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US shrimp producers are their own worst enemies

More protectionist maneuvers by US shrimp and crawfish producers delay a much-needed reconstruction of the sectors.

Louisiana is about to become the first state in the country to require country-of-origin labeling on restaurant menus for shrimp and crawfish.

The new law, which would take effect immediately, is expected to be signed by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards within the next two weeks.

The Numbers

Since a peak of about 9,200 metric tons in 2012, US crawfish imports have stabilized at between 6,000 to 7,000 metric tons annually. The US crawfish farming sector, by comparison, produces anywhere between 50,000 and 60,000 metric tons annually. In 2017, US shrimp landings exceeded 128,000 metric tons, but imports surpassed 665,000 metric tons.

I have no problem with labeling food by origin or anything else, but it’s hard for me to see what this action will accomplish. We’ve had country-of-origin labeling since 2005 on seafood sold at supermarkets and other retail outlets. It has done nothing to blunt the importation of shrimp and crawfish.

Louisiana already requires country-of-origin labeling in restaurants for catfish, as do the rest of the catfish-belt states of Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Protecting public health is the professed goal of these labeling actions. Language in the Louisiana legislation makes that clear: “It remains the intent of the legislature to protect Louisiana consumers from potentially harmful chemicals and residues in seafood products that are imported from foreign countries ...”

If that is the goal, then why just shrimp and crawfish? The FDA Import Alert list is full of all kinds of fish and shellfish that are detained for one reason or another. No labeling requirement for them?

Everyone knows this is just more of the same protectionist behavior popular in the southern states for decades – behavior designed not to protect public health but to impugn the reputation of competing imported shrimp, crawfish and catfish, which are fundamental parts of the South’s seafood economy.

So what happens when this latest attempt fails to deliver any tangible dent in the imports of these items? Antidumping duties have been tried. The creation of an entire new inspection program under another federal agency has been tried. Consumer labeling has been tried. Nothing has delivered what the designers of all of these obstacles desire -- a US market unto themselves.

So here is my solution: Why don’t US shrimp, catfish and crawfish producers branch out. Disrupt the way they have been doing business forever and recreate their sectors.

Shrimp fishermen, isn’t it time you put your energy behind shrimp farming as well? The US truly needs more aquaculture, and shrimp farming seems to have plenty of potential, judging by how overseas producers are doing. Some of the greatest shrimp aquaculture scientists and researchers reside here in the States, many at universities in the South. Build a new part of the industry. It’s healthier than spending time and money trying to destroy another’s business.

Crawfish farmers – the country is bigger than Louisiana. Branch out. Seek the technology and investment needed to grow crawfish elsewhere, maybe near large markets that would love to consume the shellfish.

Any or all of this work takes lots of effort, focus, money and will. And while all these characteristics seem to be available when it’s time to vilify competing imported seafood products, very few of them are available when its time to do the hard work of re-inventing your business for the 21st century economy.

Any comments, complaints, retaliatory rants, please feel free to email me at john.fiorillo@intrafish.com.

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