Gulf Seafood Seeks New Approach to Compete With Imports

Shrimp boats off the coast of Grand Island, LA. The billion dollar question haunting the Gulf seafood industry, as well as fisheries across the U.S, is how can domestic seafood compete with imports when fish in the freezers or on the counters at almost every grocery store, and in the  kitchen of almost every restaurant, comes from another country? Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor

The billion dollar question haunting the Gulf seafood industry, as well as fisheries across the U.S, is how domestic seafood can compete with imports when fish in the freezers or on the counters of almost every grocery store, and in the kitchen of almost every restaurant, comes from another country? Countries that often fail to impose any semblance of quality control or inspections.

“This has almost reached the point of absurdity,” said Delaune, who sits on the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board and is vice-president of Tommy’s Seafood, a New Orleans-based seafood processor.  “Even here in Louisiana, hell along the entire Gulf Coast, consumers continue to eat more imported seafood than from the Gulf of Mexico.”

More than 94% of seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. Graph: Food and Water Watch

According to a 2017 study conducted by the U.S. Governmental Accounting Office, some foreign seafood entering the country is possible unsafe.

The Accounting Office found the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently performs inspections on a limited amount of seafood entering country. Approximately two percent of the more than one million annual imported fish shipments are inspected.

“The often unethical practices by imported producers are placing our Gulf fishermen, as well as all American seafood producers, at a competitive disadvantage because they are not being held to the same standards,” said Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser, whose office overseas the Seafood Board. “There are also the possible health concerns, which is why I am proposing an inspection fee on imported seafood.”

The possibility of unsafe seafood, or seafood harvested with the use of slave labor, has not fazed the public who continues to place a blind trust in the safety of all seafood purchased, despite the efforts of numerous organizations to inform otherwise.

Imports Not Going Away

In reality imported seafood is not going away, and most likely shipments will increase in future years as an aging U.S. seafood workforce retires with few replacements to fish their boats.

Delaune, who recently returned from Seafood Expo Global in Brussels, Belgium, sees a new interest in “sustainability” becoming the industry’s watchword.  Photo: Tommy’s Seafood.

Delaune, who recently returned from Seafood Expo Global in Brussels, Belgium, sees a new interest in “sustainability” becoming the industry’s watchword.  He told Gulf Seafood News that the Sustainable Shrimp Partnership made waves in Brussels when it unveiled plans to launch a blockchain-based traceability platform in collaboration with IBM.

Ecuador, one of the largest exporters of shrimp to the States, is the driving force behind the new initiative.

According to Jose Antonio Camposano, executive vice president of Ecuador’s National Chamber of Aquaculture, joining the IBM Food Trust marks a major milestone in the broader quest to expand the presence of Ecuadorian farmed shrimp in markets where consumers demand sustainably sourced seafood end-to-end, like the Europe and the U.S.

This same technology has expanded to the aquaculture of other species of fish worldwide.

“It is a losing battle to go up against imports in the American market,” said said John Fiorillo, executive editor of IntraFish.  Photo: IntraFish

“Aquaculture is starting to mature,” said John Fiorillo, executive editor of IntraFish.  “It is becoming a big business run by larger corporations.  In reality it is also producing a safer product because these corporations know the importance to consumer safety.”

Seafood buyers are driving the change to sustainability and large corporations understand the importance of quality control and keeping the customer happy.  “When you think about it, it is a pretty powerful dynamic when your customer is dictating your sustainability policy,” Fiorillo explained.

As the world seafood suppliers start to turn to sustainability, in reality some unsafe seafood continues enter U.S. ports.

“Currently we still have untested seafood entering our country,” said Delaune. “Our Lt. Governor is on the forefront of the fight for more inspections and testing of imports.  He has proposed a 10-cent-per-pound fee on certain imported seafood to provide funding for more inspections and better testing. This is legislation that could make sense in the short-term.”

According to Lt. Governor Nungesser, the United States Department of Agriculture and the FDA need to take immediate measures to significantly increase the level of seafood inspection at harvest sites and port-of-entries.

According to Lt. Governor Nungesser, the United States Department of Agriculture and the FDA need to take immediate measures to significantly increase the level of seafood inspection at harvest sites and port-of-entries. Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

“The current lack of inspection is a safety risk placing our domestic seafood producers at a significant economic disadvantage,” he said. “We are proud of the shrimp and other seafood harvested directly from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico; however, the entire Gulf seafood industry has been in severe decline over the last decade due to imported seafood, if we can eliminate unsafe seafood from entering the country it would be a start to rebuilding our seafood industry.”

