Five US importers of Mexican shrimp up auditing process to ensure legality of catch

Published on
August 5, 2022
Eastern Fish Company workers examine shrimp set on a stainless steel table.

When the United States lifted its import ban on Mexican wild-caught shrimp in October 2021, the industry hailed the move as a victory for efforts to implement sustainability-oriented practices mandated by the U.S. government as part of its enforcement of the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.

But for Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Senior Improvements and Strategy Manager Megan Westmeyer, who leads SFP’s efforts to improve the sustainability of the wild-catch Mexican shrimp fishery, it was just one milestone in a much larger process to improve the sustainability of the Mexican shrimp sector.

Since it was founded in 2021 with strict membership requirements, SFP’s Mexican Shrimp Supply Chain Roundtable, with current participants Amende and Schultz, Buena Vista Seafood, Deep Sea Shrimp Importing, Eastern Fish, and Ocean Garden Products, has continued to push for improvements in how the fishery does business, taking steps to address laundering and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, according to Westmeyer.

“The issue over turtle-excluder devices [that precipitated the U.S. ban] is actually just a pretty small part of the problem, because there's so many various ways that Mexican shrimp can be harvested illegally, contradicting existing Mexican regulations,” Westmeyer told SeafoodSource. “Poor compliance with existing conservation regulations is the most-significant sustainability issue facing the Mexican shrimp industry at this time, and buyers need to be extremely vigilant to ensure their supply chain is clean and free of illegally harvested, unsustainable shrimp.”

Westmeyer confirmed the Mexican government “has really gotten its act together” in regard to conducting inspections for turtle-excluder devices, and a mid-year inspection by U.S. agents confirmed the problem has been addressed.

“It looks like right now, the whole [excluder] issue in Mexico is pretty stable. Now we're encouraging the importers we work with to still keep an eye on it, and to encourage importers to ask for the certificate the Mexican government awards to boats that have the appropriate number of turtle excluder devices onboard and that they’re properly installed and meet all the regulatory requirements,” Westmeyer said.

But in regard to the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, Mexico is failing to adequately protect the critically endangered vaquita in the Upper Gulf of California – a failure that further complicates the Mexican shrimp market because it might trigger clauses in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement that requires the country to adequately enforce its own environmental regulations, Westmeyer said.

“We're asking U.S. importers to keep tabs on [the situation], because there are potential import consequences if some of this stuff comes to a more-prominent light,” Westmeyer said. “So we're asking U.S. importers to be checking out all sorts of different regulatory compliance – everything from the satellite-monitoring systems that the industrial vessels carry to gear used by the small-scale fishers and then, of course, all of the laundering worries that product may be coming from the upper Gulf of California.”

As an additional safeguard measure, the companies involved in the SFP roundtable are in the process of completing audits to ensure their processing plants and their chain of custody management is in full compliance with all Mexican regulations. For the five companies involved, that effort included the collection of signed pledges from each fishing vessel and processing facility pledging compliance with all Mexican regulations and a willingness to participate in an in-person audit upon request. As a requirement of being part of the roundtable, the companies share all of their documentation with SFP.

“It was just a huge effort and these five companies successfully went through the whole process. It's a lot further in-depth than we've gone with pretty much any other sort of legal verification or audit system that we've done in the past, but we found that it was necessary to see the whole process through and make sure issues were being addressed appropriately,” Westmeyer said. “They really put a lot of time and money into this whole situation. And it looks like all five are going to sign up again for next year.”

The process involves a tremendous amount of paperwork, according to Eastern Fish Mexican Operations Manager Larry Drazba.

“I joke that we actually probably export more paper than we do shrimp,” Drazba told SeafoodSource. “All of that documentation is 100 percent audited by a group of auditors that were agreed upon by the producers and by SFP. They look at all the records, they see all the permits, they see all the transponder data from the government, which is in the public domain, and they can tell whether these guys played by the rules or they didn't.”

Drazba said getting buy-in from the company’s partners and fishermen in Mexico has been a smoother-than-expected process.

“It actually hasn't been as difficult as one might think,” he said. “Everyone realizes that the market is changing. Every year, the bar goes up. There's always something that the buyers are looking at that we weren't doing before or that maybe we weren't doing before but we didn't have to report before. So, you know, this is just the latest thing. Our suppliers have gone on board with that. They realize that if we're going to get them good prices for the product and be able to continue to do business, this is the way it's done now.”

