Late last month the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved changes to its shrimping rules allowing fisherman to keep crustaceans alive for sale to growing in lucrative markets in major American cities.
Previously, shrimp caught around the peninsula had to be killed, iced or directly frozen before being sent to retailers and wholesalers. The move comes after years of Florida fisherman being forced to compete with cheap Asian shrimp and is expected to be an avenue to seize higher prices.
"The value of shrimp in general has plummeted as imports have surged," said Deborah Long, a spokeswoman for the Southern Shrimp Alliance which represents shrimpers around the Gulf of Mexico. "There's dumping, there are antibiotics used in farming to grow shrimp in less-than-healthy environments, and there's forced labor in Indonesia and Thailand all causing the price of shrimp to be as low as it is."
Yet the rule is also a perfect illustration of just how counterintuitive and consumer unfriendly our food system has become. So even though it is feasible that consumers could have access to fresh live shrimp, it seems unlikely you'll actually get your hands on it.
Though Florida is surrounded by water on three sides, the idea that the state is overflowing with an abundance of fresh seafood from just off shore isn't quite true. State and federal regulators are constantly and rightly opening and closing fishing of certain species to ensure their survival. At the same time the waters simply don't have enough stocks to satisfy the state's growing population. Demand for seafood has increased, but not in step with peoples' willingness to pay for it. Add in the global supply chain and what you have is an abundance of cheap seafood of questionable origin.
"All of our lobster right now is going to the Asian markets due to skyrocketing prices to local consumers. Unfortunately the lobster fisherman don't have a union so they have to sleep with the devil because that’s who pays them the most," said David Garcia of La Camaronera and Captain Jim's.
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The global seafood supply chain has long dogged American seafood consumers. The U.S. imported a record six billion pounds of seafood worth $21.5 billion dollars in 2017, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The counts for a whopping 90 percent of all the seafood consumed in the country. At the same time, U.S. fish stocks are at an all time to low. So where does all the seafood go? Exports. While countries like Ecuador, Chile, Thailand, and Indonesia funnel shrimp and other seafood into the U.S., American fisherman are forced to sell their local catches to the highest bidder on the other side of the world.
"We do a lot of shrimping down south in the Keys but all of that gets exported too. It's sad," said Garcia
Even fishing and shrimping companies that remain committed to selling seafood locally find themselves under constant pressure. Christine Gala, who owns and operates Trico Seafood out of Fort Myers, is a third generation shrimper with a 14-boat fleet. Each of its boats are out for weeks at a time trawling the Gulf of Mexico and Dry Tortugas for shrimp that once caught are immediately frozen by blast chiller.
"We had a boat recently come in with 80,000 pounds," Gala said. Still "we just don't produce enough, the entire United States industry doesn’t produce enough for consumption and the imports drive our prices down."