Australia’s ‘gates’ wide open


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
July 27, 2010

There’s little debate about which seafood is American consumers’ favorite. Shrimp consumption in the United States, at approximately 4 pounds per capita, outweighs the next-closest product — canned tuna — by well more than 1 pound, accounting for roughly one-quarter of all seafood consumed in the country. This is the home of the Endless Shrimp promotion, after all (courtesy of restaurant chain Red Lobster).

Shrimp suppliers around the world are well aware of this and have been raising prawns — Pacific whites (P. vannamei) and black tigers (P. monodon), most commonly — in large quantities strictly to meet the specifications of the American market. I received a call this week from a company importing farmed shrimp from Malaysia, a place where aquaculture production is reportedly poised for incredible growth. He was bullish on the prospects of Malaysian seafood in general; with 4,675 kilometers of coastline and a government eager to help the industry tap into export markets, he’s got a strong point.

There’s also some wild shrimp from northern Australia, not far from fertile Southeast Asia, that’s recently become available. Several types of prawns (or head-on shrimp) are being marketed in the United States, including banana prawns and endeavor prawns.

But the new big shrimp on the scene, according to Portland, Maine, distributor Browne Trading Co., is the eastern king prawn from northern Australia’s Torres Strait, an FAS product that comes whole, with head and tail on. They’re quite large — sizes range from 10-15s to U6 — and have a price tag to match. Rod Mitchell, president of Browne Trading, told me this product makes a big impression with chefs — and has a positive sustainability story, too.

Australia’s fleet was recently approved to export wild prawns to the United States after it outfitted all its boats with the proper turtle-excluder devices (TEDs). You’ll recall that the United States currently does not allow the importation of wild shrimp from Mexico because of improper TED use, although that measure is expected to be temporary.

“The reason [Australia] has so much shrimp now is because they had so much flooding recently — that makes more runoff on the land, which makes more nutrients, which makes the prawns boom,” said Mitchell, excited at the prospects of putting this product in front of discriminating buyers. The process of getting U.S. approval for its shrimp boats, which required taking the actual nets to Washington, took about 10 years, he said.

Should we expect to see more Australian seafood enter the U.S. market? Duncan Cole, consul-general and trade commissioner for Austrade, or the Australian Trade Commission, certainly believes so and is working hard to make that happen. Austrade now has offices in 13 U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago and Atlanta, where Cole is based.

He talked to me about how U.S. distributors like Browne Trading and Philadelphia’s Samuels & Son Seafood Co. have been making inroads with Australian hiramasa, or kingfish, for the past few years. “It’s good grilled, good sautéed, it’s good sashimi, it’s raised correctly, it’s sustainable and we go through a pile of it,” quipped Mitchell.

“Having a ‘gateway’ product [like Hiramasa] generates interest in the industry. And the U.S. seafood market is an important component for us,” said Cole, adding that Australia’s population is only 21 million people, as opposed to the 300 million-plus in the United States. “We understand strongly that our success lies in our ability to get into overseas markets. We’re trying to diversify the awareness.”

A diverse product selection is what Australia features. Mitchell, who recently visited Australia for a month-long whirlwind tour of the country’s seafood hotbeds, recently shared with me stories and pictures of a cornucopia of seafood products: king prawns, barramundi, rock oysters, Jade Tiger abalone, spanner crab, marrons (crawfish), ocean trout and much more.

“We’re not concentrating on any [one] species, but we have the expertise, availability and the products that meet the requirements” of discriminating markets like the United States and Europe, said Cole.

The most encouraging news is that the U.S. economy is showing signs of being able to welcome such products, after a near-two-year downward trend in restaurant visits. As Mitchell said, “People are buying marrons and kingfish and caviar, so it’s coming back.”

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