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Issue 588

05/17/2012 at 3:35pm

ShrimpersLocal Shrimpers Meet

On Thursday afternoon, the Southern Shrimp Alliance (SSA) held a Town Hall meeting at Bonita Bills' conference room where they discussed issues related to the shrimping industry including an update on a bill intended to close loopholes on the importing of contaminated shrimp and the latest developments in fisheries management. After the meeting, the Sand Paper met with local independent shrimper Tracey Gore and Commissioner Ray Judah, who told us some of the plans for our local shrimpers.

SSA Executive Director John Williams began the meeting by talking about how some imported farm-raised shrimp can be contaminated with antibiotics and pesticides deemed harmful to humans by the FDA. Foreign farm-raised shrimp have gained popularity since the late 1970's because of their low cost, but those savings not only put local shrimpers out of business but can also be a health risk - research done by the SSA in 2010 and presented to Congress showed that, in 2009, US consumers were likely exposed to 59 million pounds - or roughly 118 million servings - of shrimp contaminated with FDA‐banned antibiotics and pesticides imported from the nations of India, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Ecuador.

90% of the shrimp consumed in the US is imported, with less than 2% inspected for contaminates like filth, antibiotics, chemicals and pathogens, according to a recent report by the consumer group Food and Water Watch. The group - which has long studied aquaculture - has documented that many foreign shrimp farm operators densely pack their ponds to produce as much as 89,000 pounds of shrimp per acre.

"The water is quickly polluted with waste, which can infect the shrimp with disease and parasites,” said the report. "In response, many such operations in Asia and South or Central America use large quantities of antibiotics, disinfectants and pesticides that would be illegal for use in U.S. shrimp farms," the group's researchers wrote in a recent report.”

The FDA even admits the problem, saying it lacks the personnel and lab capability to analyze all those shrimp.

"If we can find the problem, we can keep it out of the country, out of our food chain, but finding it depends on the fairly thin net of FDA inspectors working the ports to catch the problems before they enter the country," Mike Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration, said at a food safety conference in March of 2009.

Williams told the group gathered at Bonita Bills that a new food-safety bill will give the FDA more power as well as allow local and state officials to act as an arm of the federal government to increase inspection and enforce safe seafood standards.

"One case just came in from California where they imported 15 million pounds of contaminated shrimp from what they thought was Cambodia, but was actually Vietnam," he said. "Before they would just ship it back out and it would come back to the U.S via another port. "With this new bill – that will go into effect this year - it has to be marked contaminated, and we hope that makes a difference.”

"It also includes new requirements for foreign food-safety equivalence, foreign facility testing and increased penalties for violations,” Williams continued. "Overall, it will protect consumers and help level the playing field for U.S. shrimpers.”

Tracey Gore asked if there was any way to get this information to our local restaurants and to let consumers know precisely which ones only serve Gulf Shrimp.

"Many of our northern visitors come in and they don't know the difference,” she said. "A lot of places still say they serve Gulf shrimp but they actually don't.”

Williams replied that the SSA doesn't get into issues of marketing.

Next, Williams got into fisheries management. Shrimpers have found themselves at odds over the years with the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council (Gulf Council) on issues of the depletion of juvenile red snapper, sawfish and sea turtles – with the shrimping industry feeling as though they were getting unfairly blamed as being the main cause of the depletion. The SSA has been working with the Gulf Council to establish new rules that are less stringent while still allowing the populations to return, and Williams reported on some of the group's recent successes.

"We went to a Gulf Council meeting where they were about to shut down the Gulf because we were getting blamed for killing all the juvenile red snapper,” he said. "We went and got their own data and proved them wrong, and we haven't been shut down one day since. Now we can actually increase production in those zones.”

As far as sawfish, Williams said that the current rule is that one sawfish be taken, period – for the entire US shrimping industry.

"Last year there were three taken - meaning caught, not killed - and they were looking to close the Tortugas,” he said. "We proved to them that the population is exploding, that's why there's more interaction with shrimp boats. Now there will be a new biological opinion that will increase intake limit. By working with them we can get things changed."

Grant asked about penalties, and Williams said they'd worked to develop a new matrix so the greater the offense, the bigger the fine as opposed to one fine for everything.

Gore asked about other countries, and Williams replied that - per the trade agreement - they have to follow the same rules or we no longer import from that country.

After the meeting, the Sand Paper met with Commissioner Ray Judah, who told us that he expects the county to approve an extension to Trico Seafood Company's lease of the shrimp docks on San Carlos Island.

"The lease between Trico and Lee County expires in 2014, but there's a rollover provision that provides for another 10 years,” he said. "Though this can be administratively approved, I expect that because of the length of the lease that staff will bring this to the entire BoCC for approval. I would imagine that the full board would not only support another 10 years but 20 because Trico is looking at committing to some major capital improvements and they are looking for certainty.”

"This Board knows the importance of the shrimping industry to this county.”

Gore told us that, for independent shrimpers like herself and her husband Henri, talks are in the works for the formation of a co-op so they can gain more negotiating room on prices.

"There are so many more middlemen in the shrimping industry than there used to be,” she said. "We are basically told what we have to sell our shrimp for and that's it – regardless of how much it cost us to get them. There used to be a lot more independent boats, and we were wined and dined for our shrimp. But it takes a lot of money and effort to keep your boats up, and when fuel prices started soaring it just wasn't worth it for many people so they sold their boats and got out so now most boats are owned by fleets. So many of us independents that are left are looking to form our own co-op and maybe negotiate with the county so we can have our own freezers to take our shrimp to.”

Keri Hendry