- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 18, 2016

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) - The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Coastal Fisheries Division decided May 15 was a good time to close the state’s shrimp season because, according to its sampling, the average size and number of brown shrimp in Texas coastal waters is higher than the 20-year average.

Texas closes its waters to shrimping from the coast to 9 nautical miles out for roughly two months each year to give little shrimp time to grow before being harvested. The National Marine Fisheries Service typically imposes a closure out to 200 nautical miles at the same time.

The Brownsville Herald (https://bit.ly/24ZZTVC ) reports more, bigger shrimp is potentially good news for the state’s struggling shrimp industry, since big shrimp fetch higher prices, according to Andrea Hance, shrimp fleet owner and executive director of the Texas Shrimp Association.

Despite profitable years in 2012 and 2013, due largely to foreign shrimp operations being ravaged by early mortality syndrome, Texas shrimpers are making little, if any, profit these days because of low prices per pound, she said.

Even during the two years when prices were high, most of revenues went to the IRS or into boats suffering from years of deferred maintenance, Hance said. Now foreign imports are once again flooding the market and Gulf shrimpers aren’t making any money.

“Most of us this year probably will not make a profit, especially if you have to make boat repairs,” she said.

When Texas closes its season, some trawlers from the Brownsville-Port Isabel fleet head home and others steam off to Louisiana, Mississippi and even Florida waters, Hance said. Those states allow shrimping year round, with the result that Texas waters produce the largest shrimp, she said.

It’s the big shrimp - 16/20 count, which means 16-20 shrimp per pound - in which Texas is the most competitive, and much less so in the 20/25 count market, where farm-raised imports dominate, Hance said.

“The large shrimp are the only thing keeping us in business,” she said. “Last year we didn’t have enough large shrimp. We need a lot of the large shrimp.”

Hance said there’s been talk of extending the closure date past mid-July (current law says it can’t be longer than 60 days) though that presents its own dilemma: keep the boats home longer and risk losing crews, who have to make a living, or send them out in mid-July and “catch whatever we can.”

A constant struggle from TSA’s perspective is getting restaurants to use the product instead of farm-raised imports, she said. Ironically that’s difficult even now, when Gulf shrimp is actually less expensive than imports, Hance said.

“We’re still having a hard time getting restaurants to switch over,” she said. “It’s hard to get them to buy our product, even though it’s cheaper.”

Hance said there’s plenty of demand for Texas shrimp out there, and people are even willing to pay extra for it, though many times restaurants claiming to serve it are actually serving imported shrimp.

Hance said she visited 20 upscale steak-and-seafood restaurants and found that 85 percent of them were passing off imported shrimp as wild caught. During this month’s annual TSA convention in San Antonio, she shared a table at a Ruth’s Chris steakhouse with the biggest shrimp buyer in the country and the biggest shrimp boat fleet owner.

They ordered shrimp, which the waiter insisted was Gulf shrimp. However, an inspection of the container it arrived in revealed its true origin: Indonesia.

“They told us three times it was Gulf shrimp,” Hance said. “It’s surprising. That’s what I want the public to know. We have a such a quality product that people want. People just don’t know they’re not getting it.”

She said she understands restaurants’ concern over the bottom line but still thinks Texas needs something similar to the alliance that exists between the shrimp and restaurant industries in Florida.

Hance has been named to the board of a long-dormant, newly revived Texas shrimp industry marketing advisory council, and the first meeting takes place next month in Brownsville. She hopes the group can get some traction.

Hance noted that shrimping is tough, extremely dangerous work, with crews stuck on a boat away from their families for up to two months at a time. It’s therefore not only frustrating that restaurants pass off imported shrimp as Gulf shrimp, but offensive, she said.

“People are paying for Gulf shrimp and they’re not getting it,” Hance said. “It is one (problem) that I’m determined to figure out.”

___

Information from: The Brownsville Herald, https://www.brownsvilleherald.com

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