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Top Species: Wild shrimp

Gulf continues PR push, while West Coast basks in bumper crop

By Joanne Friedrick
April 05, 2012

The oil spill may be cleaned up in the Gulf following the BP disaster at the Deepwater Horizon platform, but those involved in the wild shrimp industry are still struggling to put questions about the safety of the seafood from that region to rest.

Florida was one of several states impacted by the oil spill and was on the receiving end of BP funds for testing and marketing its seafood. Martin May, management review specialist for the Florida Bureau of Seafood and Aquaculture Marketing in Tallahassee, says the state received $10 million from BP to test Gulf seafood and another $10 million for marketing. In the past, Florida marketed wild shrimp separately, but under its latest program all wild seafood is marketed together. “It’s in the vein of a rising tide floats all boats,” explains May.

In 2011, Florida landed 11 million pounds of shrimp worth about $22 million, he says. Although the state’s fishermen net many different species of shrimp, the majority are pink shrimp, says May.

Tests have shown no issues with the health of Florida’s shrimp population, he says, “but we’ve still combated a lot of negative press” especially when photos of the oil spill reappear. “We found as long as this had exited the news cycle, people weren’t concerned.” 

Demand for shrimp is recovering, May adds, but probably not as quickly as had been expected. When there are scares in other food sectors, such as produce, the items affected tend to bounce back more quickly. With shrimp, he says, “it has been a slower return, although the economy could have had some impact on that.” 

Some people who are watching their dollars may have eliminated seafood from their shopping list and haven’t yet started buying it again. Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board, says there are still some perception problems for shrimp and other seafood, especially in other parts of the country. So there is still a need to educate consumers about the safety of Louisiana shrimp.

Like Florida, Louisiana has received funds from BP for testing and promotion. As a result, Smith says the marketing budget has jumped roughly tenfold to $10 million. 

The state’s offshore shrimp season gets under way in April and inshore in mid-May, he explains. There will continue to be events to highlight Louisiana shrimp, he says, such as the restaurant promotion that took place last September in New Orleans. Although geared toward all Louisiana seafood, wild shrimp was certainly a focal point. Now the plans are to expand the event to other parts of the state such as the north and central sections, Smith says.

September is typically a slower month for restaurants, but the promotion helped fill the seats, he adds.

One of the newest promotions involved a fitness challenge in which participants were urged to eat seafood two to three times a week. The event, which features shrimp in its promotional materials along with crab and red fish, was launched during Lent, but has year-round implications. “It helps people think about incorporating seafood into a healthy diet,” says Smith. Tied in with this promotion are a website, seafoodfitness.com, social media and a healthy recipe contest.

Another effort recently launched to support not just wild shrimp from Louisiana, but all Gulf fisheries, is eatgulfseafood.com. The marketing campaign was unveiled at last month’s International Boston Seafood Show and is a project of the newly formed Gulf Coast Seafood Marketing Coalition founded by the Gulf and South Atlantic Fisheries Foundation through a grant from the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The Gulf restaurant trade has also taken on the task of rebuilding the market for wild shrimp. For a multi-unit restaurateur such as Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group in New Orleans, buying wild Gulf shrimp is important to the restaurant’s image.

Haley Bittermann, director of operations and corporate executive chef, only buys Gulf shrimp, using a number of purveyors to fill demand. Collectively, the restaurants
purchase about 30,000 pounds of shrimp each year, she says, ranging from U10s to peeled 40s and P&D 50s.

“Shrimp is a natural part of the diet in New Orleans,” she explains. The restaurant group operates Red Fish Grill, Jazz Kitchen, Ralph’s on the Park, café B, Heritage Grill and Café NOMA, and all typically serve brown or white shrimp, either fresh or frozen. At times, if she thinks the price will be going up, she’ll do a larger buy that is good for five months. This typically has given her a 40- to 50-cent difference on the market price.

The executive chef at each of the restaurants creates dishes and Bittermann’s job is to work with them to see that they are staying within the lines of the different concepts. 

In another part of the South, Amber von Harten, fisheries specialist at the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium in Columbia, S.C., hopes the warmer waters of this past winter will bring a greater yield to the state’s shrimp fishermen.

In 2011, the state’s shrimpers landed 2.9 million pounds, down from 4 million in 2010. A cold snap in January 2011 caused about 80 percent of the shrimp to die off, she says, so there wasn’t a white shrimp season. This year’s season is expected to open in mid-May, ahead of last year’s June start.

At the recent South Carolina Seafood Summit, von Harten says marketing was definitely a topic. Unlike some states, South Carolina doesn’t have a dedicated seafood marketing organization, but Sea Grant is trying to work with the state’s Department of Agriculture to promote shrimp and other seafood, especially since the Wild American Shrimp group isn’t operational anymore.

One of the ideas, says von Harten, is to get shrimp fishermen interested in participating in community-supported fisheries, which allow consumers to buy shares of the catch in advance, guaranteeing sales and a market for the shrimp.

Many of the state’s shrimpers participated for the past couple of years in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, she says, which allowed them to receive a $4,000 cash benefit for 12 hours of training, as well as an additional $8,000 if they developed a business plan with the help of a consultant.

The outlook on shrimp is entirely different moving from the South to the West: It was a banner year on the West Coast, according to Brad Pettinger, director of the Oregon Trawl Commission. Production of coldwater shrimp (Pandalus jordani) in 2011 was the fourth-highest on record, he says, reaching 48 million pounds, up from 31 million pounds in 2010. 

Sizes and prices were also up in 2011, he notes, with shrimp selling for 51 cents a pound versus 35 cents the previous year.

Much of the improvement is related to ocean conditions, which were favorable and coincided with the mature lifecycle of the shrimp. “It’s a good time to be a shrimper,” he says.

Most of the catch off the Oregon coast is salad-size shrimp that is cooked and peeled and exported to Europe. But buyers from Asia are also interested, he says, especially in whole frozen shrimp, which may result in more product going into that market.

Pettinger acknowledges that some buyers are looking for larger shrimp, “but coldwater shrimp make up in flavor what it lacks in size."

Find other SeaFood Business articles with wild shrimp here.

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine
 
April 2012 - SeaFood Business

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