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Top 10 Species: Wild shrimp

Sellers of this crustacean seek upscale markets

 - Photo courtesy of Wild American Shrimp
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 meals.

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 expensive imports.

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 Pearce.

"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 says.

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 shrimp.


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 nutrition."


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 and Louisiana.

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 shrimp.


Thyra Porter is a freelance writer based in Cape Elizabeth, Maine




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