American shrimpers vying for the federal government to curb imports

A photo of a shrimping vessel.

UPDATE: This story was originally published in October in SeafoodSource’s Key Buyer 2023 Industry Update – Fall Edition. Since then, multiple other communities have declared disasters over shrimp imports, the U.S. Department of Commerce and International Trade Commission have launched investigations into shrimp imports, and domestic trade associations have pushed for new legislation to limit shrimp imports.

On 17 August, the city council of La Batre – the self-professed “seafood capital of the U.S. state of Alabama” – declared an emergency.

“Our seafood industry is being squeezed out of existence due to the continued dumping of imported shrimp. I and many others fear that our way of life will become extinct and forgotten,” La Batre Mayor Henry Barnes told the city council, reading from a letter written to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. “Our city is deep in a culture and heritage that has been erased in other communities along the Gulf Coast.”

Like many coastal communities dependent on fishing, La Batre has been rocked by Americans’ growing reliance on imported shrimp. Frozen warmwater shrimp imports roughly doubled to 1.8 billion pounds from 2013 to 2021, according to the Southern Shrimp Alliance (SSA). The glut of cheaper foreign shrimp has driven down prices for domestic shrimpers, who are already facing a crunch from higher fuel costs and inflation. A new report from the SSA blames the crisis in part on the World Bank and other international financial institutions that have supported shrimp-farming operations in other countries.

For Barnes, the threat is of biblical proportions.

“God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it, and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth,’” Barnes said, quoting the Christian Bible. “So, to me, I think that’s the way God was intending on us to be fed was through the fish and the birds of the sea, but apparently, there are some people who have other opinions.” 

Of course, Barnes prefers Americans choose domestic, wild-caught shrimp over any imported seafood.

“The waters from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coast produce some of the tastiest, cleanest shrimp in the world, and both are very accessible to everyday customers,” Barnes said.

Shrimping communities across the Southern United States are declaring fishery disasters in response to imported shrimp as part of a growing campaign to secure federal relief funding and pressure the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden and the U.S. Congress to take stronger action against imported seafood.

In August, the SSA wrote a letter to eight governors of Southern states asking for emergency declarations.

“The U.S. shrimp fishery throughout the Gulf of Mexico and Southeast region is suffering an unprecedented catastrophic crisis that threatens its very existence and the many small, family-owned businesses that are at the core of the economies of coastal communities throughout the region,” SSA Executive Director John Williams wrote.

The declarations are meant to take advantage of the U.S. Fishery Resource Disasters Improvement Act – newly passed legislation that changed how NOAA Fisheries runs the Fishery Disaster Assistance program. SSA and others believe that the wording of the legislation could apply to imports, something the agency hasn’t previously considered.

“There are many details to consider, but we believe that the circumstances now faced by the U.S. shrimp fishery meet the criteria of the Act for the Secretary of Commerce to make a determination of a fishery resource disaster for the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic shrimp fishery,” Williams said. “Such a determination would, subject to the availability of Congressional appropriations, make financial fishery disaster assistance available to our shrimp fishermen.” 

The law still requires governors to formally request a fishery resource disaster determination from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

A similar letter from the Louisiana Shrimp Association to Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards produced immediate results, with the state’s chief executive promising to pursue a federal fisheries disaster declaration.

“The shrimp industry has a long, rich history in Louisiana,” Edwards wrote to the association. “You have my continued support and commitment that we will pursue every available avenue to ensure the shrimp industry continues in Louisiana for generations to come.”

Edwards also wrote to U.S. President Joe Biden requesting more funding for testing imported shrimp and a quota on imported shrimp. 

State governments have made attempts to protect domestic shrimpers from foreign competition, but most of the proposals lack teeth. An investigation by the Louisiana Illuminator found the state hadn’t issued a single fine despite 2,671 violations of a 2019 state law requiring restaurants to indicate on their menus whether the shrimp they’re serving is imported. The state legislature passed a resolution requesting that U.S. Congress ban shrimp imports, but the law has no practical impact. 

The St. Bernard Parish Council in Louisiana has taken matters into its own hands, banning shrimp imports within its jurisdiction over health and safety concerns. On 6 September, the council unanimously voted to add a USD 500 (EUR 469) fine for a first offense, with increased fines and potential jail time for repeat offenders. Councilman Fred Everhardt admitted to local news channel WDSU that the ban would likely face challenges in court. 

The federal government has taken action as well, but not on the scale desired by many domestic shrimp producers. In June, the U.S. International Trade Commission decided to maintain antidumping duties on shrimp from India, China, Thailand, and Vietnam – a move that was welcomed by the SSA and the American Shrimp Processors Association. In July, the Department of Commerce released a seafood export strategy to address America’s trade imbalance. 

Still, neither Barnes nor other shrimp community leaders will be satisfied unless far more drastic actions are taken, and they’re prepared to pile on the pressure.

“Unity, strength in numbers. We all have to stick together, and I think if we stick together, we can make this happen,” Barnes said. “It’s going to be a fight. It’s an election year, and they’re not going to want to hear it.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock/Chuck Wagner


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