« October 2007 Table of Contents
Top 10 Species: Wild shrimp
Sellers of this crustacean seek upscale markets
By Thyra Porter
October 01, 2007
Eat wild Shrimp: This is the message the domestic Southern
shrimp industry is promoting to an upscale consumer market
increasingly seeking local, fresh ingredients for their
While shrimp is the most popular seafood consumed in the
United States, wild shrimp producers worry that consumers can't
tell the difference between imported farmed shrimp and the wild
species harvested mostly in the Gulf region.
The challenge for the industry is to educate both buyers and
consumers about the flavor and nutritional benefits of wild
shrimp and explain their higher price point compared to less
Another challenge to that effort is detailing the very
different tastes and textures inherent with wild shrimp versus
the more familiar flavors of farmed shrimp; flavor nuances lost
to many culinary professionals, not to mention home cooks.
The bottom line is that fishermen, processors and others in
the wild shrimp industry are going to be more accountable for
the product they sell, thanks to a variety of wild
shrimp-certification programs, such as those being sought by
the states of Louisiana and Oregon. Certification programs help
upscale buyers sell seafood at higher prices.
Ultimately, certification means going back to the boat, says
Harlon Pearce, chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion
& Marketing Board and owner of Harlon's LA Fish, a
seafood-processing house in Kenner, La.
Upscale buyers want to know where their shrimp is coming
from, says Pearce. That's why Louisiana's state certification
program will soon be able to link the shrimper to his shrimp
via a traceability program.
"We aspire to the programs developed in Alaska for wild
salmon," Pearce says. "They have traceability.
"Retail buyers want to know where their shrimp are coming
from and who their shrimp are coming from."
There is a new target audience for wild shrimp, adds
"We have upper-end buyers who understand they are going to
pay 25 to 30 percent more for product and get exactly what they
want and be comfortable with what they sell to customers," he
Across the board, domestic retailers selling wild shrimp
agree that selling to an upscale consumer base is the best way
to compete with cheaper farmed imports.
The concept is to raise prices for wild shrimp nationwide,
says Pearce. For example, previously frozen wild shrimp was
selling for $14.99 a pound for 16/20s at the Whole Foods Market
in Portland, Maine, in September.
At the same time, previously frozen imported farmed 16/20s
were selling for $10.49 a pound in a nearby Hannaford
supermarket, which said it did not carry wild shrimp.
Convincing the average consumer to spend nearly $5 a pound
more on wild shrimp - and travel the extra distance to seek
them out - is a multi-pronged task, not the least of which is
educating them on the wide flavor variations of wild
Supply not a problem
Louisiana, even as it struggles to bounce back from
Hurricane Katrina in other ways, has rebuilt its thriving wild
shrimp industry, Pearce adds.
Ewell Smith, director of the LSPMB, says that despite
Katrina's cruel landing two years ago, last year the Louisiana
shrimp market had rebounded. The upsurge from the hurricane
actually helped release nutrients from swamps that are favored
by shrimp, leading to a higher harvest. The result was a banner
year for shrimp in Louisiana with more than 120 million pounds
harvested for the state. That's about the same total projected
for the state this year.
Smith says wild shrimp is an extremely renewable resource,
which is a strong selling point as consumers increasingly look
for sustainability in their purchases.
And Louisiana is not alone. Other states are working to
build awareness among consumers of the value of wild shrimp,
says Eddie Gordon, executive director of Wild American Shrimp,
the marketing arm of the Southern Shrimp Alliance.
Another challenge, adds Gordon, is to explain to chefs and
home cooks that wild shrimp varieties are not uniform in taste
and texture. Wild American Shrimp's latest marketing effort
centers around a nutritional analysis comparing wild shrimp to
farmed, which was announced in early September. The study
evaluated the levels of key nutrients, including vitamin B12,
omega-3 fatty acids, sodium, cholesterol, selenium and zinc, of
both wild and pond-raised shrimp.
"We know anecdotally that all shrimp are not created equal,"
said Gordon in a Sept. 4 news release. "Now we have the science
that provides further empirical evidence that wild-caught
shrimp have clear benefits when it comes to taste, quality and
Show me the flavor
Brown, white and pink shrimp are known collectively as Gulf
shrimp and are commercially important to both the United States
and Mexico. Gulf shrimp are found along the southeastern United
States from Maryland to the western Gulf along Mexico.
Pink shrimp are the largest Gulf species, and can reach
nearly a foot in length. It helps that they are often sold with
their heads on, a big deal given that the heads can be up to
two-thirds of the body length.
White shrimp, harvested mostly from the Gulf of Mexico, grow
to about 8 inches, as do brown shrimp, which come from Texas
The varying flavor profiles of the different Gulf shrimp
species is a challenge for Wild American Shrimp, says Gordon,
but that's what makes the market special.
"Our goal is to show that the shrimp that is imported is not
wild-caught shrimp, but also that even the shrimp caught here
in the United States is not the same. White shrimp tastes
different from brown shrimp," he notes. "Those are the things
that culinary professionals have to hear." To that end, Gordon
and his group have delivered an assortment of wild shrimp to
culinary organizations like the International Association of
Culinary Professionals and the James Beard Foundation.
The marketing group educated attendees of the various shrimp
species nuances of wild shrimp at a gourmet dinner two years
ago at the James Beard House, served up by New Orleans' famed
Commander's Palace kitchen staff.
"We introduced a variety of pink, white and brown shrimp to
the association members, paired with a variety of wines to show
the different flavors and textures that wild shrimp can provide
to a meal," says Gordon. "That was fun."
White Gulf shrimp grow in estuaries and creeks have a softer
texture and milder flavor, notes Gordon. The peak season for
Gulf whites is fall.
Gordon compares the flavor of brown shrimp, which are
harvested on the East Coast as well as Gulf waters, to a "good
glass of Scotch," with "a bigger, bolder flavor" than other
wild shrimp species.
Gulf pink shrimp, which are primarily caught in Florida and
captured at night, are sweeter and crisper than other wild
shrimp species. Pink shrimp are naturally pink even before
cooking, thanks to the amount of coral in their habitats.
Gordon estimates that there are fewer pink shrimp harvested
each year; about 20 million pounds worth last year.
Show me the money
Dean Blanchard, owner of seafood distributor and exporter
Dean Blanchard Seafood Co. in Grand Isle, La., says that the
white-tablecloth marketplace is the only place the wild shrimp
industry can go.
Blanchard points out that it wasn't long ago that shrimp was
a high-end product, but complains that now with farmed imports
coming in at ever cheaper prices, "Shrimp became a Wal-Mart
item." That retail dynamic, he says, has to change.
Wild shrimp, according to Blanchard, can't be produced as
inexpensively as imported farmed shrimp.
"They get $2 a day for labor over there," he charges of
working conditions in Asian countries.
In any case, Blanchard says the wild shrimp industry must
reach out to consumers and convince them to pay more for wild
Thyra Porter is a freelance writer based in Cape Elizabeth,