After installing high-tech equipment on his shrimp boat, Lance Nacio now processes his own catch and sets his own market prices. He and other American shrimpers face stiff competition from overseas. (Sean Gardner/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

The Anna Marie isn’t your typical shrimp boat. To start, it has a full-size kitchen, air conditioning and satellite television. From his captain’s chair, owner Lance Nacio can plot his course and check water depth and tidal flows, all with the push of a button on a slick gadget not much larger than an iPad. But the most unusual addition to the Anna Marie is a set of high-tech plate freezers on its deck, which transform the boat into a kind of floating processor. With a crew of three, the Anna Marie can stay out at sea up to three times as long as a traditional shrimp boat, pulling in as much as 16,000 pounds on each journey.

The 40-year-old, with a doe’s brown eyes and a neat goatee, grew up shrimping the way southern Louisianians have for generations: He netted what he could and sold it fresh on the dock to processors and other middlemen at the market price. Today, Nacio catches and processes the shrimp himself and sets his own price. He is a savvy marketer, as comfortable (if not as happy) negotiating prices via cellphone or offering samples to celebrity chefs as he is out on the water. With customers including restaurants, Whole Foods Market and the famed Berkeley Bowl in California, Nacio has transformed shrimping into a sustainable venture, for the environment and his family.

“The shrimping industry in America has been struggling for a long while. Lance saw the writing on the wall,” says Frank Brigsten, a customer and chef-owner of Brigsten’s, the renowned New Orleans restaurant. “He is a visionary in his profession.”

Nacio grew up in Lafourche Parish, about an hour outside New Orleans. His family, like others on the bayou, made a living from the land. They shrimped, trapped furs and grew much of what they ate in a backyard garden. After leaving school, Nacio worked in the oil business for nearly a decade. But it was not as satisfying as shrimping. “When you are working in the oil fields, you have a boss, and you’re under pressure all the time,” he says. “When you’re shrimping, you’re your own boss, and you create your own destiny.”

But for the last decade, many Louisiana shrimpers’ destiny has seemed grim, though not necessarily for the reasons most consumers might imagine. To be sure, hurricanes Katrina and Rita and last year’s BP oil spill in the Gulf took a toll on the predominantly small, family-run fisheries. But the real peril to the industry is imported, farmed shrimp from South America and Southeast Asia, the kind that can be produced and shipped cheaply enough to transform the product, once considered a luxury, into a run-of-the-mill item on the $6.99 all-you-can-eat buffet. Today, shrimp is the United States’ number-one seafood import. About 90 percent of the market, about 1.2 billion pounds, is imported annually.

Part of shrimper Lance Nacio’s catch. (Sean Gardner/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

The impact of imported shrimp intensified in 2001. International competition ramped up, dumping millions of tons of cheap shrimp into the American market. Prices for domestic shrimpers on the dock plummeted just as the price of diesel, shrimpers’ main operational cost, jumped. “A few years earlier, we were paying 60 cents a gallon [for diesel] and we were getting $3 a pound for shrimp,” says Nacio. “Then, all of a sudden, we’re paying $3.10 a gallon and getting just $1.50. A lot of the fishermen worked themselves out of business.”

To survive, many shrimpers began fishing more and selling shrimp directly to local customers rather than to middlemen on the dock. Nacio decided to invest in his business. In 2001, he put the Anna Marie, a 55-foot steel boat, on the water. By shrimping standards, that’s a medium-size boat. The Anna Marie is in a “sweet spot,” Nacio says: large enough to sustain rough weather and carry in a sizable haul; small enough to keep expenses on diesel reasonable.

With larger hauls, Nacio started to pay a contractor to freeze and store shrimp for him. He also began to sell directly to Rouse’s, a local grocery chain. The move allowed him to cut out some but not all of the middlemen. The rest would come in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina.

Nacio’s business was spared by that storm. (Indeed, he remembers heading out three days after the storm to “Forrest Gump”-like shrimping conditions.) But Hurricane Rita hit him hard. He lost about 10,000 pounds of shrimp stored in a warehouse that was flooded with seven feet of water.

The storms generated sympathy and interest — and low-cost loans — for local fishermen. Nacio used one to install the freezers on his deck. The equipment, which freezes seafood almost instantly on large steel plates, had long been used in the big commercial fisheries in Alaska and Canada. But it was new to the shrimp industry, and it transformed Nacio’s business. He could chill, box and freeze up to 2,000 pounds of shrimp every six hours, and he could stay out on the water longer, netting more shrimp per haul and therefore using less gas per pound. More important, it allowed him to preserve the sweetness and firm texture of fresh shrimp and sell them all year long to local and national customers.

The quality has impressed customers. “I mean, ask anybody: What’s better, fresh or frozen? And the answer is fresh,” says chef Brigsten. “But if you buy [Nacio’s] frozen head-on shrimp . . . they are as pristine as any fresh shrimp you’ll ever find.”

Andrea Reusing, chef at the Lantern restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., recently began buying from Nacio. “It was an incredibly gutsy move to invest in a totally new system and idea of freezing shrimp on the boat, since chefs almost always associate frozen shrimp with poor quality,” she says. “With each new chef, including me, Lance has to convince them to withhold judgment and just taste them. He is gaining quite a few converts, and his process looks like it could offer some real solutions for shrimping families who want to move into direct marketing their catch.”

So far, the gulf oil spill, which began when BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig caught fire on April 20, 2010, hasn’t affected Nacio’s business. He made good money working the cleanup. By that September, he was out fishing again and logging record catches. (In his first 30 days of fishing, he netted 40,000 pounds of shrimp.)

But the long-term impact of the spill on the shrimp industry is not yet clear. Shrimp are a reliable annual crop, so plentiful that there are no quotas or limits for shrimpers. This year, landings are the worst they’ve been in a decade, according to Brian Marks, a University of Arizona researcher who is studying the social and economic effects of the oil spill on coastal communities. “It was a phenomenal year last year, but what happens now?” says Nacio. “If the shrimp is down for the next four or five years, how do we respond?”

His answer: By doing more of what he is already doing. More marketing. More brokering. “That’s how you grow,” says Nacio. “I like it. But it’s not the same as being out on the water.”


Louisiana Shrimp Cornbread

Black, a former Food section staffer, writes the Smarter Food column monthly. Follow her on Twitter @jane_black.