Native Americans, the first shrimpers, used nets in shallow waters off the coast. In 1774 a visitor to the state noted shrimp being caught with large nets in lakes south of New Orleans. Shrimp could be brought to local markets in and near New Orleans, but fresh shrimp were not available to most Louisianans.
A group of Filipinos are credited with introducing this technique. These men were crewmen on a Spanish cargo ship in 1763. The Manilamen, as they were called, jumped ship in New Orleans to escape Spanish cruelty. They soon settled in St. Malo in St. Bernard Parish. They built platforms for drying shrimp and began regularly trading with the city. They introduced locals to “dancing the shrimp,” stomping on top of dried shrimp to remove the heads, a method that continued into the 1960s until their settlement was destroyed by Hurricane Betsy. Drying shrimp spread throughout coastal Louisiana. In 1923 south Louisiana processors sold 907,227 pounds of Louisiana dried shrimp. Though not as popular as they once were, dried shrimp remain a staple ingredient in a variety of cuisines and the market for them has expanded throughout the United States. In the mid-1800s Cajuns established another means of preservation and opened several shrimp caning operations, further expanding accessibility. In the 1930s shrimpers obtained the equipment necessary to regularly fish in deep waters, including ready refrigeration.
The boom in the oil industry in the 1950s changed shrimp consumption throughout the state. Jobs in the oil field brought former tenant farmers from northern Louisiana into the Gulf and offered many their first taste of fresh seafood caught in the Gulf. Oil workers brought both their new tastes home, along with the cash to purchase what was once a luxury. Enjoying seafood was no longer limited to communities along the coast! Restaurants leaped on this trend as well, in particular preparing seafood dishes difficult for the home cook. Many seafood restaurants in Louisiana specialize in fried seafood platters, because frying at home “makes a mess.” Shrimpers also made money from the oil industry more directly. Shrimpers often loaded their luggers with supplies and sold them to the oil rigs, re-fill their empty boats with shrimp and return to market. Some shrimpers abandoned shrimping for the more lucrative oil industry, but in the 1990s, when the oil industry diminished, many returned to shrimping.
Louisiana now has only a 10% share of the American shrimp market competing with the 1.3 billion pounds of shrimp imported into the United States. Gulf shrimp, especially those caught in Louisiana estuaries - a combination of fresh and salty water, are much sweeter and more flavorful than farmed shrimp. Brandhurst observes, “They can farm 89,000 pounds of shrimp in one acre, and make up to 3 crops a year especially near the equator.” While Brandhurst acknowledges that there are not enough shrimp in the ocean to meet demand, he wishes there was more regulation of the imported products and that more consumers would pay more for a quality local product. Despite the challenging marketplace, Brandhurst has no plans to leave. He has just purchased an IQF (individual quick freezer), a shrimp peeler, and has set up a biodiesel factory to convert cooking oil to diesel. When asked how he knows where to find the shrimp, he quips, “I put my shrimp dog on the boat and when he starts wagging his tail I put my nets in the water.”