, said the company's approach reflects U.S. consumers' growing desire to know the source of their food, how it is handled and what measures are taken to safeguard it.
Nguyen and crew were waiting at the dock when the bus carrying the Hy-Vee contingent, accompanied by Baumer and other Piazza representatives, pulled up to Vermillion Bay. The captain started the tour with a shoreline crash course on the challenges of the industry — cheap imports, rising diesel fuel prices, the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill — before leading the group to the water's edge.
On deck, the crew demonstrated how fresh-caught shrimp go from the ship's huge green nets into plastic mesh bags that hold about 70 pounds each. Those bags were lowered directly into an icy hold where their temperature drops to zero in about 12 minutes. At the port, the catch is moved to a waiting truck for a trip to one of two Piazza processing facilities.
During processing, each individual shrimp will pass through several trained inspectors before and after its mechanical journey through a maze of stainless steel equipment. Baumer said the focus is on uniformity of weight and appearance.
Some of the shrimp, though, “will never see storage,” said Laperouse. “It'll literally come out of the water and be on its way to Hy-Vee.”