Oregon pink shrimp season opens amidst pandemic uncertainty

Oregon’s pink shrimp fishery is opening with an inventory surplus and extreme market uncertainty resulting from pandemic-related restaurant closures.

Oregon is home to the world’s largest pink shrimp fishery, with a 30-year average annual harvest of around 30 million pounds. The small shrimp – also known as cocktail shrimp or salad shrimp – have traditionally been sold to the foodservice market.

Last season, shrimpers in Oregon pulled up a robust catch of 42.3 million pounds of pink shrimp, far more than the 27 million pounds they found in 2019. Oregon Trawl Commission Executive Director Yelena Nowak told SeafoodSource the big catch came almost simultaneously with a 70 percent drop in foodservice business, all but drying up markets.

“Last year, we had incredible volume and great shrimp, which is awesome, but then COVID put pressure on everything and it was a challenge for the market to absorb that volume. There were barely any markets,” Nowak said.

The result, according to Nowak, has been a back-up of inventory in freezers, as processors kept taking on the large catch despite the depressed market.

“I give all the credit in the world to our processors that continued absorbing that inventory. We are now facing some surplus inventory that needs to be taken care of,” Nowak said.

The upcoming season might only add to the glut, as Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s sampling data model puts the 2021 catch well above average at 38 million pounds.

But Nowak said that while it is unclear exactly how much inventory is backed up in freezers, the difficult circumstances have spawned innovations that could make the fishery stronger and more diverse.

“People have been exploring new avenues, including things I never thought we’d be looking into before COVID as a volume industry. A few companies attempted to do frozen home deliveries,” Nowak said.

However, Nowak said it has been difficult for a volume fishery like Oregon’s pink shrimp to make headway selling two-pound boxes to domestic consumers, and said shrimp has faced tough competition as other proteins also attempted to pivot to retail amidst the pandemic.

“We did sell a lot into the more wholesale retail sector, but it was a challenge for some players to capture that change at the retail level, considering there were so many different players – seafood and beyond – scrambling for the same retail space and trying to move either from foodservice into retail, or from one retail section into another,” Nowak said.

She said one company even tried single-serving, frozen pink shrimp cups, and while she thinks the idea has potential, these types of endeavors require shifts in processing and marketing techniques.

“So the industry has been trying different things but we really need volume throughput to maintain the competitive price-point that makes us attractive. The smaller opportunities like these also require more human resource in sales and pursuing the details,” Nowak said.

While Nowak hopes some of the new product streams will help strengthen markets moving forward, she said the industry's move into online sales has thrown open avenues that did not exist previously.

“We’re going virtual with our suppliers via Zoom, so that’s an exciting opportunity for our fisheries. Right now, we’re focusing on Southeast Asia,” Nowak said.

Nowak said these meetings are strictly a byproduct of the pandemic, but that they could open significant new markets.

“It would never even have occurred to us to have buyer meetings on Zoom, I don’t think. It’s a handshake, business card, face-to-face experience. I think that for many in our seafood world, it was a tough transition, but it’s great opportunity,” Nowak said.

She said the Oregon Trawl Commission, with grant money and support from the Oregon Department of Agriculture, will also be working with local chefs in Asia to do virtual promotions of Oregon pink shrimp, with the hope of gaining traction in new markets without waiting for travel to open again.

Oregon’s pink shrimp fishery typically runs from 1 April to 31 October, when over 70 trawling vessels use fine-meshed nets to ladle the small shrimp out of the mud and sand of underwater flats. Last season’s catch took in USD 22.3 million (EUR 18.8 million) in ex-vessel value, while the far smaller 2019 catch netted USD 19.9 million (EUR 16.8 million) at the docks.  

Photo courtesy of Oregon Trawl Commission 


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