“Shrimpers are getting roughly half of what they were last year for their catch, which is creating both an economic problem and a health issue,” said Tony Reisinger, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agent for coastal and marine resources in Cameron County.
Mr Reisinger said a flood of farm-raised shrimp from foreign countries is driving down the price of wild-caught Gulf of Mexico shrimp, causing a far-reaching negative economic impact.
“Lower shrimp prices due to imports are a big problem not only here in Cameron County in South Texas, it’s also having an impact throughout the Gulf Coast region and the southeastern US,” he said.
The 2015 Texas shrimping season began July 15 and ends in mid-May. The two month off-season allows shrimp to grow to provide increased economic benefits.
Mr Reisinger said the only factor keeping shrimpers financially afloat is the relatively low price of fuel used by shrimp boats.
“Diesel prices are at about $1.60 per gallon, compared to about $2 per gallon last year,” he said. “It’s the only thing that’s helping shrimpers stay in business.”
Mr Reisinger said the current tails price of a pound of wild-caught shrimp is about $3, compared to $7 last year.
Andrea Hance, the executive director of the Texas Shrimp Association, said the increase of imported farm-raised shrimp has the potential to devastate the domestic industry, while posing a serious health threat to consumers.
“Consumer Reports recently reported that a high percentage of imported Asian shrimp contains harmful chemicals and antibiotics — most of which are banned in the US and can be potentially harmful to consumers,” she said.
These include three types of veterinary drugs not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in aquaculture yet frequently found in shrimp imports from China, Vietnam, India and Bangladesh, Ms Hance said. The three are of particular concern because of their toxicity, some of which are carcinogenic and genotoxic. They are used to support high-density shrimp farming to reduce production costs.
Ms Hance said less than 1 per cent of imported shrimp is tested by the US Food and Drug Administration, creating a US “dumping ground” for imported shrimp. The 2015 import projection is approximately 1.4 billion pounds of shrimp, worth some $6 billion.
“Most other countries destroy imported shrimp that is found to contain these harmful chemicals,” she said.
“But in the US, the shrimp are merely sent back to the country of origin, where they are repackaged and sent back to another US port because there’s a 99 per cent chance it will make it past inspectors the second time and wind up on your plate.”
Ms Hance said most consumers don’t know what kind of shrimp they are ordering and consuming, even if they read the label on packaged store-bought shrimp or ask waiters at restaurants.
“People have no idea what they are consuming,” she said. “Most labels on packaged shrimp, signs at seafood counters and even menus at restaurants are confusing. Consumers should be asking why they are paying premium prices for Gulf shrimp when they cannot be confident what is winding up on their plates.”
Ms Hance said the Texas Shrimp Association recently conducted an informal study, dining at 25 non-chain restaurants throughout the state that serve shrimp. Of the 25, 20 restaurants claimed their shrimp was from the Gulf, and five conveyed their shrimp was imported from an Asian country.
“After digging a little deeper, it turns out that only two of the 25 restaurants were actually serving Gulf shrimp,” she said. “That sums up a problem that needs to be addressed immediately: the lack of transparency in regards to labeling laws.”
Hance urges consumers to contact their state and federal representatives to demand more transparency in menu labeling laws and to stop the flood of potentially harmful imported shrimp.
“For now, our members continue shrimping with the faith that the American consumer will not only choose Gulf shrimp – a product of the US – over a foreign imported farm-raised shrimp, but more importantly will exercise their right to demand to know the origin of their shrimp.”
Mr Reisinger said Gulf shrimp are more flavorful and safer to eat.
“Because of their habitat and environment, Gulf shrimp taste much better than farm-raised shrimp,” he said. “And they are healthier because you don’t risk consuming antibiotics and other chemicals foreign shrimp farms have to use to keep their shrimp alive in crowded, adverse conditions.”
A recent economic study by AgriLife Extension and Texas Sea Grant showed that between 2009 and 2014, Cameron County’s shrimp harvest accounted for 31 per cent of the total Texas shrimp harvest by weight and 33 per cent of the total Texas shrimp harvest by value.
“The annual economic impact of the shrimp industry, including processing facilities, is $145 million for Cameron County and $175 million for the state,” Mr Reisinger said.