HANOI, Vietnam—As the Gulf Coast oil spill continues to gush, U.S. seafood suppliers are turning to Asia to ensure Americans have enough shrimp for their gumbos, Creoles and cocktails this summer, but some of those overseas cupboards are low themselves. Several countries in the world's top shrimp-producing region are struggling to satisfy their own appetites for shrimp because of disease, drought and the economic crisis. The oil spill is one more factor driving prices skyward, sending a worldwide ripple through an already tight shrimp market.
The price of plump black tiger shrimp is at a 10-year high in Vietnam, selling for around $13.50 per kilogram ($6.14 per pound), said Bui Dung, a manager at Minh Phu, Vietnam's biggest shrimp exporter in the southern Mekong delta province of Ca Mau. He said heat waves along with disease outbreaks have led to smaller yields on farms. Domestic consumption has remained high, nibbling away at cold stocks normally available for export prior to August harvests.
"The demand, particularly from the U.S., is huge," Dung said. "We receive order requests from U.S. importers almost everyday, but we cannot meet all their demands."
Americans have an insatiable craving for shrimp, eating about 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms) a year. And while wild Gulf shrimp provides only about 7 to 9 percent of that supply, the oil spill will likely send some U.S. restaurants and super markets into a short-term frenzy, said Fatima Ferdouse, chief
Advertisement yld_mgr.place_ad_here("adPosBox"); of trade promotion at Infofish, an intergovernmental organization for the Asia-Pacific fishery industry based in Malaysia. "It backfired because in the American market, they planned to sell ... this much domestic shrimp from the Gulf for summer, which they're not getting now," she said by phone. "So they have to fill in the gap. They panic and then the easy way to get it is to go through import—they don't have any other choice."
According to Infofish, wholesale shrimp prices have risen by about 15 to 20 percent since a BP-operated oil rig exploded 10 weeks ago, causing an undersea blowout that has spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf.
Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the U.S.-based National Fisheries Institute, a trade group, said Americans might see a price increase on their plates in the short term, but he's hopeful Asian production will pick back up to keep consumers from feeling a prolonged pinch.
"It's the No. 1 most consumed seafood in America," he said. "People eat more shrimp than they do canned tuna."
Ecuador is the only country among the top five U.S. importers located outside of Asia. More than a third of the nearly 550,000 tons of shrimp imported by the U.S. last year came from Thailand, the top shipper, according to Infofish.
Thailand has remained a stable supplier, largely unaffected by a virus that has crippled stocks in Bangladesh and Indonesia, the second top supplier to the U.S. last year. For the January-April period before the Gulf oil spill, U.S. imports of Indonesia shrimp were down 30 percent from a year earlier. Imports from Thailand were up about 17 percent over the same period, Infofish data reported.
Last year was the first time the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimated a drop in worldwide shrimp aquaculture production, following the global economic crisis which forced many farmers out of business. But now, prior to the peak summer shrimp-eating season, it's a sellers' market.
Larger shrimp are in short supply, pushing prices to the highest level in two years, according to Infofish. Demand for the black tiger shrimp, which is very popular in Japan, has been particularly high, with prices increasing $1 a pound ($ 0.50 a kilogram) since early June.
"The demand worldwide is quite strong. The economic crisis seems to be over, especially the U.S. and Japanese markets are really demanding a lot of shrimp," said Helga Josupeit, a fishery industry officer at GLOBEFISH, an FAO program in Rome that tracks international fish trade and publishes price reports. "If anyone wants to invest in a shrimp farm, they probably will make some money."
Some farmers say it's ironic that the U.S. is now forced to lean more on overseas suppliers to help meet demand. In 2004, the same Gulf Coast shrimpers affected by the oil spill successfully lobbied Washington to slap antidumping tariffs on Vietnam, Thailand, India, Ecuador, Brazil and China, accusing them of flooding the U.S. market with artificially low priced shrimp.
"It's good to see U.S. shrimp importers are coming back to Vietnam," said farmer Nguyen Tat Thang. "But I care more about how much profit I earn from the farm, which I am not seeing increase because of rising production costs."
Susan Spicer did not intend to be the face of the restaurant rebellion against BP over its role in the Gulf oil spill. But that’s what can happen when you file a lawsuit.
