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Top Species: Wild shrimp

Natural, manmade issues impact 2010 season

Marketing of wild shrimp has dwindled, but it's still
    the consumer's favorite seafood per-capita. - Photo courtesy of Wild American Shrimp Inc.
By Joanne Friedrick
June 01, 2010

Higher fuel prices, an approaching oil slick, cold weather and a declining harvest are just some of the issues facing the wild shrimp industry. U.S. shrimpers harvested 116,808 tons of shrimp in 2008, down almost 12 percent from the 127,847 tons landed in 2007.

Although prices are in the same range as last season for Oregon's pink salad shrimp ( Pandalus jordani ), diesel has risen by about 80 cents a gallon this year, notes Brad Pettinger, director of the Oregon Trawl Commission in Brookings, Ore.

Last year, Oregon shrimp fishermen received about 30 cents per pound, while this year's ex-vessel price is in the 32- to 37-cent range, he says. For buyers, "it's still a bargain," says Pettinger, but for those operating the boats, "there is a concern about offsetting the higher fuel costs."

Fortunately, says Pettinger, at the beginning of the season in April trawlers were reaching their limit within a day, so they conserved fuel.

Like 2008, the Oregon fleet in 2009 exceeded predictions for the catch, landing 22 million pounds. The original projection was to do a little more than half that amount, he says, so processors entered the season with a good amount of holdover.

Although the economy is improving, processors are still seeing competition from farmed shrimp, says Pettinger.

 

All eyes on the Gulf

For shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico, the big concern is the oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded on April 20 (see News Recap, p. 10). All eyes have been on the movement of the slick, which was spread out over 2,000 miles. With the delay and impending impact on the start of the region's shrimp season, shrimpers were monitoring the progress daily, says Kim Chauvin, a member of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board (LSPMB) and owner of Mariah Jade Shrimp Co. in Chauvin, La.

With an issue such as this one, Chauvin says, containment efforts can help, "but we're at the mercy of the winds" that determine the direction in which the slick moves.

Meanwhile, the Louisiana seafood industry is encouraging its customers and consumers to continue to have confidence in their product. In the weeks after the spill, the LSPMB and other groups did their part to keep buyers and consumers abreast of how the spill was affecting the seafood and fishing communities in the area.

"Fishermen continue to bring quality Louisiana Seafood to the nation and will continue to do so," the LSPMB said in a prepared statement. "At this time we are still uncertain about how the oil leak will impact our fisheries, but Louisiana fishermen are launching their boats daily and doing their part to supply restaurants and consumers with fresh Louisiana seafood."

Adding to the concerns of the Gulf shrimp industry was the slow start to the season, Chauvin says. The opening of the three-mile season, which covers state waters, "was a bust," she says. She attributed the problems to the unusually cold winter in the South. During past cold snaps the shrimp start to show up in June, rather than April or May, she added. Last year Louisiana had a bumper season, says Chauvin, so inventories are stocked and can be counted on to fill orders if catches don't rebound in June. Numbers from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries put statewide 2009 shrimp landings at 110 million pounds.

Along with the successful season in 2009, Chauvin says sales rebounded for domestic shrimp, in part because consumers are becoming savvier about where their seafood is coming from. And promotions for Louisiana shrimp, she says, also help raise awareness.

Mexico, which exports both wild and farmed shrimp to the United States, was under a temporary import ban for wild shrimp beginning April 20. The ban came about because some trawlers in the Gulf of Mexico and Sea of Cortez were not using turtle excluder devices properly to prevent trapping sea turtles during harvest.

The season for wild Mexican shrimp was coming to an end as the ban went into effect, however, so the impact on supply and price is expected to be minimal, says Harry Mahleres, director of purchasing for Seattle Fish Co., a seafood wholesaler in Denver. As of April 30, 21-25 Gulf whites were selling at $4.85 per pound, while the same size Mexican whites were at $4.70 per pound. Brown Gulf and Mexican 21-25s were both selling for $4.70 per pound.

Mahleres buys the bulk of his shrimp from Mexico, but took his position early in the season when prices were cheaper.

"There's very little shrimp coming from Mexico now," he says, "so if companies hadn't made a buy earlier, they might have trouble covering their inventories."

He says Gulf shrim p have proven to be excellent bargains. "They are as cheap, or cheaper, than tigers," he explains, noting he has supplemented his farmed black tiger inventory with wild Mexican Gulf shrimp. The ban is expected to be lifted by fall, in time for the start of the next Mexican shrimp season.

 

Domestic prices fall

Price continues to be a problem for shrimpers, says Deborah Long, spokesperson for the Southern Shrimp Alliance, a nonprofit organization representing fishermen and processors in eight Southern states.

Although all the numbers weren't in yet, Long says 2009 was shaping up to be "the worst year in recorded history" for shrimp prices. The weighted average ex-vessel price for 15-20s in 2001 was $5.68 a pound, but just $3.24 in 2009. From 2008 to 2009, the price of 41-50s dropped to $1.37 from $2.76.

Likewise, says Long, days fished and the number of shrimp licenses issued both declined during the past decade. In 2008 there were 8,880 licenses issued, she notes, where there used to be tens of thousands of license holders.

The institution of anti-dumping regulations in 2004, aimed at countries selling lower-cost farmed shrimp in the United States, did help the domestic shrimp industry, says Long. Industry members fear that lower-priced product would flood the market if tariffs are removed.

The wild shrimp industry got good news in mid May, when the Department of Commerce's five-year "sunset review" concluded that the tariffs should remain in place for imports from Thailand, China, India and Brazil. Tariffs on shrimp from Ecuador were lifted in 2007 after the World Trade Organization ruled that the U.S. practice of zeroing, a controversial method of calculating duties, is illegal. The DOC will next handle its sunset review of shrimp from Vietnam.

The slowly rebounding economy is helping rebuild restaurant traffic, which in turn helps the shrimp industry, says Eddie Gordon, executive director of Wild American Shrimp in Charleston, S.C.

Restaurants were hit hard in 2009, says Gordon, while grocery stores saw an uptick in sales. Still, he says, "we 
expect demand to be up because grocery doesn't help as much as if restaurants have rebounded."

Wild American Shrimp, which in the past has run TV commercials and print ads, is now limited in what it can do for national marketing because of a lack of funding, says Gordon.

Both the federal government, from which Wild American Shrimp was primarily funded, and state organizations have cut back on money earmarked for marketing, he adds.

When WASI was advertising in 2006 and 2007, he says, both shrimp sales and prices were up. In lieu of doing TV commercials and national ads, the group still conducts in-store educational programs.

But with the impending disaster created by the Gulf oil spill at the end of April, folks in the region have bigger things on their mind than marketing; future supply and retaining buyers' interest in domestic shrimp looms large.

 

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

 

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