Black tiger shrimp, once dominant, could be making a comeback

The alternative shrimp species panel at the National Fisheries Institute Global Seafood Market Conference

Two decades ago, the global shrimp market was a different place. 

For decades, black tiger shrimp was sold in much higher quantities than white, or vannamei, shrimp, with the majority of the black tiger supply being sourced wild. Both species were sold at much lower amounts than they are now, but black tiger was at the roughly 500,000-metric-ton (MT) mark while vannamei was far behind.

Then, a dramatic shift occurred in 2002, with the successful domestication and commercialization of white shrimp. New strains of the species allowed for better yields and cheaper farming, and within just a few years, sales of the species outpaced black tiger by hundreds of thousands of metric tons. 

“Before 2002, black tiger was the leading species, and both black tiger and vannamei were more or less flatlining for many, many years. The production was under 700,000 MT,” Charoen Pokphand Foods Executive Vice President Robins McIntosh said during a panel at the National Fisheries Institute Global Seafood Market Conference – which ran from 15 to 19 January in Palm Springs, California, U.S.A.

That changed at the “inflection point” in 2002, and black tiger has been well behind ever since.

“We created a domesticated vannamei that was healthy. We were also in the process of genetically selecting for shrimp that performed better. So in 2002, with these new strains of vannamei that were being put out–first in Thailand and then China, and then Vietnam, India, the Philippines, and Malaysia – we see a rapid rise in white shrimp,” McIntosh said. “I call that the shrimp revolution. It’s strictly technology.”

Black tiger, meanwhile, was not domesticated the same way as vannamei shrimp. The species was largely caught wild, and domestic versions of the shrimp were struggling compared to white shrimp. 

According to McIntosh, the industry began developing a domesticated stock in 2003, but it took over eight years to develop, and it still doesn’t have the same high yields vannamei shrimp has.

Fast forward to today, and suddenly the black tiger shrimp are making a comeback. According to McIntosh, the recent rise in black tiger production has a few potential motivating factors – most-prominent among them, the diseases prevalent in vannamei shrimp farms.

“If white shrimp die, if diseases hit white shrimp, and the farmer really doesn’t get the yields, the black tiger becomes an interesting alternative,” McIntosh said. Places like China, Vietnam, and parts of India often struggle with diseases in their white shrimp populations, but black tiger haven't faced the same difficulties. 

“For whatever reason, the black tiger seems to be immune to these problems. So when white shrimp fail and farmers cannot succeed with a white shrimp, they have an alternative now to switch back into black tiger,” McIntosh said.

Another motivator for farmers, McIntosh said, is the low cost of black tiger farming compared to vannamei farming.

“Black shrimp is a natural for farmers without capital because it’s a cheaper shrimp to prepare a farm for,” he said. “With white shrimp we need the liners, high aeration, more mechanization in that aquaculture system. So for people with limited capital, black tiger is a much easier alternative.”

Currenty, the black tiger export market from countries like China, Vietnam, and India is relatively minor, as most of the black tigers produced are consumed domestically. But black tiger wasn’t always a domestic-first species. 

Sea Port Products President and CEO Bill Dresser said that his company was among the first in the U.S. to import black tiger shrimp, starting in 1982.

“When we brought it in, everybody said it’s not going to work, this is a white shrimp market,” Dresser said. “And all that happened throughout the ‘80s and the ‘90s is that black tiger took off.”

On the import side, Dresser said, things changed as soon as white shrimp domestication came into play, and the price began to make black tiger non-competitive with white shrimp.

“They can grow it faster, they can grow it cheaper. It was just a price point that came into play, and as that price point separated itself white shrimp separated itself from black tigers,” Dresser said.

That gap, however, could be narrowing. More efficiencies are starting to coalesce for black tiger shrimp farmers, and the price point of black tiger shrimp is starting to get better. The price of black tiger has historically almost mirrored the fluctuations in the price of white shrimp, and as the two species get closer in price, black tiger becomes a better option for some buyers.

Currently, the wholesale cost of black tiger shrimp is averaging roughly USD 2.00 (EUR 1.84) more per pound than white shrimp, and Dresser said he expects that difference to shrink as the efficiencies take hold. 

“As that spread shrinks, you’re going to see the volumes of black tiger pick back up,” Dresser said. “What I’d like to see initially is that spread need to get down to USD 1.00 [EUR 0.92].”

Dresser predicted that will happen in time, and as it gets closer to parity with white shrimp, the species will start to gain popularity. 

“The more it comes down and gets close to a white shrimp, the more black tigers are going to pick up, because, in my opinion, the species is actually superior to a white shrimp,” he said. “It cooks up better with a brighter red. It’s a little meatier texture so it lends itself to barbecuing better."

Dresser predicted if the price ever reaches the same price of white shrimp, it will come “roaring back.”

Still, vannamei is here to stay, just due to the volume of shrimp now produced and consumed globally, McIntosh said. 

“It can’t replace it, there’s too much volume of shrimp required now. Black tiger is not even in the Americas, so all of the Latin American production is tied to white,” McIntosh said. "If black tiger came back to be 20 percent of the Asian production, that would be a huge success.”  

Photo by Chris Chase/SeafoodSource


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