Ms. Spicer, long a respected New Orleans chef, spent most of Monday huddled with her lawyers, trying to map out a strategy after word got out that she was suing BP and several other companies on behalf of Gulf restaurant owners and seafood suppliers.
“I just hope that my motivations will not be misinterpreted,” she said from her restaurant Bayona in her first interview since the suit was filed Friday. “It’s more about solidarity in this region than about getting my piece of the pie. I can’t say I expect to see a dollar out of this thing. I am just angry.”
Ms. Spicer’s attorney, Serena Pollack, filed the suit in New Orleans federal court late Friday asking that the court grant class-action status for restaurants and seafood sellers who have suffered in the wake of the April 20 drilling rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
The lawyers are arguing that Ms. Spicer and other chefs in Louisiana and the region have built a reputation and a business using fresh, local seafood that is specific to the Gulf of Mexico. Since the oil rig accident, that seafood has either become unavailable or significantly more expensive.
In addition, customers are and will continue to be unwilling to pay higher prices or won’t want to eat what is available for fear of contamination from petroleum or the chemicals used to manage the spill, the suit said.
Ms. Spicer decided to step forward not because her restaurant is about to go under but because other businesses are.
“I really do believe there are people that are certainly more in need than Bayona will be,” she said, adding that there is plenty of good seafood coming from Lake Pontchartrain and unaffected parts of the shoreline.
But some places are being hit harder than others, she said.
“We are already seeing casualties right and left, human casualities, business casualties, cultural casualties,” she said.
Ms. Spicer, whose company is the lead plaintiff, opened Bayona in 1990 and quickly established herself as a chef who respected the New Orleans culinary canon but was not going to be held hostage by it. At Bayona, she offers global food and serves ahi tuna and Pacific salmon. But her longtime signature dish is grilled Gulf shrimp and black bean cake, and she usually serves Gulf oysters, often stuffed with Italian sausage, spinach and fennel. Her recent cookbook, Crescent City Cooking, has dozens of recipes based on Gulf seafood.
Earlier this month she opened Mondo, a casual, pan-cultural restaurant that is as likely to serve plantains as beignets. She has also recently gained some popular cultural currency, both as a Top Chef judge and as the inspiration for the chef in the HBO series Treme who struggles to hold onto her restaurant in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Ms. Spicer is a culinary consultant for the show.
Ms. Spicer said she was taken aback by the attention the suit is getting, particularly from bloggers and journalists who have argued that she doesn’t serve that much local seafood or that she is in it for the money.
“I was a little blindsided by all of this,” she said. “But I think it needs to be done and I hope more people will join.”
It’s not clear how wide-ranging support for the suit will be. Frank Brigtsen, who runs two restaurants, would not comment on the suit. Emeril Lagasse said he was not joining at this time.
“We are continuing to closely monitor the situation and the oil leak’s impact on Emeril’s restaurant business,” Jeff Hinson, Mr. Lagasse’s public relations manager, wrote in an e-mail message to the Times.
But the movement was getting some support from smaller businesses. Franky and Johnny’s, a neighborhood po’ boy and seafood restaurant, has signed on. And JoAnn Clevenger, who for nearly 30 years has run the Upperline Restaurant, plans to jump in, too.
She wasn’t surprised larger restaurants weren’t.
“Susan is an entrepreneurial chef. She is not big business like Emeril. For her and for other owner-operated businesses, what else are we going to do?” she said.
After Hurricane Katrina, small business owners felt like they could pick up the pieces, rebuild and pitch in to help others. That’s not the case with the oil spill.
“That can-do spirit has been quashed,” she said. “But what Susan is doing can give us that spirit back.”
The suit is designed to include restaurant owners and retailers of seafood that is marketed and sold as local or from Louisiana or the Gulf of Mexico. That means the suit could extend to chefs and seafood shops in all five Gulf states, some of whom have already filed separate suits.
The next step is a hearing scheduled for July 27, when a federal panel of judges meets in Boise, Idaho, to decide whether all the claims relating to the oil spill will be consolidated and put into the hands of a special master. The panel is also expected to decide where litigation about the oil spill will be held if it is consolidated.
Plaintiffs are fighting to keep it from being consolidated in Houston, where many oil companies are headquartered.
By KIM SEVERSON
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