One of the first questions raised after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion was whether shrimp and other seafood from the Gulf of Mexico was safe to eat.
“I think the interesting thing is that people asked the questions and still ask the questions about safety of food, safety of shrimp, but we really haven’t seen any kind of rejection based on that,” said Miles Atchison, category manager for prawns and shrimp at Pacific Seafood Group in Portland. Ore. He said various government agencies and industry groups have worked to ensure that Gulf seafood is tested and determined to be safe, a finding people seem to accept.
The bigger and more lasting question is not whether consumers will accept it, but when the supply will return.
“We have definitely seen a reduction in the amount of shrimp being handled on the domestic side,” said Mark Blanchard, owner of New Orleans Cold Storage. “As a Louisianan, I want local shrimp available, but there just isn’t a lot being caught.”
He said the federal government had closed much of the Gulf to shrimping. Another blow to the harvest is that many of the shrimpers are currently working for BP, helping to clean up the oil spill. “The shrimp boats right now are putting out oil booms and assisting with cleanup,” Blanchard said.
The end result, he said, is that the Gulf shrimp harvest is down about 95 percent for the first of two fishing seasons in 2010.
Imports of shrimp are increasing, Atchison said, although not all Gulf shrimp consumers are willing to switch. “People who want wild shrimp generally don’t substitute in farmed shrimp. There is definitely a difference in taste and texture.”
Gulf shrimp traditionally accounts for about 10 percent of shrimp consumed in the U.S., so imports will increase this year. It’s hard to gauge demand, however, because of market fluctuations around the globe, Atchison said.
“The bigger picture on demand is that shrimp (with 16 to 20 per pound) sold for $4.50 last year. It shot up to $7.50 per pound wholesale right after the spill, and it’s worth about $6.50 now.”
Complicating the shortage of Gulf shrimp is low harvests in other parts of the world. “There is bad weather in Vietnam and hot weather in Thailand and an embargo on shrimp from Mexico.”
Taking all of that into consideration, Atchison said the price for farm supplies of shrimp “probably doesn’t have much further down to go.
“Usually, shrimp pricing remains fairly stable, but this has been a wild year, or a strange year,” he said.
Federal officials in July reopened about one-third of the shrimp fishing area. But because the fishermen in the Gulf are working for BP, industry officials say it’s unclear how big the shrimp harvest will be in the last half of 2010.
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