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Species Focus: Gulf Shrimp

Marketing initiatives strive to boost demand and prices for domestic catch.

By Rick Ramseyer
July 01, 2005

The 200 million or so pounds of domestic shrimp hauled each year from the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic don't come close to sating America's voracious appetite for shrimp. U.S. consumers wolf more than 1 billion pounds of shrimp annually, the majority of it pond-raised overseas.

Still, seafood representatives in eight southern states, bolstered by new marketing muscle and recent U.S. trade policies targeting imports, are striving to raise awareness of Gulf shrimp and improve quality standards to boost prices, spur sales and aid struggling fishermen.

Leading the way is Wild American Shrimp Inc. (WASI), a nonprofit corporation in Mount Pleasant, S.C., that is using $3.6 million and nearly $2 million in grants  to enhance promotion and quality-assurance programs and differentiate domestic shrimp from less-expensive, farm-grown species from afar.

The $3.6 million, part of the $35 million in federal aid the industry received two years ago, is helping WASI reach a broad array of stakeholders via full-color ads in trade and consumer publications, radio commercials, tie-ins with the Food Network and the Food Channel, a Web site (wildamericanshrimp.com) and a distinctive blue-and-white WASI certification mark.

"We're getting great pull through the marketplace," says Eddie Gordon, the group's executive director. "We have major retailers calling their processors and saying, 'We want you to put out a Wild American Shrimp product.'"

WASI-certified shrimp, primarily whites, browns and pinks, is now available under brands such as Emeril's Louisiana Shrimp, Bumble Bee, Orleans, Tony Chachere's, Bayou Gold and Scott's Pride. Those items are being sold in hundreds  and, in some instances, thousands of retail outlets, including Publix supermarkets throughout the Southeast; AP stores along the East Coast; and Albertson's, Super One, Wal-Mart and Kroger stores in the Gulf region.

Bumble Bee Seafoods in San Diego, the only U.S. packer of canned shrimp, is rolling out the WASI-certification stamp on its Bumble Bee and Orleans labels from coast to coast. The new label wont change the price; a 6-ounce can of Tiny Shrimp, for example, still retails for $2.39 to $2.49.

"We'll also be using displays emphasizing Wild American Shrimp, and we'll have point-of-sale materials such as shelf-danglers," says David Cook, Bumble Bees vice president of specialty seafoods in New Orleans.

The president and owner of Dean Blanchard Seafood Co. in Grand Isle, La., one of the region's largest shrimp suppliers, says he's seeing signs of progress in the marketplace. He notes that Wal-Mart is offering state-specific bags of frozen Gulf shrimp at stores in Louisiana, Texas and Alabama.

"And I'm hearing that [a prominent seafood restaurant chain] might start a domestic shrimp program," Blanchard says. "So things are moving in the right direction." Restaurateurs are participating as well, including celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, who insists on menuing U.S. shrimp at his nine upscale eateries in New Orleans, Las Vegas, Miami, Atlanta and Orlando, Fla.

Lagasse isn't the only gourmand gone wild. David Woodward, executive chef at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, began using American shrimp again last year, despite Hilton's 2003 system-wide switch to imported varieties.

"This is a unique situation," says Woodward, who combines his seafood purchases with those of the nearby Doubletree and Airport Hilton. "We like to use natural, local product as much as possible, especially seafood, and we have it on our doorstep."

The Riverside hotel typically purchases a couple thousand pounds of Gulf shrimp a week. A recent onsite reception for 5,000 people, though, used 40,000 shrimp, "so that's 2,200 pounds for just one event," Woodward says.

Among the favorites on the house menu are Shrimp Creole (a dozen 26-30 shrimp for approximately $17); and large, tail-on shrimp coated in seasoned flour, deep-fried and served on a bamboo skewer with Asian dipping sauces (around $9).

Assuring quality

In tandem with WASI's marketing blitz is a program to ensure the quality of its shrimp, based on guidelines similar to the Department of Commerce's Grade A designation.

"We're using USDC to do the inspections, but they are inspecting to our standards," Gordon says.

And he wants those standards to get even tougher.

"We're going to be more inclusive by including a lot of people and product, but we'll be more exclusive as far as quality," Gordon explains. "All shrimp are not going to be certified Wild American Shrimp, just like certified Angus beef is only 20 percent of all Angus beef."

The evolving criteria, which should be completed by mid-summer and then updated over the next couple of years, are being honed in concert with North Carolina State University, Clemson, the University of Georgia, the University of Florida, the University of Southern Mississippi, Louisiana State University and Texas AM.

