July 3, 2008

Shrimping season looks good, but imports still hurting local fishermen

Seafood aficionado Lynne Foster hopes predictions for a good shrimping season in North Carolina prove to be right.

“The Pamlico Sound shrimp we enjoyed fresh last summer and frozen this winter so far surpassed the tasteless imports that they don’t even seem to be the same creature,” said Foster from her home in Hatteras.

Foster’s expectations are buoyed by the results of shrimp surveys conducted by the state Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF).

“Our sampling this year showed nice increases in Carteret, Pamlico, and Hyde counties,” said David Taylor, DMF fishery management plan coordinator.

Taylor said DMF has sampled shrimp populations in estuaries since 1972. 

“These surveys are consistent, done in the same specific locations the last week in May and the first week in June every year,” he explained.

This year the surveys netted promising indicators in the southern part of the state too.

“Down here our numbers of brown shrimp are substantially over those of the last few years,” said biologist Rich Carpenter at the DMF Wilmington office.

Carpenter said the surveys also found good numbers of white shrimp, the type harvested in the fall.

Still, Taylor cautioned that survey results don’t always translate into accurate predictions of harvest levels, especially if tropical storms hit the state. 

“But with no hard freezes last winter and with high salinity levels, things are looking good right now for this year,” Taylor said.

Shrimp is the seafood of choice for many American consumers.  The per capita consumption in the U.S. in 2006 was 4.4 pounds, higher than rates for other types of fish and shellfish, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). 

But the popularity of shrimp with consumers hasn’t meant flush times for U.S. shrimpers.

Ninety percent of the shrimp eaten by Americans comes from other countries.

556,936 tons, valued at $3.9 billion, were imported in 2007, making shrimp the number one seafood import in the U.S.

Much of that shrimp comes from Thailand, Ecuador, Indonesia, and China.

And while NMFS doesn’t distinguish between wild-caught and farm-raised imports, observers note that Asia and Latin America are the world’s epicenter of shrimp farms, so it’s likely that much of the imported product is farm-raised.

Ex-vessel prices, the prices paid to fishermen, in the U.S. have dropped as imported shrimp stepped in to drive the market.

From 1994 to 2000, the ex-vessel price in NC averaged about $2.50 per pound.

Last year the average ex-vessel price was just $1.88, according to Scott Crosson, DMF socioeconomic program manager.

Add in climbing fuel costs, and the margin for profit grew dangerously thin.

Now that diesel prices have hit $4.65 a gallon in some N.C. ports, chances are high that the cost of fishing will outweigh the value of the shrimp brought into the docks for some, if not most, boats.

Lynne Foster in Hatteras said crabbers and finfish fishermen face similar market challenges.

She believes those challenges can be met, in part, with the help of seafood consumers.

 “When we buy local shrimp and other seafood, our purchases support economically troubled local fishing communities and keep our dollars here in North Carolina and in the U.S.,” Foster said.

The U.S. imported 83 percent of its seafood in 2007.  Those imports were valued at $13.7 billion.

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