The two-way street
America’s favorite seafood is once again in the middle of an international trade conflict. This one pits U.S. fishermen and processors against seven foreign governments accused of giving shrimp exporters an unfair advantage in a competitive market. Because when it comes to selling shrimp, price speaks loudest. And in a price battle between wild American shrimp and their pond-raised counterparts from Southeast Asia and South America, the domestic product almost always gets the short end of the stick.
Domestic shrimp companies cite an urgent need to protect the livelihoods of struggling harvesters and distributors from a crush of imports that dwarf their product in the marketplace by a 9-to-1 margin. The only way to level the playing field, they contend, is to seek tariff relief from the imports that have forced them to undercut their prices to compete or merely keep their businesses afloat. They’ve lost market share and jobs and fear the extinction of their proud, yet aging, industry.
“I’m looking to get out,” says Craig Wallis, a 60-year-old shrimp boat owner in Palacios, Texas, who’s worked Gulf of Mexico waters since 1975. Nearly all the money he brings in pays for fuel, labor and maintenance for his seven trawlers, some of which are in need of repairs. There might be 2 or 3 percent left over for him because of rising costs and prices that match what he was getting for his shrimp back in the 1980s. “I’ve had family members who want to be in the business, but I can’t with confidence say this business is going to be around — maybe it’s a business this country doesn’t need. There’s no doubt that [imports] are the No. 1 reason.”
The wheels for the latest legal maneuver were set in motion on Dec. 28, 2012, when the Coalition of Gulf Shrimp Industries (COGSI) filed a countervailing duty (CVD) petition against the United States’ top imported shrimp suppliers. Opponents say the move is pure protectionism and could harm U.S. relations with valued trading partners. Embrace the globalization of the seafood industry or perish, they argue, because nothing will stop the flow of shrimp into the U.S. market, even tariffs on shrimp imported from China, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.