"We're working with extension and Sea Grant folks to set up standards so we can work with the boats and show them how they can produce a fresher, higher-quality product," Gordon says.

"There's technology scattered from Texas to North Carolina, and we're pulling all that together."

"We'll also set up monitoring systems so shrimp can be traced back to the boat and the dock and the processor," he adds.

Craig Borges, owner of the New Orleans Fish House, which seasonally supplies about 4 million pounds of wild shrimp, says industry leaders have to raise the bar.

"As a major distributor, we have to put pressure on the boats and the processors to improve the product," Borges says. "Fishermen need to handle [shrimp] better at sea and make shorter trips, and processors shouldn't use a lot of chemical on peeled shrimp, and should pack a No. 2 and a No. 1 grade like Mexico, which has done a great job."

Quality assurance is just one of the tools industry representatives hope will spark buyer interest in the domestic catch. They also expect that federally mandated country-of-origin labeling for seafood, which took effect in early April, will help U.S. consumers make informed decisions.

"Our hope is that more people realize they have choices," says Nancy Mathews, national sales manager for Cox's Wholesale Seafood in Tampa, Fla., which handles primarily Florida pinks, plus some imported whites from Central and South America.

"Our core retail customers have always carried Florida pink shrimp, as well as white shrimp from another country and perhaps black tigers," Mathews says. "The majority [of supermarkets] need that variety. Consumers have so many different wants that having one type of shrimp is not going to capture all of that."

But, "if you're going to have a premium domestic product, you have to offer it in innovative way  maybe it's the packaging, maybe it's the finished [form]," she says. "But you have to get out there with the message that it's premium quality, it's wild-caught and its from the USA."

Two other significant factors impacting the shrimp market of late are tied to U.S. trade policies. Antidumping tariffs  and, most recently, dramatically higher bonds  have been slapped on imports (see sidebar) in response to the flood of farmed shrimp coming here from Asia and South America. The long-term impact remained unclear at press time, but some Gulf-area suppliers were fetching better prices early in the season.

"Last year, for the first 20 days of May, we were averaging 61 cents a pound," this year, were up to 94 cents a pound,says Blanchard, whose company handled 8.4 million pounds of Gulf shrimp in 2004. "Whether that's attributed to marketing or to the antidumping suit, we're not quite sure, but those are [key reasons].

States join effort

WASI isn't spreading the word about U.S. shrimp all by itself. The participating southern states  Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas  also have home-grown promotional programs.

Florida, for instance, has spent $1.1 million touting seafood over the past two fiscal years and has earmarked another $300,000 for the 12 months starting July 1. The headliner is wild shrimp, the state's No. 1 seafood item, which pumps an estimated $226 million annually into the states economy.

The campaign, called "Florida Shrimp  Wild and Wonderful," uses print ads and a 30-second cable-TV spot, as well as radio commercials that air on the Gator Network to tap into the popularity of college football.

"We also have a public-relations program [highlighting] that consumers have choices," says Joanne McNeely, head of the Bureau of Seafood and Aquaculture Marketing in Tallahassee.

"If they want a domestic product caught out of the ocean by local shrimpers, then they should buy Florida shrimp."

Consumers appear to be getting the message. In fiscal 2002-03, prior to the additional marketing effort, businesses that work closely with the bureau moved 220,000 pounds of shrimp through grocery and foodservice channels.

For the first three quarters of fiscal 2004-05, that amount swelled to almost 1.4 million pounds.

"Obviously people like the domestic product and are [willing to] pay for it," says McNeely, noting Gulf shrimp often is priced between $1 and $3 a pound more than imported species.

North Carolina, meanwhile, has set aside $600,000 for a three-year shrimp promotion. The campaign, now in its second season, features ads in consumer and trade publications, plus billboards and WASI-created, North Carolina-customized radio spots.

"It's a broad campaign to create a niche for local-grown," says William Small, seafood marketing supervisor for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture  Consumer Services in Raleigh. "People want to know where their food comes from, and that there is a local fisherman behind it.

"We have numerous restaurants and wholesale markets here who are on board, and we hope to grow [that list]," Small adds.

Louisiana, the No. 1 producer of Gulf shrimp, with a catch in 2003 topping 125 million pounds, also is hawking its wares. The state has a multi-pronged, $250,000 budget that fuels a Web site, radio commercials, print ads and communications initiatives with the Food Network and the Food Channel.

Another initiative is Bonne Crevette, a celebration of prime shrimping season from May through August.

"The first year of Bonne Crevette was to get buy-in from fishermen, and now we're getting the restaurants," says Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion  Marketing Board in New Orleans. "We have close to 50 and have a goal to get 125."

