Shrimp coming off the conveyor belt at Bama Sea Products (photo credit : Mitch Perry)
With inventories of shrimp sitting at docks throughout the Gulf Coast due to an abundance of imported seafood, the shrimp industry and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida want to increase the purchase of domestic shrimp in the United States and provide more federal funding to regulate imported shrimp for consumers.
“Seafood and fishing is one of the backbones of the Florida economy, but you have to work to keep it that way because it’s under threat to a number of different aspects,” said Castor, a Democrat in the Tampa Bay area. “The Gulf waters are hotter than ever, so there are stressors on the entire fishery in the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve gotta work to reduce pollution and to keep Gulf waters safe and environmentally healthy.”
Castor spoke to reporters Wednesday after taking a tour of Bama Sea Products, a seafood wholesaler distributor based in South St. Petersburg. She is pursuing a legislative proposal in Congress on the shrimp issues and problems.
John Williams is the executive director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance, which represents members of the shrimp industry from Texas through North Carolina. He said a lot of his members that are suffering right now.
“We have boats ready to unload (shrimp) but nobody to buy them because mainly the surplus that’s out there right now … and that just seems to be getting worse.”
Shrimping is the largest part of Florida’s seafood industry, with a dockside value of $64 million in 2021, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture.
But the vast majority of the shrimp that U.S. residents consume (about 90%) is actually imported from overseas – and there are serious concerns about how safe that product is. That comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from June 2014, but the seafood industry officials said Wednesday that the 90% figure remains the same.
According to a 2015 Consumer Reports analysis of foreign shrimp packages purchased from supermarkets, big-box stores and natural food stores in 27 cities across the U.S., bacteria, including Vibrio and E. coli, was found in 16 percent of those packages. But most of those foreign imports are not tested, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration testing less than 1 percent of foreign shrimp shipments.
Castor’s bill, the Laws Ensuring Safe Shrimp Act (LESS Act) would address that issue by vastly increasing funding for the FDA to do inspections of foreign produced shrimp.
India, Ecuador and Indonesia were the top three shrimp exporters to the U.S. in January, according to SeafoodSource. Castor also mentioned how the market has also been flooded by farm raised shrimp from China. She currently serves on the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the U.S. and the Chinese Communist Party.
“They are trying to undermine our economy in a number of different ways and this is just an example of how we’ve got to support American producers and we intend to do that,” Castor said.
“Other countries inspect far more imported product than we do so we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard when we import seafood,” said Bama Sea Products CEO Michael Stephens.
The measure also would address the current glut of shrimp on the retail market by having the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) increase its purchasing of domestic shrimp to go to the federal agency’s national lunch program and other federal food and nutritional assistance programs.
“Right now everybody’s backed up on inventory. Boats are coming in and they’re like, ‘where do we go with it?’ Nobody’s buying it. And so USDA would be a big help,” says Stephens.
The amount of seafood purchased by the USDA has expanded dramatically in recent years, according to the website IntraFish.
The proposal would also combat illegal, unreported and unregulated overseas fishing, says Tom Frazer, the dean of the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida. “They’re fishing and using methods that are probably not environmentally favorable or unsustainable and that just puts our domestic commercial sector at risk and at a competitive disadvantage.”
The legislation is co-sponsored in the House by Louisiana Republican Garet Graves, and the lawmakers are hoping to get the measure inserted into the omnibus reauthorization of the farm bill, where negotiations are expected to begin when Congress returns to Washington, D.C. next month.
“We’re going to support our local fishermen,” Castor said. “We’re going to make sure that American produced domestic shrimp is on the tables. It’s healthy. It’s clean. It’s safe, unlike many of the foreign products flooding the market.”
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