Declining net worth
Cheap, imported shellfish is cutting into Florida shimpers' incomes. "It's not called shrimping," one said. "It's hoping."
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003
TARPON SPRINGS -- Waiting for the tide to come in, Adam Williams and his two-man crew mended the green nets on the 30-year-old steel trawler Captain Ken.
For hours, they had been preparing the 86-foot boat on the Anclote River for another grueling voyage in search of shrimp.
Williams, 24, has been around shrimp boats since he was a boy, learning how to harvest the Gulf of Mexico from his father, John, a shrimper for 35 years. As the son readied to cast off, the elder Williams doubted the three-week trip would yield a good catch.
It has been that way for several months now, John Williams said as he watched his son work on the boat.
The industry that has been so good to his family is on the verge of extinction.
"It's provided me with a good living, and it's provided him with a good living," said John Williams, 51, pointing at Adam. "But it's mighty scary thinking that my grandson may not be able to do this. He may not have a choice."
Florida shrimpers such as John Williams say they are being driven from the sea by cheaper, pond-raised shrimp from Asian countries such as Thailand, China and Vietnam.
A billion pounds of imported shrimp pours into this country every year, experts say, flooding the U.S. market with inexpensive foreign shrimp and sending prices so low that commercial fisherman can't compete. It's gotten so bad that shrimpers are forced to accept 1970s prices for today's catches.
Some have seen their income cut in half, or worse. Mike Young, 27, of Holiday, has been shrimping for eight years. He recalls making $3,000 on a trip.
"Now, I'm happy if I make a grand," he said.
"It's not called shrimping no more," Young said. "It's hoping."
When he left shrimping, Boudreau's yearly income had dropped to about $32,000.
"I was out at sea three weeks out of the month, on average," said Boudreau, 37, who has has had one temporary job as a charter captain since leaving shrimping. "Then when you're home, you really aren't home. You're at the dock every day getting the boat ready for the next trip. Then you look at it and say, 'Why am I doing this?' "
From 2000 to 2002, the price of shrimp in Florida has dropped as much as 38 percent, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Two years ago, 23 percent of the shrimp in the United States came from the Gulf of Mexico. Today it's 12 percent.
This happens as -- and perhaps because -- shrimp has surpassed canned tuna as the seafood most preferred by U.S. consumers. Shrimp passed tuna in popularity within the last year, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. To meet that growing demand for shrimp, retailers and restaurants are turning to imported shrimp, which now has an 88 percent share of the U.S. market.
Industry experts say the situation is the worst it has been in 40 years.
"We are starving to death," said Bob Jones, executive director of the nonprofit trade association Southeastern Fisheries Association.
Florida fishermen are catching the same amount of shrimp that they have always caught. But what was a good haul a few years ago now barely covers growing expenses for insurance and fuel.
In 1998, a crew that caught 12,000 pounds of shrimp could expect to get paid about $50,000, said Julie Russell, president of Pelican Point Seafood in Tarpon Springs. Today that catch is worth about $32,000. After that money is used to pay for the trip's fuel and groceries and the captain and boat owner get their share, a crewman can expect to make about 10 percent of the gross catch.
"What we would like to see is the prices go up so we can make our own living," Russell said. "We just want a fair shake and get paid a good price for our product."
Imported shrimp has long made up a majority of that sold on store shelves in the U.S. What's new, shrimpers say, is that foreign shrimp is coming faster and faster.
For example, China sent 702,000 pounds of shell-on, pond-raised shrimp to the United States in 2001 at a cost of $4.13 per pound. In just the first half of 2002, China exported 4.4-million pounds of that type of shrimp to this country at a cost of $2.90 per pound.
Since the imported shrimp is raised in ponds, foreign producers don't have to pay for boat fuel, insurance and other costs U.S. fishermen have to deal with. Labor costs are also lower in the other countries.
"If we could just find some way to be competitive with imported shrimp," said Adam Williams, 24, of New Port Richey. "They are just undercutting us so bad."
Shrimpers from eight states recently formed the Southern Shrimp Alliance to tackle the problem of imports. The group has hired a Washington, D.C., law firm and lobbyists to help investigate possible unfair trade practices in the foreign shrimp market.
The group also is looking into filing an anti-dumping petition against as many as 15 foreign countries. The suit would try to prove that those countries are selling shrimp in the United States cheaper than the price they get in their own countries.
"We can deal with regulation and the rising fuel costs and insurance premiums," said John Williams, the treasurer of the alliance. "We can deal with just about anything that comes at us, but we can't deal with price reduction."
In the past, local shrimpers say, they were able to compete better with the foreign product because shrimp raised in stagnant ponds are susceptible to diseases that can wipe out entire crops.