New Orleans restaurants that have committed to serving Louisiana shrimp during the celebration include Palace Caf, Alex Patout's, Bourbon House and Remoulade, while Juban's Restaurant in Baton Rouge and Caf Vermilionville in Lafayette, among others, have unveiled favorite recipes.

"In the past, our efforts have been directed within the industry," Smith says. "Now we're also talking to the consumer."

Star power

Few chefs in America have the charisma  or the audience  of Emeril Lagasse, who reaches more than 78 million households daily with his Food Network cooking shows, "The Essence of Emeril" and "Emeril Live."

He also has nine restaurants and has sold roughly 3.5 million copies of his various cookbooks.

Lagasse is putting that star power behind frozen, WASI-approved Emeril's Louisiana Shrimp, which already is in around 2,000 grocery stores.

"I am all about American seafood and have been for 30 years," Lagasse said in a news release. "I've met many shrimpers  battling to stay in business. These fishermen from across the Southeast and Gulf coasts deserve our support in helping maintain their way of life."

Emeril's 1-pound, stand-up bags of raw, headless whites and browns come in three varieties: medium peeled, extra-large peeled and jumbo shell-on. Retail prices range from $5.99 for the medium peeled to $11.99 for the jumbos.

"Emeril can be a champion for the domestic seafood industry for sure  just to have him as a voice is tremendous," says Smith of Louisiana.

"It brings the awareness level, as he would say, up a notch."

So far, so good. New Orleans Fish House, which does packaging and distribution for the Emeril's brand, has seen sales "well above our expectations, and it's only been in the stores for five and a half weeks," Borges says.

Shrimpers, likewise, are benefiting. Dean Blanchard Seafood is "doing a lot of business with Emeril," and is giving fishermen 20 cents more per pound for "Emeril-quality shrimp," Blanchard says.

"Every day more boats are meeting that standard. We're shooting for 25 percent to 35 percent of the harvest," he adds.

"Fishermen see their friends getting a higher price, and they're taking extra care of their product so they get the extra price, too."

Another well-known name in the marketing mix is the late Tony Chachere, credited with helping popularize Cajun and Creole food with cookbooks specializing in seafood and game.

The Tony Chachere's brand, provided by Gulf Island Shrimp and Seafood LLC in Dulac, La., is available at grocers like Market Basket in Nederland, Texas.

The chain, with 38 stores in southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana, carries the 1-pound packages of frozen, peeled shrimp in three sizes: 150-250 (two for $5); 71-90 ($3.79); and 31-40 ($5.99).

Market Basket also offers other Gulf-harvested options, including Fisherman's Reef shell-on shrimp.

"Particularly in Louisiana, the more local product we can use, the greater the sales are," says Ron Romeo, Market Basket's director of meat and seafood.

The right message?

Given all the fuss over wild U.S. shrimp, it's no surprise that seafood importers are keeping close tabs on the marketing push.

"It's something that's long overdue," says Eric Bloom, president of Eastern Fish Co. in Teaneck, N.J., which imports farm-raised Pacific whites from Asia and Central and South America.

"But it's only going to work if they're [serious about] improving quality. To be successful, there's got to be a cultural change."

Moreover, Bloom and other big shrimp players arent thrilled by some of the advertising messages.

"The idea of a domestic marketing program is good, but I would prefer to see [it focus] on the merits of the product as opposed to criticizing other shrimp," says John Filose, vice president of sales and marketing for Mexican-owned Ocean Garden Products in San Diego, which sells the bulk of white shrimp produced in Mexico.

"Some of the ads I've seen have had negative information about pond-raised or aquacultured shrimp," Filose adds. "I hate to see that. We sell both [imported and domestic] product, and its quality on both sides."

Ocean Garden, in fact, is beefing up its sales of U.S. shrimp, primarily under the Ocean Star Gold brand.

"Last season we came out with our Gold label, which [signifies] less broken pieces, greater uniformity and better sizing," Filose says.

"We produced a small amount of that last year, and we're hoping to do more this season."

Gulf-area stakeholders, meanwhile  even as their promotional efforts ratchet up  agree that importing shrimp is necessary to meet ever-burgeoning demand nationwide.

"We depend on imports," says Small of North Carolina. "All we're trying to do is [enhance] the value to what we produce here."

"Our job is to differentiate our shrimp," WASI's Gordon concludes, "and hopefully produce a larger percentage that's higher quality at a higher price."

Contributing Editor Rick Ramseyer lives in Cumberland, Maine

July 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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