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."
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