« February 2009 Table of Contents
Top Species: Farmed shrimp
Price-conscious buyers can find plenty of deals in the shrimp market
By Joanne Fredrick
February 01, 2009
Bargain hunting is a necessity in today's shaky economy, and
that also applies to the seafood counter and restaurant menus.
While studies show Americans are tightening their belts when it
comes to both dining out and entertaining at home, farmed
shrimp offers one of the better protein values.
"Prices are at a bargain right now," says John Filose, VP of
sales and marketing at Ocean Garden Products. The San Diego
company operates shrimp farms and wild and farmed shrimp
processing plants in Mexico. "If you look at Red Lobster, they
are pushing shrimp. They know where the bargains are."
Filose says retailers are also featuring shrimp, having
begun the push during the winter holidays and continuing
through Super Bowl Sunday on Feb. 1 and into Valentine's Day
and through Lent.
"It's a heck of an opportunity for retailers to be creative
with shrimp," says Filose.
Most farmed shrimp prices have held steady or fallen
slightly in the past year, according to the National Marine
Fisheries Service. Prices for 36/40 farmed whites from Ecuador
fell from $3.20 per pound in January 2008 to $3.10 per pound
last month. Similarly, prices for 21/25 Central and South
American farmed whites fell from $4.75 to $4.40, and 21/25s
from Thailand fell from $4.45 to $3.75 during the same period.
Farmed whites from Mexico were one of the few imports that saw
a price increase last year, with 16/20s going from $6.70 per
pound to $6.95.
Pacific white shrimp ( Penaeus vannamei ) is the top import
among farmed shrimp, with a nearly 2:1 market share lead over
black tigers ( P. monodon ). The majority of shrimp imports
hail from Asia; other important sources include South America
and Mexico. From January through November 2008, Thailand
accounted for more than 32 percent of U.S. shrimp imports,
followed by Indonesia at 15.2 percent, Ecuador at 9.8 percent,
China at 8.6 percent, Vietnam at 8.4 percent and Mexico at 6
percent, according to NMFS.
Different countries specialize in different forms, with
Thailand providing mostly peeled frozen shrimp, while Ecuador
exports nearly 80 percent of its shrimp as frozen shell-on and
China's largest volume product export to the U.S. market is
frozen breaded shrimp. China, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Brazil
and Ecuador are all subject to tariffs imposed by the U.S.
Department of Commerce and International Trade Commission in
2004. Tariffs for China range from 0.07 percent to 112.81
percent - by far the highest for any of the affected
Wholesaler and retailer Doug Douty, owner of Lusty Lobster
in Highlands, N.J., procures farmed shrimp from Ecuador, Mexico
and Vietnam for his wholesale customers. The Ecuadoran product
provides consistency in size in the 31/35 and 41/50-count
range, he says, while Vietnamese black tigers are used to fill
orders for larger sizes.
Douty retails only wild shrimp because both he and his
customers prefer its flavor.
But wholesale buyers are more price-driven these days, he
says, and are requesting farmed shrimp that can sell for $1 to
$2 less per-pound than the wild.
This year's Mexican farmed shrimp season, which ends this
month, yielded larger shrimp in the 16/20 and 21/25 range, says
Ocean Garden's Filose. Those larger sizes are a boon to both
retailers and restaurants that can tout them as jumbo and extra
jumbo shrimp, respectively.
Mexico's aquaculture industry, which was established in the
1950s, has the advantage of a longer growing season and thus
larger sizes, says Filose.
Important to both distributors and consumers, he says, are
the twin principles of traceability and sustainability.
"Aquaculture is heavily regulated in Mexico," explains Filose.
While fisheries are important to the Mexican economy, so too is
preserving the coastline.
The shrimp farms in Mexico are built close to the coast on
former salt flats to cut down on pumping water and eliminating
the danger to mangroves, which provide protection to various
Mexico's semi-intensive farming method means stocking ponds
at a lower density than traditional shrimp farming practices.