Because those countries could not raise shrimp to full maturity, the imported product tended to be smaller than wild-caught shrimp, giving local fishermen an edge in the jumbo shrimp market, said John Williams, who co-owns a Tarpon Springs seafood business and has three boats.
But that doesn't seem to be the case anymore, he said. Williams and other shrimpers claim that the only way the foreign countries have been able to produce so much pond-raised shrimp is by using a powerful antibiotic called chloramphenicol, which keeps shrimp alive in ponds but is unpredictable and unsafe for people.
"They can not grow that amount of shrimp without those chemicals," Williams said.
Last year, Canada and Europe tested samples of imported shrimp from southeast Asia and detected trace amounts of chloramphenicol. The test results got worldwide attention. In response, state agencies and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration modified testing methods to detect extremely low levels of the antibiotic in imported shrimp.
The FDA also sent an import alert to U.S. customs agents listing the foreign manufacturers known to have sent shrimp tainted by trace amounts of chloramphenicol. The companies on that list were from China, Vietnam and Thailand.
Federal regulations prohibit the drug's use in animals that may be eaten by people, said Monica Revelle, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In the last six months, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services also has been testing for chloramphenicol in shrimp samples from wholesale distributors around the state. Out of about 220 samples, seven tested positive for trace amounts of the drug, said Dr. Marion Fuller, director of the division of food safety at the department of agriculture.
Those products were taken out of distribution, and the state plans to continue testing for the drug, Fuller said. The ones that tested positive only showed signs of trace amounts of chloramphenicol.
"The problem is certainly being addressed and hopefully we are seeing it resolved at the source," Fuller said.
Steve Otwell, a professor at the University of Florida's aquatic food products laboratory, has toured shrimp farms all over the world and said for the most part the ponds are "environmentally sound operations in terms of safety of the product."
"Seafood is one of the safest sources of meat protein eaten in our nation and within seafood, shrimp is one of the safest seafoods," Otwell said.
In June, a delegation of Chinese officials told the FDA that China had recently banned the use of chloramphenicol in animals and animal feeds. The delegation also told the agency that China was starting to test seafood intended for export to ensure the absence of chloramphenicol.
The seafood industry is big business and countries like China "have a lot to lose" if its shrimp is taken out of the U.S. market, Otwell said. "The problem is really starting to go away. People have realized that they did the wrong thing and it's not as persistent as it was."
Experts say one way the state's shrimp industry can survive is if it creates and promotes a niche market for locally caught seafood. Shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico has a distinct taste and texture compared to the pond-raised shrimp.
"People come to Florida to eat seafood," Otwell said. "Do they come here to eat China seafood or do they come here to eat Florida seafood? If they can have the Vidalia onion, why can't I have a Jacksonville white shrimp?"
That's exactly what the state's Department of Agriculture is trying to do. The agency has launched a marketing campaign that includes billboards, free recipe brochures, newspaper advertising and promotional events at grocery stores to ask consumers to buy locally caught shrimp. Sales of locally caught shrimp rise dramatically during these promotions.
"That's proof that (marketing) makes a difference," said Joanne McNeely, chief of the bureau of seafood and aquaculture marketing at the department of agriculture.
Fearing that shrimpers may be losing their livelihood, the state organized a series of meetings throughout Florida in January. State and local agencies explained to the shrimpers in the audience how they can qualify for food stamps, Medicaid, job training and other forms of government assistance.
But shrimpers overwhelmingly said they were not looking for state welfare. What they wanted was for the government to levy tariffs on imported shrimp to bring prices back up.
"Let us have a fighting chance," said Shawn Morrison, 40, a New Port Richey resident who has been shrimping for 20 years. "I'm not here to get rich. I just want to be able to give my kids a better life."
Morrison, who has two daughters ages 14 and 11, said he used to have some money left over at the end of the month. But those days are gone and he is falling behind in paying his bills, he said.
"I have $2 left to my name and I'm going to play that on the Lotto before I get out of here," Morrison said. "If the price keeps up like this, next year you'll see everyone's boats tied up."
Fresh from Florida?
There is no easy way now to tell if the shrimp you buy at a grocery store comes from the Gulf of Mexico or overseas, but that will change.
Beginning in 2004, a federal law will require grocery stores to label the country of origin of seafood packages and whether they are wild-caught or farm-raised. Until then, the best way to find out where shrimp is from is to ask the store and look at the package carefully. Customers can also look out for a "Fresh from Florida" logo, although not all locally caught shrimp carry the label.
And if you can't find the label, look at the shrimp. Experts say most of the Gulf of Mexico shrimp sold in grocery stores in the west coast of Florida are bright pink with a little red spot on the side.
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