Dominick Ficarino knows shrimp. Like his father, grandfather and great grandfather, commercial seafood is his life. Over the generations, shrimp have not evolved much but catching them has, and so has the industry, and so has Dominick.
“I’ve had this business for 20 years, ” Ficarino says about his namesake company, Dominick’s Seafood Inc., in Bayou La Batre. “If I could start over, I’d have two things: a law degree and an accounting degree. This is how complex shrimping has become.”
Ficarino may be one the most famous fishermen in America. The History Channel chronicled the daily adventures of his fleet in its hit TV series, “Big Shrimpin.’” Though film crews strived to make the show as realistic as possible, Hollywood is a long way from Bayou La Batre.
The romance of the open sea, ocean-going vessels and crustacean treasure gives way to reality. “This is a tough, competitive business, ” Ficarino says. “We spend as much time meeting federal regulations as we do casting nets.” Alabama Department of Environmental Management, the Environmental Protection Agency, state and local board of health agencies and the IRS are all part of the crew. And then there’s the Asian market.
South Alabama shrimpers, though competitors, are a close-knit bunch. They all know each other. Their children play together. Their families share the same church pews. Collectively they are concerned about foreign competition.
“Asian imports are often cheaper than what I bring in, ” notes Ficarino. “It is often farmed shrimp, cheaper to produce, and their workers are not paid as well as ours. I try not to worry about them. We do what we can do to bring in fresh Gulf wild shrimp, which I think is the best in the world.”
Restaurant chain owner Bob Baumhower agrees. “The flavor and texture is better with wild caught and harvested shrimp. A lot of farmed shrimp is really freshwater prawns, nothing wrong with that, but I can taste the difference.”
Ficarino explains the difference: “There is something about wild shrimp, living in saltwater. It’s just ‘happier.’ It’s the same concept with a free range chicken.”
Bringing in “happy shrimp” for happy customers is grueling. “Out on the water, we have a straightforward schedule for work, ” explains Ficarino. “When the shrimp is there, we work.” On good hauls, crews cast and reel nets 24 hours a day, taking catnaps when the shellfish do.
The good ship Miss Hannah and other boats venture from coastal Florida to Texas. The flotilla works waters 50 miles out or within sight of shore. They go where the shrimp go. Generally, crews are at sea for 30 days, 5 days off, and do it again.
A bountiful harvest can see $200, 000, which Ficarino splits 70/30 with the boat captain and two to five deckhands. Crewmembers pay for and provide their own groceries while at sea, but on a good one-month trip, may take home $15, 000 or more.
And now for the expenses: A 95-foot shrimp boat holds 18, 000 gallons of fuel. At today’s price of $3.34 per gallon, one boat equals $60, 000 in diesel costs. Ficarino has a fleet of eight with one more on order. His new 105-foot vessel will cost $2.5 million.
Insurance fees are staggering. “This is a hazardous business, ” he says. “Everything we do is mechanical. Moving parts, winches, gears, rigging and blocks are constantly in motion around you and overhead.” Add the always-slippery surfaces of a rocking boat in rough conditions and nasty weather and, yes, insurance premiums are high.
At the end of the haul, nets are drawn, shrimp’s on ice, the day is done. The Miss Hannah, Miss Ashleigh and Miss Barbara turn around and head home. It’s time to sell fish.
Dominick’s Seafood has one of the largest shrimp processors in Bayou La Batre. But the processing starts before the catch reaches land. Freshly caught shrimp is washed, headed and bagged. It is then placed in a brine solution and flash-frozen hard as marbles in 15 minutes, all while onboard. When the fleet docks, cranes lift frozen soon-to-be seafood from the boats for placement in water filled totes. The overnight thawing process has begun.
“Our system can sort 5, 000 pounds of shrimp an hour, ” Ficarino notes. “It removes trash and sorts the catch by size. In the old days, we could just toss the shells overboard; let the other fish eat it.” Not anymore. You can still toss it and the fish will still eat it, but you’ll be in court.
“The EPA has strict rules on how we dispose of waste, ” Ficarino says. “Most Bayou La Batre shrimpers contribute to the Gulf Coast Agricultural and Seafood Co-Op.” The processing facility takes shells and other shrimp wastes and converts it to fertilizer. The rest is disposed in an environmentally friendly and federally regulated process.
Dominick’s product is packaged in five-pound institutional shrimp pack blocks, and custom packages, ready for wholesale. The customers are chain grocery stores, restaurants and other retail food outlets.
“He delivers the shrimp to our Birmingham distribution center, ” says Carey Otwell, director of meat and seafood for Belle Foods, headquartered in Birmingham. “Dominick knows our specifications. Once we receive product, it’s dispersed throughout our food chain.” Belle Foods owns 57 grocery stores in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Florida. “We are currently developing our own shrimp label, ” says Otwell, “for sale in our outlets. Dominick’s Seafood is our only supplier.” Belle Foods’ new label initial shrimp order from Ficarino is about 60, 000 pounds.
But dozens of shrimpers, fishermen and processors dot Bayou La Batre. “After awhile we all know each other, ” says Baumhower about the fisheries of Bayou La Batre. Among Baumhower’s collection of restaurants are two seafood specialty Compleat Anglers. “I personally come here with my executive chef to choose our shrimp. We look for clarity. Wild shrimp has a ‘crisp’ clear color, especially in the eyes. It’s not cloudy.” Before leaving the coastal town, he will place an order for hundreds of pounds, cloudless, crisp, clear, cash and carry.
Guy Lott works for Carrington Foods in Saraland. He coordinates with food professionals designing menus for dinners to upscale restaurants. His projects often involve shrimp, like current client, Wind Creek Casino & Hotel in Atmore. “Working with the client, we determine how much shrimp is needed to serve what amount of people in a given time frame, ” Lott explains. Once shrimp quantity is determined, it’s time for a Bayou La Batre road trip.
Folks like Lott and Baumhower help Bayou La Batre pump an estimated $80 million seafood dollars into Alabama’s economy.
“Food fads come and go, but shrimp is constant, ” says Lott.
Ficarino agrees. “Lately I’ve seen less demand in retail food sales, to restaurants, and more in wholesale outlets, like grocery stores. I think it’s because of the economy. People eat out less but still want shrimp, so they buy it at the store and cook it at home.”
Shrimp prices fluctuate like the stock market. The going rate for the haul may change from when the boat casts off from the dock to when it returns to berth. Many factors play into the final price: current fuel costs, insurance, and most important, reeling in the net and how much is in it.
Regardless of the supply and cost of catching it, desire never changes. As Ficarino says, “There has always been a demand for shrimp and the people who harvest it.”
Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Satsuma.