According to Delaune there are no easy answer on the issue of imported seafood, and the impact it has on local fisheries.  “Foreign shrimp and crawfish have been a factor in the decimation of the Louisiana seafood industry,” he said. “For the past 20-years we have been fighting imports on their terms, it is time for a new approach if our Gulf fisheries are to survive. We need to join forces with our sister Gulf States and position our seafood as a premium product, bringing a premium price and a livable wage for our fishermen.”

While in Brussels Delaune discovered almost every vendor form around the world sells shrimp, and buyers take the approach that “shrimp is shrimp”.

According to Nashville seafood distributor Carlyn O. Perez, president of South Coast Seafood, it is impossible to compete with imports on price. His company only sells domestic seafood. Photo: South Coast Seafood

According to Nashville seafood distributor Carlyn O. Perez, president of South Coast Seafood, that attitude makes it impossible to compete with imports on price. South Coast only sells domestic seafood, most of from Perez’s home state of Louisiana.

“Our biggest issue in Nashville is the lack of education of chefs and seafood buyers on why they should purchase Gulf, or domestic, seafood,” he explained.  “Restaurants, especially chains, are able to get tremendous discounts when purchasing exports in volume.  It is time that the Gulf states come together and start marketing, as well as educating, buyers across the U.S. on the benefits of spending a few cents more per pound to get a product that is superior in taste and quality.”

A Losing Battle

“It is a losing battle to go up against imports in the American market,” said Fiorillo.  The IntraFish editor feels that it is a waste of time, time that could better be spent building a brand that resonates with the American, as well as international, consumer. “The world, not just the U.S., is facing an oversupply of shrimp, however all shrimp are not good shrimp. Gulf shrimp can be described in one word – AMAZING.  Other shrimp don’t have a taste that can come close to comparing.  The Gulf needs to build on that brand.”

“Our Gulf seafood industry has been forced to compete on price,” said Gulf Seafood Foundation president Jim Gossen. “It is time to stop competing on price and instead compete on quality.” Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

“Our Gulf seafood industry has been forced to compete on price,” said Gulf Seafood Foundation president Jim Gossen. “It is time to stop competing on price and instead compete on quality.  We need to work with our fishermen to ensure the quality of our seafood, and educate chefs and consumers outside of the Gulf on why our quality and taste are unmatched.”

Gossen says that it is time for a Gulf-wide seafood conference of all parties involved in catching, processing and disturbing Gulf seafood.   “We need to have a unified voice, much like Alaska did with their seafood, if we are to become a premium supplier of seafood,” he said.

Lt. Governor Nungesser, who sits as current chair of the National Association of Lt. Governors, also sees merit in a combined Gulf-wide seafood effort as a means to differentiate it from imports. “If we are to successfully compete with imports it is time to stop selling our fish as a commodity and become creative in marketing our seafood as premium.”

Gulf Seafood Foundation Florida Board member Ed  Chiles, founder of Florida’s The Chiles Group and son of former Senator and Governor Lawton Chiles, agrees with the Lt. Governor.

“The Gulf is in peril. If we don’t answer her call then we risk losing our seafood, as well as our heritage. Everyone needs to start networking together if we are to survive,” explained Gulf Seafood Foundation Florida Board member Ed Chiles.  Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

“The Gulf is in peril. If we don’t answer her call then we risk losing our seafood, as well as our heritage. Everyone needs to start networking together if we are to survive. Gulf seafood needs to be promoted as a region, not state by state, with a realignment of seafood, tourism and restaurant promotions to include the Gulf as a whole,” said Chiles, who works closely with the United Nations on the issue of sustainability. “It is only then that the fishermen and working water fronts will again begin to prosper.”

Sitting in his New Orleans office, Delaune sees no easy or quick answers on the issue of imported seafood.  “Their impact, especially on shrimp and crawfish, has been a major factor in the decline of ours seafood industry,” he said.

“I know that imported seafood is not going away. Now is the time to find a new story to tell that differentiates our Gulf seafood products from the rest of the world. It is imperative that we create a premium market where consumers are willing to pay more for Gulf seafood, just as they do for a Starbuck’s coffee.”

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About the Author

About the Author: Ed Lallo is the editor of Gulf Seafood News and CEO of Newsroom Ink, an online brand journalism agency. He is also owner of Lallo Photography based in Chapel Hill, NC. .

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