As for Eastern Fish's motiviations for partaking in such an onerous process, Drazba said they are twofold.

“Eastern Fish is an old company and we want to be around for a long time to come. And we have children and grandchildren and we want this resource to be there for them,” he said. “But let’s not equivocate: We make money. We do this because we make money at it – we maintain a market position for Mexican shrimp that receives a quality premium. But we are also willing to take the extra steps because at some point in time, there is going to be a microscopic inspection about what's going on in this industry, and we see this as an investment into doing things correctly and being transparent."

Buena Vista Seafood Business Manager Polly Legendre echoed those two reasons for her company’s participation in the roundtable.

“We wanted to work in the SFP framework to provide the U.S. market with a ‘boat-to-table’ fresh option in shrimp,” Legendre said. “We are looking forward to doing more with them in the future – it's the right thing to do. We are a tiny company compared with the other participants, but I am so glad they have stepped up as well. We are in good company and hopefully, through these five participants, we can show that by participating in programs like this SFP project, we can help the fishermen and the industry.”

Drazba said, for Eastern Fish, being ahead of the curve has come with a financial benefit, but the company believes that the premium market can be expanded as more competitors come on board.

“We want a level playing field. Eastern Fish tries to do the right thing and there's other groups trying to do the right thing. We would like a level playing field and what we need is to get everybody in the group to respect everybody else's obligation and right to do the right thing, and then as a group try to present a better overall picture of Mexican shrimp to U.S. consumers,” he said.

Both Drazba and Westmeyer said they’re worried that the process isn’t covering enough of the total market of U.S. imports of Mexican shrimp to truly describe the trade as sustainably managed. Their initiative shrunk in size in June 2022, when Del Pacifico Seafoods was removed from the roundtable “after failing to fulfill the terms of the membership requirements,” according to SFP.

“It's probably only covering about 40 percent of the U.S. imports of wild-caught Mexican shrimp, so we definitely would like to have other companies involved. We have put the invitation out to all of the large companies that are importing shrimp and we've also talked to a lot of buyers in the U.S., though most of our contacts are through retail or some foodservice distributors and I know that we are not reaching a lot of the end market, so there hasn't been enough of a push to get all of the big importers on board with this system. We definitely need more of a market push. The problem is we don't know who the biggest end market buyers are. And there’s the fact that a lot of Mexican shrimp is actually sold through smaller restaurants. So the bottleneck is going to be more at the distribution level, and we don't know who those distributors are, who are buying a lot of this product,” Westmeyer said.

But Westmeyer said the roundtable members share a vision of keeping the initiative voluntary, and said they don’t think browbeating companies into joining is the best way to advance the initiative.

“The problem with naming and shaming like that and pushing them too hard is you might end up getting a company to do it, but for the wrong reason. And we don't want companies who we have to drag into this kicking and screaming. We want the companies who are doing it for the right reasons. I'll also accept the companies that are doing it because their buyer told them to, so long as their buyer will continue to hold them accountable for their results. That's okay, too. But I don't want someone joining the [roundtable] just because this NGO SFP was talking about them too much,” she said.

Despite the obstacles, Westmeyer is optimistic the efforts being undertaken by the roundtable in Mexico will obtain wider adoption soon.

“The whole situation with that [excluder-related] embargo last year was a giant wake-up call for a lot of companies. We had been working with a lot of these U.S. importers for years and talking about the environmental consequences with the turtles in the ecosystem and on and on. But when it starts hitting their bottom line, like with the embargo that shut down their imports, they realize how critical it is not just to the long-term sustainability of their business, but to the immediate sustainability of their business. And that makes it a priority,” Westmeyer said. “These are companies that have a lot of other things to do. And so sustainability often falls down farther on the priority list and, we get that and that's I think part of the reason that SFP has been very successful at working with industry, because we recognize that they have a lot of other competing priorities and we try and help them work on sustainability as they can. But we’re also helping them understand how sustainability really does help them guarantee their long-term assured supply. And now as they’re starting to realize that the U.S. is really cracking down on imports of illegal seafood and is willing to take some pretty severe action when they find issues, that has bumped up their assurance supply priorities.”

Photo courtesy of Eastern Fish Co.

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