By Karl J. Paloucek
Alaska’s waters aren’t the only ones where the fishing is so dangerous that it’s TV-worthy. Starting this week, History viewers will get a taste of the shrimping life that’s been going on for generations in the Gulf of Mexico. Big Shrimpin’ premieres Thursday, Nov. 17 at 10pm ET and follows the everyday lives of the shrimpers of Dominick’s Seafood, the most successful business in Bayou La Batre, Alabama. And if you thought that ordering the shrimp instead of the chicken at your favorite restaurant was no big deal, you’re in for a bit of a surprise.
We talked with Dominick Ficarino, fouth-generation owner of Dominick’s Seafood and the overseer of all of the action in Big Shrimpin’, to discuss the current conditions in the Gulf, the struggles his business is up against today and what it means to live the shrimpin’ life.
So, what’s it like out there on the Gulf these days?
We’ve had a rough year this year, comparatively, and the last few years have been pretty tough. A lot of the reason is, we got hammered pretty hard by Katrina. I was totally wiped out by Katrina — my processing plant, 100 percent. I had to reconstruct. And it’s been tough ever since. We fight imported shrimp every day and a lot of tough conditions.
What about the oil situation down there? How’s that been?
Since they released us to fish, we’ve had no problems at all with oil.
This is a family business for you — is that typically how people get into this business?
It has been in our case. My great-grandfather was located here, right where my processing plant is today. My father was in the business. My great-grandfather was in the business. And it’s just hard to walk away. To tell you the truth, I’ve always enjoyed it. I find a tremendous challenge every day — there’s always an obstacle out there for me. But if it was easy, the way I see it, everybody would do it.
There are a lot of obstacles, from what we see in the series. In the pilot episode of Big Shrimpin’, we see a lot about the TEDs (turtle excluder devices) that you’re forced to use in compliance with environmental regulations. Have things become more difficult overall since your days on the boats?
Issues of TEDs have grown since I’ve been off the boat — when I quit fishing, we didn’t even have a TED. And we’ve gone through issues with TEDs and by-catch reduction devices, which you know, is good for the environment. We’re trying to stay in compliance with everything they can throw at us, but it’s a tough living, there’s no question about it — it’s extremely hard work. I remember when I was shrimping, the first trip I made, I was gone 41 days. The first three days and nights — that’s 24-hour periods — we didn’t even lay down. And that’s common amongst these guys. You see them work 48 hours nonstop and never lay down. That’s not unusual. They work really hard to make a good living.
What other obstacles are inherent in the shrimping industry?
We have equipment breakdowns, we’re competing against the other boats, each other, and then we also in return are always dealing with injuries and so forth. It’s tough work. It’s nothing to push on a soft man, I’ll tell you that. If you’re not tough when you start, you’re going to be tough when you get off. I used to actually get up every morning and actually crank the factory up at 3:00 in the morning. And I ran it to all the way after dark every afternoon. I’ve seen many a day that we’ve ran it seven days a week. Fortunately, now that we’ve gotten into these larger trawlers that have freezer capabilities aboard them. … We used to come in fresh — we had no problem. There was no option whether we were going to work or not. At least now we can hold back some, and regulate work a little bit better. But we do work a tremendous amount of time. I probably still, today — been doing this 40 years, I believe, here, and I still probably crack 80 hours a week here.
That has to be really hard on your family.
My wife has a little sign in the house that was given to her when we got married. It’s a little plaque my sister gave her, and it says, ‘We interrupt this marriage for shrimp season.’ She wondered what it meant until she was married to me for a couple of years. At the time we got married, I was actually running two shifts myself, in the factory, from 1:00 in the morning I’d quit at nine every night.
And you went into this business willingly, fully knowing how hard it was?
I grew up around it. My grandfather was here, he’d call up my parents — they figured it was a good babysitter. Drop us off at the factory, they’d take off, and [my grandfather] would call, ‘You come get these kids!’ I’d be in his hair, up in the machines — everything in the world. ‘You’ve gotta get them out of the plant!’ But I was always interested in it. It’s a unique way of life. I like to gamble on the market conditions of it; it’s something you don’t see in every business. It’s similar to the stock market, even though I’m buying and trading shrimp every day doesn’t mean I’m going to make money off them or not. So it’s a big challenge. … And I’ll micromanage everything, as you probably see.
What do you hope for with this season of Big Shrimpin’?
I’m hoping they catch a treasure. My father had a boat in the ’70s that caught 8,500 Spanish doubloons in one drag. We have a set of them that we put up in the Smithsonian Institute. Actually, it’s kind of a long story, but — I was in junior high school when it happened. It actually went to court, because the state, of course, tried to claim them, and the federal government tried to claim them, and what actually happened — when our boat hung up on the wreck, it tore up its winch. And so it was actually our nets and cable [that] were brought over to another boat to try to retrieve our equipment, to try to save it. … So there were two boats involved, and they saw what the catch was, and then the crew tried to take them, and moving on, the captain not mentioning it to us, one thing led to another and a huge court battle, and we end up splitting them rightfully. It just took a lot of time. It was interesting, really.
If you would, tell us a good story from your shrimping years.
Saw some of the biggest sharks I ever saw in my life. Huge. … We used to look at them all morning, turn around and decide we were going to take a swim 30 minutes later and jump overboard. I don’t know if I’ve got that much nerve anymore. That was something else. But you know, we had no fear. Young man coming up. It’s not like it is today, with stories of people getting eaten up by sharks and this and that — we didn’t worry about it. We jumped overboard and felt like we were part of the sea.