The shrimp is also traceable from the end-user back to the
processing plant, so if necessary, any issues can be easily
identified and dealt with quickly.
Sustainability may be less of an issue for some buyers
during an economic downturn, says Filose, but in the longterm
it is a selling tool and point of differentiation.
Vanessa Abramowitz, president of the Shrimp Market
quick-serve restaurant chain, also notes that while she's
concerned about sustainability and traceability for the shrimp
she serves, most customers aren't questioning where the shrimp
comes from or how it is farmed.
"Unfortunately, consumers just want to eat their shrimp,"
she says. "We're not educating the public (on sustainability of
shrimp farming) because we don't think they are interested
Abramowitz sources the shrimp for Shrimp Market - the ninth
of which recently opened in Queens Center Mall in New York -
from Cartagena Shrimp Co.'s farms in Colombia and its U.S.
subsidiary, Caribco. Her father, Salomon Finvarb, founded the
shrimp company in 1983, which exports about 80 percent of its
shrimp to Europe and the remaining 20 percent to the United
Of that 20 percent, says Abramowitz, a very small percentage
is bought for the restaurants in Florida, Massachusetts, New
York and New Jersey.
"All the shrimp is farmed by us in Cartagena," she explains,
and processed in Colombia. "Once it gets to the restaurants,
it's ready to be cooked," she says, or served in other ways,
such as shrimp cocktail, salad or wraps.
Abramowitz agrees that farmed shrimp prices have come down
in recent years and it has become a more accessible product as
the number of countries farming shrimp has increased.
"Some people still think of shrimp as something expensive,
but the price I get is a fair price and the price I can offer
to customers is a great price," she says. Shrimp Market menus
items such as shrimp jambalaya and shrimp carbonara for less
than $8, she notes.
While Pacific whites dominate farmed shrimp imports, at east
one producer is trying to carve out a niche with Pacific blue
shrimp ( Litopenaeus stylirostris ), raised in New Caledonia
and sold through U.S. importer Braun Management on Hawaii's
island of Maui.
Marla Braun-Miller, general manager, says the Markea prawns,
as the blue shrimp are marketed, were once farmed heavily in
the 1980s but succumbed to a virus in the 1990s, so many shrimp
farmers switched to other species like vannamei. Fortunately,
she says, improvements in the development of the broodstock,
which comes from Tahiti, makes blue shrimp more
"This species does require a little more attention" during
farming and is more expensive to produce, says Braun-Miller,
which is another reason why its popularity fell off. But
recognizing an opportunity to develop a niche market, she says
the company has begun marketing the shrimp in Hawaii and the
U.S. mainland. While most current sales are for foodservice,
the company is developing a smaller retail package, says
The blue shrimp, raised in 250 acres of ponds at two farms
in New Caledonia in the South Pacific, are harvested from March
through August, says Braun-Miller. The company only sells
quick-frozen whole prawns that are grown without antibiotics or
artificial colorants. While they can't be marketed as organic
because they are not certified as such, Braun-Miller says the
prawns come as close as possible to meeting organic
Sustainability is also a signature of the brand, she says.
The raising of the blue shrimp "has little impact on the
"I think the trend seems to be toward 'green' energy and not
depleting the natural resources," says Braun-Miller.
At about $2 per pound more than white shrimp, Braun-Miller
says the challenge is getting customers to try the larger,
firmer blue shrimp. Buzz's Wharf, a restaurant owned by
Braun-Miller's family on Maui, uses Markea prawns exclusively
for its shrimp dishes as a means of educating consumers about
This may not be the best time to introduce consumers to a
higher-priced product, but Braun-Miller says quality and taste
are always a draw, and can justify the price. Meanwhile, farmed
shrimp producers and sellers are hoping consumers continue to
view their product as an affordable luxury in a recessionary
Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in South