|By Kyle Stock, The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 22, 2003 -- For decades, Lowcountry shrimp trawlers have plied the waters of the Atlantic. Likewise, tourists and locals have piled into area seafood restaurants for shrimp, with grits or without.
But as cheap, farm-raised shrimp from abroad flood the market, shrimpers here and elsewhere in the United States are getting less for their catch.
Diners and shoppers, however, are generally paying as much or more than ever.
Eddie Gordon, president of the Southern Shrimp Alliance, a group that lobbies on behalf of domestic trawlers, said the free market is not working when it comes to shrimp.
"The boats are getting 1960s prices, and you certainly aren't seeing 1960s prices in the restaurants and grocery stores," Gordon said. "They're charging what the market will bear."
Hyman's Seafood owner Aaron Hyman, who buys most of his shrimp from Ecuador -- 40,000 pounds at a time -- is paying about $2 less per pound than he was a couple years ago. His menu prices, however, are about the same.
Any restaurateur, including Hyman, will tell you buying and selling food in bulk is not an exact science -- the profit margin depends on the dish.
Hyman has held his prices steady because his cost for other seafood has gone up in recent years.
Still, there is currently a big discrepancy between how much shrimp is going for at the docks and how much it goes for at restaurants and grocery stores. Somewhere in between, profit margins are widening.
Shrimp unloaded in Shem Creek, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico are going for $2 to $6 a pound, about 12 percent to 25 percent less than 2001 prices, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Shrimp sold at local Piggly Wiggly and Harris Teeter grocery stores are about $9.99 per pound.
Shrimpers blame an increasing tide of imports for the drop in prices they receive. About 10 years ago, shrimp farming exploded in countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.
While U.S. trawlers have netted about the same amount of shrimp for the past 20 years, the amount of imported shrimp has tripled since 1997, according to John Ward, senior economist at the National Marine Fisheries Service. Foreign shrimp now comprise about 88 percent of the total consumed in the United States, according to American Seafood Distributors Association.
It's not always clear who exactly is getting fat on shrimp.
In some cases, it's the processors and wholesalers that are pocketing the savings, rather than restaurants and fish markets.
Local Piggly Wiggly representatives said their wholesale shrimp prices haven't changed in recent years.
Rial Fitch, owner of Mount Pleasant Seafood Co. on Shem Creek, buys most of his shrimp straight from Lowcountry boats. He has passed on the $2 price reduction to customers and he's selling more than ever.
Some restaurants, like Fish on King Street in Charleston, haven't seen their shrimp prices drop at all. Peyton Smith, executive chef at Fish, is still buying wild Gulf of Mexico shrimp for $6.95 a pound, as he did last year. Smith acknowledges that his supplier, Mount Pleasant-based Crosby's Seafood, may be making a bigger profit but said he understands the nature of the business.
"Maybe that helps them out in other aspects where they're not (profiting excessively)," Smith said. "They haven't gone up any on wreckfish, but the market's been horrible for that."
Dane Schaefer, sous chef at Water's Edge restaurant in Mount Pleasant, also buys Gulf shrimp from Crosby's. Schaefer has seen his shrimp prices increase somewhat since the restaurant opened a year and a half ago.
Crosby's declined to comment.
The Southern Shrimp Alliance is working hard to drag some shrimp revenue back into the nets of domestic trawlers. The alliance is considering suing countries like Thailand for dumping -- selling shrimp abroad cheaper than they do at home.
Gordon said U.S. shrimp prices are more depressed than most because antibiotic-treated shrimp that are banned in Europe, Japan and Canada usually come here. In many cases importers, desperate to offload the shrimp, sell the crustaceans for less than it cost to grow them, he said.
Gordon's group is also heading up a marketing campaign to get wild, domestically caught shrimp certified like black Angus beef and Vidalia onions. The alliance hopes the designation, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration, will command a premium on the market.
Despite the price, Americans are as hungry as ever for shrimp. In the United States last year, a record 3.7 pounds of shrimp per person were consumed, up from 2.2 pounds per person in 1990, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Shrimp makes up 20 percent of U.S. seafood consumption, more than any other fish or shellfish, including canned tuna.
If salmon is any indicator, the drop in shrimp prices may show up on menus and in supermarkets only after a while. Farm-raised salmon entered the market in the 1980s, but it wasn't until the early 1990s before prices dropped at supermarkets.
Restaurants continue to charge high prices for salmon.
-----To see more of The Post and Courier, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.charleston.net
(c) 2003, The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. FLM, RDK,