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Top Species: Wild shrimp

Buyers weigh menu options as Gulf industry goes on offensive during oil spill recovery

By Joanne Friedrick
May 05, 2011

When it comes to wild shrimp, retailers and restaurateurs have a wealth of product from which to select. Harvesters from both coasts, the Gulf of Mexico and Canada all process wild shrimp to fit any recipe.

Both Florida rock shrimp and small Maine shrimp have found their way onto the menu at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York. Executive Chef Sandy Ingber uses wild shrimp from Florida for popcorn shrimp as well as an ingredient in Tuscan white bean soup that appears on the menu a couple times a week.

The rock shrimp is also good in fried and poached presentations, he says, noting it’s “very versatile and sweet.”

Although Maine wild shrimp is a personal favorite of Ingber’s, it’s not as popular with Grand Central’s customers. “I like it as sushi,” he says, or in a Swedish dish that uses horseradish, eggs and poached shrimp. “Unfortunately, not everything that is good sells,” he says.

Following last April’s oil spill at the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon platform, Ingber says large wild Gulf shrimp became more difficult to find, as well as more expensive. Having a contract helped, he says, because he was locked in at a lower price. “But now the shrimp is 90 cents a pound more,” so he has opted for the consistency and better prices associated with Vietnamese farmed shrimp as his main choice for shrimp cocktail and salads.

Gulf makes a comeback 

Upon returning from the International Boston Seafood Show, Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board, says the organization was able to successfully communicate the viability of the Gulf shrimp fishery to buyers, who are no longer questioning the health of industry.

Still, he says, because the consumer perception has come around more slowly, the board is entertaining proposals from marketing firms for a $15 million, three-year campaign of traditional public relations, marketing and social media to rebuild the brand in the wake of the oil spill.

“This will help us run the marathon,” explains Smith. He says while the industry, including wholesale and retail buyers, understands the efficacy of testing that proves the safety of the shrimp supply, “the regular consumer doesn’t have that knowledge base.”

Gulf consumers may have gotten part of the message, he adds, “but it’s mainly people in other areas. When they think about buying seafood, the oil spill will still be the image that comes to mind.”

The board estimates it has two to three years of work ahead of it to clear up the industry’s image, he says.

Shrimp landings in Louisiana were down 54 percent between January and October, with just 53 million pounds caught and sold vs. an average of 114.5 million. The drop was attributed in part to fewer vessels fishing because they were involved in the oil spill cleanup efforts. The 2011 season got under way this month.

West Coast news positive 

While the Gulf may have struggled with its shrimp harvest, on the West Coast, the Oregon Trawl Commission has seen some record-breaking catches.

“The last couple of years have been good,” says Brad Pettinger, director of the Oregon Trawl Commission, with 2010’s catch of 31 million pounds eclipsing the previous year by 20 percent. “That was the most caught since 2002.” 

Another processing plant has come online as a result of the larger haul, he says. Prices started out the year on the low side, at about 35 cents a pound, but have risen since then, adds Pettinger.

However, fuel prices have become an issue again, which could impact prices and the upcoming season. In early April, the nationwide average for diesel fuel was $3.93 per gallon, which was 99 cents higher than the same period a year ago.

“It’s obvious that is a tremendous expense, so when you go out, you better have a good catch,” he says.

The earthquake and resulting tsunami that devastated Japan also impacted the shoreline in both Oregon and parts of California, says Pettinger. While processing facilities and boats were spared, some ports were affected, he says, including Crescent City, Calif., which sustained about $20 million in damages.

Still, says Pettinger, with the shrimp so far offshore, the tsunami shouldn’t impact this year’s shrimp season in Oregon, which runs from April 1 to Oct. 31.

The Oregon catch stays primarily on the West Coast, says Pettinger, supplying restaurants and supermarkets on the I-5 corridor. Additionally, some product is headed to England, “which is a big coldwater shrimp-eating nation,” he says.

While Japan typically hasn’t been a big market for Oregon’s shrimp catch, the loss of processing facilities and cold storage overseas means that country will need to replenish its supplies, “so the marketplace will have to fill that need,”  says Pettinger, opening a possible opportunity for U.S. exports.

Northern improvements

In Canada, the 2010 inshore fishery was considered “a dramatic improvement” over the previous year, according to Dennis Coates, shrimp business development manager at Clearwater Seafoods in Bedford, Nova Scotia. “Prices to vessels and in the market recovered in 2010 as the economy recovered and global supplies of warmwater aquaculture shrimp declined from disease outbreaks, hurricanes, flooding and cold weather,” he says.

Sizes for Canada shrimp were consistent with the previous year, he says, “but have declined from larger sizes historically.” Similarly, says Coates, the markets for offshore shrimp were relatively strong in 2010, with demand high for wild Canada shrimp.

There are two components to the northern shrimp fishery in Canada, explains Coates. The inshore fishery supplies the bulk of the cooked and peeled shrimp production, with landings occurring between April 1 and Nov. 30. “This component of the fishery has been MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certified since 2009,” he says. 

The offshore fishery, which supplies FAS product, operates in a broader geographical area and takes place year-round. Coates expects this component of the fishery to receive MSC certification this year.

“MSC has proven to be an invaluable point of differentiation for our shrimp and allowed the Canadian cooked and peeled supply to gain a competitive price advantage in markets that accept only MSC products,” says Coates. Similar advantages in pricing and demand are expected when the offshore fishery is certified, he says.

Much of the Canadian catch goes to buyers outside of North America, says Coates. The cooked and peeled product is targeted primarily for the United Kingdom, but there is strong demand throughout northern Europe. Additional supply goes to North America, with growing interest from Asia and Russia. The latter two areas are the main buyers of the FAS shrimp, he adds.

Optimism prevails

With all that has occurred within the shrimp industry this past year, there is still a sense of optimism among participants.

The American shrimp industry is certainly resilient, says Eddie Gordon, executive director of Wild American Shrimp, from his home base in South Carolina. Between Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill, the market has been impacted, he says, “but we’re looking for a good harvest this year.”

With hundreds of thousands of product tests conducted during the recent crises in the Gulf, consumers can be confident in the safety of the shrimp they eat. “We have the most heavily inspected seafood there is,” says Gordon.

As the 2011 season was getting started, predictions were that all fishing areas should be open, so the ability to fish shouldn’t be an issue.

More of a concern, says Gordon, is regaining market share for shrimp that may have been lost to other species or shrimp from other supplying countries, he says. “It’s always difficult when you lose market share to come back,” he says. “That’s why we need to re-educate the consumer and regain that market share.” 

BP subsidized fishermen who weren’t able to fish last year, but the loss of fishing vessels shouldn’t be a concern. “I don’t think supply is going to be a problem, either from a fisherman standpoint or from breed stock in the estuaries,” he adds.

Gordon is confident consumers will seek American wild shrimp once again. “When we did research several years ago, it showed 95 percent of people wanted wild American shrimp, and that shrimp has a major impact on our overall seafood business.”

That kind of popularity should translate well for suppliers in all parts of the country as the 2011 season unfolds.

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

May 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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