SHRIMPING IN TROUBLED WATERS

Imported shrimp takes its toll on local fishermen
BRIAN GAUVIN PHOTOGRAPH
The roughly 5|!!|000 active shrimpers in Louisiana today represent one-quarter of the total who plied Gulf of Mexico and inland waterways in the mid-1980s.

Some call it the perfect food; others just call it “my favorite.” Anyone who loves seafood has to be impressed by the many attributes of shrimp.

The mild taste and firm texture of shrimp make for exquisite dining. The delicate crustaceans are a nutritious alternative to meat proteins and are low in calories and saturated fat. In the kitchen, they provide chefs of all stripes with a wide range of cooking and serving options.

Yet another reason why Louisiana folks love shrimp: The little critters constitute one of our biggest cash “crops.”

Louisiana provides consumers with about 100 million of pounds of shrimp each year, and the harvest represents about $1 billion annually to the state’s seafood industry. Shrimp harvesting and related production and distribution activity account for thousands of jobs.

But all is not well in Louisiana’s shrimp industry. For years the state’s shrimpers have faced a growing imbalance between supply and demand. Consumption has grown steadily, but so has the availability of shrimp coming from outside the U.S.

“Our No. 1 issue is the quantity of imports,” says Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Marketing and Promotion Board. “More than 90 percent of shrimp consumed in this country is now imported, and that has had a dramatic impact on our industry.”

The burgeoning supply has driven shrimp prices down sharply in the last decade. During that same period, shrimpers have had to deal with rising costs, including soaring bills for insurance coverage. The combination of falling prices and rising expenses has knocked shrimpers’ average annual revenue down 40 percent or more.

The blow to the industry has been staggering. The roughly 5,000 active shrimpers in Louisiana today represent one-quarter of the total who plied Gulf of Mexico and inland waterways in the mid-1980s. Many fishermen have taken land jobs or left the state to find work that could sustain them and their families.

Martin Bourgeois, a marine fisheries biologist in the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, says there’s no question that the industry’s chief problem today is cheap imported shrimp. Last year, U.S. consumers chomped 1.6 billion pounds of foreign shrimp, he says. Most of it came from Thailand, China, Vietnam, India, Brazil and Mexico.

Bourgeois says production from the Gulf and South Atlantic region probably represents less than 5 percent of the shrimp consumed annually in this country. “So there’s no question that we need imports to meet the demand,” he says. But he adds that the cheap pricing on foreign shrimp hurts.

Several years ago, the shrimp industry succeeded in getting Congress to impose duties on foreign providers found to be “dumping” cheap shrimp onto the market. But many say the measure brought little relief to domestic shrimpers, in part because the duties have been imposed sporadically, and many foreign sellers have found ways to get around the law.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal appointed a task force to look at the issues facing shrimpers. The panel has been meeting regularly and, among other steps, the members are considering whether a quality control system for Louisiana shrimp might help raise awareness of and prices for the domestic product.

Smith, who’s a member of the panel, says a consensus is growing around the idea of conducting a branding campaign for Louisiana shrimp. “Everybody agrees for the first time in years how important branding is, and to do branding properly we need a certification program so that consumers know they’re getting what they’re asking for,” he says.

He likens the idea to the meat industry’s labeling of “Certified Angus Beef.” He says Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain has expressed interest in establishing a certification program for all seafood species. Smith says the effort likely would involve working with Louisiana State University food scientists to develop quality standards.

“It would be a voluntary program that would help ensure a premium price for the product,” he says.

Smith says it would be impossible for Louisiana fishermen to compete against foreign providers based on price because there are simply too many countries sending the product to the United States. “But we can compete on quality and flavor,” he says. “Louisiana shrimp just taste better.”

More buyers are beginning to recognize the superior quality of domestic shrimp, Smith says. He notes that some major restaurant chains, including Outback Steakhouse in Louisiana, have made “buy local” commitments to the fishing industry. In addition, he says, many “white-tablecloth” restaurant managers understand the importance of using home-grown or produced foods, and they make it a point to buy local whenever possible.

If the shrimp industry task force does eventually recommend the adoption of quality standards, the program may not be an easy sell to the industry at large.

Complying with standards could mean, among other things, that shrimpers must limit the length of time that they drag their nets, in order to bring shrimp on board in better condition. They might also have to hire more help to segregate the shrimp more carefully according to size, or they may need to invest in better onboard refrigeration equipment.

Complying with quality standards, in other words, would likely cost money. Shrimpers and processors are unlikely to accept new costs unless it’s clear that buyers are willing to pay a premium.

“We have to establish a demand for it, and then we have to be able to meet the demand,” says the Wildlife and Fisheries Department’s Bourgeois.

He says one key to bolstering demand will be educating consumers to the superior quality and taste of Louisiana shrimp. Noting that most imports are farm-raised shrimp, he says Louisiana shrimp are 100 percent wild-caught.

“Certainly there is a flavor distinction between wild-caught and cultured, and we can promote that,” he says.
 

Categories: Biz