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Top Species: Wild shrimp

Conditions are right for large catches - if demand is there

By Joanne Friedrick
July 01, 2009

From coast to coast, wild shrimp suppliers are optimistic that lower diesel fuel prices and abundant catches will help turnaround an industry that was hurting in 2007 and 2008. Although numbers for 2008 aren't yet available, in 2007 the National Marine Fisheries Service statistics show total domestic shrimp landings were down about 17 percent from 2006, to 278.9 million pounds from 336.8 million pounds. Still, there is the realization among many that the economy continues to impact prices and demand, which means improvement could be gradual.

"Stockwise, it's a banner year," says Brad Pettinger, director of the Oregon Trawl Commission in Brookings, Ore. Despite the ready supply, the marketplace is being cautious about how much to purchase. "No one wants to put up the inventory now," he says.

The Oregon fleet caught 25 million pounds of pink shrimp ( Pandalus jordani ) in 2008. The projection for this year, says Pettinger, is to do about half that based on early demand. "But if the market changes, we could do 40 to 50 million pounds," he notes of the salad-size shrimp. "The fleet could be productive right through the end of the season in October."

High fuel prices last season impacted the number of boats returning to the Oregon fleet this year. While there were 50 boats last year, says Pettinger, this year only 30 to 35 are trawling for shrimp.

The average ex-vessel price is about 30 cents, down from 55 cents per pound last year. However, fishermen are finding that although boat prices are down, retailers haven't necessarily passed that price difference along to their customers. "The price is artificially high in the stores," he says.

The economy is affecting the wild shrimp industry, as it has with most businesses, says Eddie Gordon, executive director for Wild American Shrimp in Charleston, S.C.

"We're like the rest of the world right now with the economic impact," he says. "But overall, we're not hearing any horror stories."

The shrimp seasons in Florida, Louisiana and North Carolina were just getting under way in late May. Some processing plants filled up quickly and stopped buying because of strong stocks. Gordon attributes the high early catch to improved conditions for young shrimp, such as better feeding opportunities.

Louisiana is having a banner year in terms of supply, says Harlon Pearce Jr., chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board (LSPMB) in New Orleans. Although processing plants were backed up because of a strong early catch, "the shrimpers aren't stopping," says Pearce.

He notes ex-vessel prices for all sizes were in the $1 to $2 range. Based on current NMFS data, prices are up slightly over last year. Some stock remains from 2008, he says, but most of that is large headless shrimp, so there are plenty of supply gaps to fill.

Florida's season encompasses five shrimp species: pink, white, brown, rock and royal red, explains Paul Balthrop, supervisor of market development for the Florida Bureau of Seafood and Aquaculture Marketing in Tallahassee, Fla.

"Overall, everything is up from 2008," he says, "but the price to the boat is down."

Last year, Florida's shrimp fishermen landed 15.8 million pounds. Pink shrimp led the way with 7.1 million pounds, followed by whites at 4.2 million, rock shrimp at 2 million, browns with 1.8 million and royal reds at 321,000 pounds. The average ex-vessel price for all species was $2.06 per pound.

Unlike Oregon, where fewer boats are in use, Balthrop notes that with fuel prices halved since 2008, there are more boats in service this year. The season is also helped by improved conditions for the survival of larvae, such as colder water in the Tampa area and more food stirred up by early season storms.

 

Promotions give shrimp 
added exposure

The launch of new programs and the continuation of marketing plans go hand and hand with the start of the shrimp season.

Oregon shrimp received Marine Stewardship Council certification about a year and half ago, says Pettinger, which should be a boon to the industry in the long term.

But for now, he says, "people are price shopping. To have to pay more because of certification, not many people are doing that now." Yet, he says, Oregon's shrimp fleet "thinks it's a good investment. This is a very progressive fleet."

The Trawl Commission supplies retailers with recipe cards to help market Oregon shrimp. "We're small scale, so it's hard to get into [marketing] too much," says Pettinger.

Florida is counting on continued interest in local products to generate excitement for its shrimp harvest. The state marketing bureau promotes wild Florida shrimp via brochures and works with celebrity chefs, as well as through events such as Taste of the NFL and the International Boston Seafood Show.

In October, Sweetbay Supermarkets, which has 102 stores in Florida, is planning a Think Pink promotion that will link Florida pink shrimp sales with a program on breast cancer awareness.

Louisiana kicked off the brown and white shrimp season with a big event in New Orleans in mid-May, according to Ewell Smith, executive director of the LSPMB. Five-pound blocks of shrimp, wrapped in gold paper, were removed from a bank vault and paraded through the streets to a local supermarket, where they were presented to local chefs.

Promotions such as that one, says Smith, help bring awareness of the product to local consumers and visitors and create demand for Louisiana shrimp. "Especially in today's economy, it's important for local farmers and fishermen that people ask for their products," says Smith.

He says chefs are able to 
differentiate themselves by using and promoting a local resource. Ewell notes that while his grou p continues to foster relationships with retailers and chefs, it's difficult to measure the economic impact.

To build business nationwide, Smith says events such as the Vieux To Do, a combination of the New Orleans Seafood Festival, Cajun-Zydeco Festival and Great Creole Tomato Festival, reach the national media "and end up having legs beyond the local market."

Other promotions for Louisiana shrimp include the recent Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off, after which the winning shrimp recipes are publicized.

Wild American Shrimp's Gordon says his organization has a limited budget for getting out the word on wild shrimp, so it relies on news generated by local events such as shrimp festivals and blessings of the fleet to create interest.

Gordon also believes the "buy local, eat natural" movement is generating sales for domestic wild shrimp. In the Charleston area, he notes, "restaurants are trying to find excitement for their menus and wild is one of the things they are latching on to."

Nick Melvin, chef at Parish restaurant in Atlanta, is on board with buying and promoting wild shrimp for his New Orleans-style menu.

"I have used farm-raised and imported shrimp," says Melvin, "but [wild] tastes more like shrimp. I try to keep it as local as possible."

Melvin purchases about 100 pounds of Georgia white shrimp each week, ranging from 16-20 head-on shrimp to smaller pieces. The shrimp is used in Parish's No. 1 appetizer, New Orleans barbecue shrimp, as well as for shrimp po-boys and shrimp and corn gazpacho. A typical menu will feature four to five shrimp dishes.

It's extremely important for Melvin's customers to know where the ingredients come from. "They want what's fresh and available out there," he says.

Recently, WASI's Gordon gave a talk on global marketing at the College of Charleston. He told the students that it's critical for people everywhere to know what they are eating and where it comes from, and educating consumers and restaurateurs on the differences between wild and farmed shrimp.

Oregon's Pettinger is also trying to make consumers aware of the benefits of wild shrimp.

"Twenty years ago, there wasn't all this farmed product around," he says. "People say they prefer wild, but they don't appreciate it enough to always request it."

 

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in South Portland, Maine

 

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