Tough Times for Florida Shrimpers

Florida shrimpers say they’re being squeezed by a double whammy of skyrocketing diesel prices and a flood of cheap imported farmed shrimp.

“It’s been a great life until the last three years,” said Johnny Williams, a Gulf Coast shrimper for 40 years who owns Northside Seafood Market in Tarpon Springs. “These energy prices are a bitter pill.”

Williams said he’s already tied up one of his four shrimp boats because he can’t afford to get it fixed, and the doubling of diesel-fuel prices in the last year has put other fishermen with mortgaged boats on the edge of bankruptcy.

Williams and other shrimpers say they’re no different from the rest of America, adjusting to escalating prices of fuel. Diesel fuel generally costs less per gallon than gasoline, but the price has increased in lockstep with gasoline prices. The price per gallon of diesel ranged from $2.75 a gallon in Virginia recently to $2.01 a gallon in Brownsville, Texas.

American shrimpers are doubly unhappy because the increased operating costs are coming in the midst of a battle they are fighting over cheap imported farmed shrimp.

The Commerce Department last year sided with U.S. shrimpers, finding that foreign shrimp are being dumped in the United States at prices lower than it costs to produce them. The industry now is seeking additional tariffs of up to 200 percent on imports, with the extra revenue going to U.S. shrimpers.

The rise in fuel costs also comes as Florida shrimpers are in the third year of a national campaign to persuade shoppers that wild American shrimp is a premium product that tastes better than farmed shrimp and warrants a premium price.

John Ward, who monitors the shrimp industry at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries division, said the shrimp fleet across the Southeastern United States has been hit hard by increases in fuel prices.

He said he recently visited the Gulf Coast and found shrimp boats tied up at the docks three deep in Brownsville, Texas, and Biloxi, Miss.

“They’re just not going out, they can’t afford the fuel,” said Ward. He could not recall the shrimp industry being hit this way before, and he said the National Marine Fisheries Service is looking at ways the federal government might help. “It’s going to be a real uphill battle,” he said.

Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Florida Fisheries Association, said many shrimpers have bank loans on boats that cost $1 million or more. He said it costs about $2 for fuel to catch each pound of shrimp, but the price for a pound of medium-sized shrimp is currently about $1 a pound.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” he said. “You can’t sustain a negative cash flow and stay in business. Only those who are the strongest are going to survive.”

America’s shrimp fleet once provided almost all of the shrimp sold in the United States. But today, about 88 percent of the shrimp sold in stores is imported, and only 12 percent is domestic.

The industry says there has been a massive flood of cheaper shrimp grown on farms in India, China, Vietnam and Brazil, where shrimp farmers don’t face the same government regulations as U.S. shrimpers. Jones said the size of the Gulf Coast shrimp fleet already has been reduced from more than 8,000 in the 1980s to 2,100 boats today.

In Tallahassee, Fla., Joanne McNeeley, bureau chief of the Florida Department of Agriculture, said she is worried about the economic impact on the industry, which supports 4,400 jobs and provides $225 million in revenues to the state.

“This is a very important industry for our state,” she said, noting that shrimping is part of Florida’s history.

Allen Susser, of Chef Allen’s Restaurant in Miami, said he’s sold on Florida shrimp. “There’s a big taste difference,” he said. “The imported farmed ones pick up any flavor you cook with them, and I think the Florida product is sweeter, and more flavorable.”

Susser said he particularly favors the small rock shrimp. “They’ve got a wonderful flavor _ between that of lobster and shrimp,” he said.

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