Food News: Asian Shrimp Prices Drop and US Shrimpers Get Hit

Food News: Asian Shrimp Prices Drop and US Shrimpers Get Hit

Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the United States. 

The good news: there has been a surge in shrimp imports from Asia that has led to a price drop of more than a third in the past year.

The bad news: our domestic shrimp industry is seriously hurting from this dramatic and rapid price reduction.  American shrimp boat operators, who mostly fish the Gulf of Mexico and bring wild shrimp to market, now only contribute about ten percent of the total shrimp sold here.  The US shrimp industry is hurting and this could reduce the amount of wild shrimp available to home cooks.

Two years ago a disease that wiped out 47 percent of the shrimp harvest in Thailand, which had been the world's largest farmed shrimp exporter, led to a rise in imports from China, Southeast Asia, Ecuador, India, and Indonesia who stepped in with boosted production. There are no general tariffs on shrimp imports and thus are not included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership now in talks.  Washington officials say this 12-nation trade treaty will not worsen the shrimp import conditions, but not everyone is so sanguine and many worry that cheap imported shrimp, much of which is raised on illegal antibiotics, will only increase.

With cheap imports flooding the US shrimp marketplace, Gulf shrimpers are struggling to compete as prices reach lows not seen since 2009.  This has put price pressure on American shrimpers, pushing some out of business: since 2007, the number of permits for US shrimping boats is down 24 percent to 1,470.

In an article that appeared in Enterprise magazine, Bloomberg reporter Lydia Mulvany wrote how as recently as two decades ago, shrimp was a luxury food that was priced like steak. But this changed in the 1990's when aqua-farming technologies made it possible to breed pathogen-free white shrimp. These methods were put in place in Asia and Latin America, which then led to explosive growth in commercial shrimp production.

As shrimp became a commodity, it led to lower consumer prices and all-you-can-eat restaurant promos, which in turn helped court the American consumer's preference for the shellfish. According to the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization, in 2013 the global production of farmed white shrimp, which is the kind of shrimp sold most commonly in fish markets and used most often in restaurants, reached 3.3 million metric tons, compared with 92,000 tons in 1990.  In 2013, 1.1 billion pounds were consumed in the US alone, 90% of which were imported.

And it's not just farmed shrimp: according to data from the National Marine Fisheries Service and reported by Bloomberg, the world now consumes more fish farmed in lakes and coastal waters than those caught wild from the sea.

Why Buying Wild Shrimp Matters

So what's the difference between wild and farmed shrimp and why the price difference?  Wild shrimp is caught by fishing boats and for most of the US shrimp industry, this is what their boats bring from the Gulf waters; some wild shrimp is also caught from the Atlantic Ocean, especially off the southeast coast. In contrast, shrimp that is farmed in China, Southeast Asia, Ecuador and India are grown on shrimp farms that use tanks, shrimp ponds, and pits that are maintained with chemicals and antibiotics. 

We should try to support our US shrimpers, who managed to survive Katrina and the BP oil spill but now face what may be their toughest threat.  We should help keep this industry viable by seeking out and buying wild shrimp instead of farmed. While it's always harder to pay a higher price because of principle (and wild shrimp does cost more than farmed), when you visit your fish store to buy shrimp, think about how farm fish are raised -- in tanks and pits with chemicals and antibiotics -- and the huge distances they are shipped, frozen, before they get to your fish department. Then think about how the wild shrimp were caught by boat in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

And wouldn't you prefer to put that on your dinner table?

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