Anyone who has spent any time around seafood knows the shrimp sector is one of the most unpredictable of any in the industry.
The roller coaster ups and downs are not for the faint of heart. Balancing supply and demand seems elusive, and it has been this way for decades.
The Global Shrimp Forum Foundation wants to help solve some of the challenges on the demand side.
The foundation announced it will be using any financial surplus generated from its annual meeting of the Global Shrimp Forum to contribute financially to, among other projects, studying how global shrimp consumption can be promoted effectively.
The group has issued a term of reference for a study to define what it actually means to promote shrimp consumption globally. It plans to hire a marketing consulting firm to study the idea.
"What are we actually talking about, and what are we getting into as an industry if we start promoting the shrimp category globally?" Willem van der Pijl, co-founder and managing director of the Global Shrimp Forum, said.
The study will examine which marketing mechanisms work best, and whether they should be voluntary or compulsory, global or regional.
The results of this study will be presented during the second annual Global Shrimp Forum in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in September, and attendees will discuss the issue further at the event.
"We hope that by just facilitating such a meeting in a trusted environment that we can actually help the industry to connect and to take the next steps in promoting shrimp globally, because I think it is kind of a no-brainer, and if you look at global shrimp production it is really needed," van der Pijl told me.
Discussion of creating a shrimp promotion effort comes at a time of record shrimp production around the world. White shrimp production reached nearly 5 million metric tons in 2022, up roughly 1 million metric tons since 2020 and more than 2 million metric tons since 2015.
This increased production has collided with a global economic slowdown that has driven down consumption in leading Western markets such as the United States. In response, consumer prices for shrimp have been slumping, and shrimp farmers and importers have bore the brunt of this market upheaval.
Shrimp accounts for just under 50 percent of the frozen seafood category in the US retail market at $3.8 billion (€3.5 billion), but 2022 saw the highest dollar decline, down 3.6 percent, or $144 million (€132 million).
To prevent shrimp prices from spiraling downwards, the industry must ensure that demand increases in line with production at the very least, said van der Pijl.
This certainly isn't the first time such a marketing effort has been explored for shrimp. Past efforts have largely fallen short because of a lack of broad international support and an unwillingness to pay for such a program.
The most recent attempt to establish a promotional effort occurred just prior to the onset of COVID.
At Global Seafood Alliance's (GSA) GOAL conference in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in September 2018, nearly 60 shrimp industry leaders met to initiate discussions on the need for a US shrimp marketing council and how such a group could be modeled after an avocado marketing program in the US market.
"There was a huge surge of interest in developing a similar program for shrimp, but the initiative drifted away from the avocado model of using a USDA marketing board with mandatory assessments to using a shrimp council model with voluntary assessments," shrimp industry veteran George Chamberlain told me Tuesday.
That effort was abandoned because it proved impossible to reach agreement on who should pay for what would have been a voluntary effort, he said. Still, the initiative might not be totally dead.
At the time the initiative was being discussed, Chamberlain, who helped spearhead the effort, was president of GSA. He has since retired from the group and is now president of the Center for Responsible Seafood.
He said the idea of a marketing council is on the agenda for discussion at the group's upcoming Shrimp Summit in Ho Chi Ming City, Vietnam, in July.
For its part, the Global Shrimp Forum is hearing from shrimp companies that there are opportunities beyond the US and other Western shrimp markets for boosting consumption, specifically in Asian markets such as India.
"That's what leaders of the industry are now realizing, that they have to look at which markets offer the most potential and go beyond the existing markets a bit," van der Pijl said.
India is currently the second-largest producer of shrimp in the world and the leading supplier of farmed shrimp to the United States. It exports the bulk of the shrimp it raises.
Ecuador is currently the world's largest shrimp producer, and Jose Antonio Camposano, executive director of the country shrimp producers' trade body Camara Nacional de Aquacultura, told me he thinks it is important for producers to get closer to their markets.
"I believe it is great news that the promotion of shrimp is a task being addressed," he said. "Other proteins have their own promotion efforts to motivate consumption, with interesting results."
The big players, said van der Pijl, realize they need to work together to get the shrimp category to grow so it better competes with other proteins.
He said one leading shrimp executive posed an important question to him regarding any shrimp consumption promotional effort.
"He said what I am so much worried about is are we actually ready? Is the industry actually ready to promote shrimp as a stable, healthy, tasty protein because how sustainable are we actually," he said.
"Once we start putting our heads up, we might be confronted with critical questions about animal welfare, sustainability, you name it. Are we ready as an industry to respond to those questions with confidence that we have everything sorted out and we can offer environmentally and socially responsible product."
It's certainly an important question to ask and one that could inspire improvements in areas where the industry has routinely taken criticism such as mangrove deforestation and the use of antibiotics.
For now, though, new energy and momentum is being injected in efforts to map out a way to promote shrimp, one of the world's favorite seafood. Let's see where things go.
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