Shrimp prices soar as disease affects global farm-raised supply

| Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The skyrocketing price of shrimp could mean there's fewer of the crustaceans in Pepi and Teresa Fontana's traditional seven fish dinner this Christmas Eve.

“Everything is going up,” said Teresa Fontana, 85, of Vandergrift. “But it's once a year.”

The dinner features stuffed squid, scallops, shrimp, cod and other fish and is so popular even their priest joins in, she said.

Shrimp prices are at an all-time high, and still climbing, because of a disease called early mortality syndrome, or EMS, that's plaguing the three largest producers of farm-raised shrimp — Thailand, China and Vietnam.

The disease does not affect humans.

Shrimp costs at Ernie Vallozzi's restaurant near Greensburg have gone up 20 percent in the past several months.

“It's a substantial increase for a fixed-price menu,” Vallozzi said.

While menu prices have not been raised, that could happen as the holidays approach and shrimp demand increases, Vallozzi said. Some popular shrimp items could be dropped from the menu. Vallozzi's and other restaurants have been replacing farm-raised Asian shrimp with wild-caught Gulf Coast shrimp.

Some local supermarkets have posted signs urging consumers to stock up on their holiday shrimp before prices rise again.

For instance, according to Urner Barry's White Shrimp Index, a pound of that type of shrimp cost $5.99 on Oct. 10. That's a 56 percent increase over last year's price.

For over a decade, Americans have consumed more shrimp — about 4 pounds per person per year — than any other seafood and the demand for shrimp now exceeds the domestic supply available, according to the University of Florida Extension Service.

In the wild, shrimp are often caught in shrimp trawls, a practice that has drawn some fire because of potential damage to sea floor habitats. But farm-raising shrimp has also been criticized because of pollutants and other environmental concerns. The United States tightly regulates shrimp farming.

Sales of Gulf shrimp at the Robert Wholey & Co. Fish Market in the Strip District, which sells about 1 million pounds of shrimp in a year, have gone up as a result of concerns about farm-raised shrimp, officials said.

“About 20 percent,” said John McNally, seafood manager. “The shrimp market always fluctuates ... two years ago, shrimp was down because of the oil spill.”

“It's gone up and down 17 times over the years,” McNally said.

Despite the EMS concerns, Wholey's is looking at a banner year in shrimp, he said.

A prolonged outbreak of EMS will drive buyers elsewhere because shrimp is one food that always seems to be in demand, said Henry Dewey, co-founder and director of operations at the Penn Ave. Fish Co. in Pittsburgh.

“It's just one world, if people aren't getting shrimp from one area, they'll get it from another,” he said.

The Penn Ave. Fish Co., which relies primarily on Gulf shrimp, has added a new breed of shrimp from India, Dewey said.

“It's not affected by EMS and is really good,” he said.

Earlier this year, Gulf Coast shrimpers expressed concerns over the EMS disease in letters to the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce and the Food and Drug Administration.

Researchers have been at work to develop tests to detect the disease in hatcheries, ponds and elsewhere and to find a long-term solution to the problem.

“Our membership is becoming increasingly alarmed by reports of massive mortalities of shrimp raised on farms in various southeast Asia nations due to ... EMS,” John Williams, executive director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance, said in a letter to the agencies.

The concern is that the disease will spread here at a time when domestic shrimpers are getting back on their feet after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion of 2010.

“The market is expanding, but we're still trying to get over the spill,” Williams said. “We see EMS in Mexico and other Central American countries. ... We're just trying to be a little proactive.”

The Gulf Coast produces about 175 million pounds of shrimp per year, Williams said. U.S. demand is about 1.4 billion pounds.

Donald Lightner, a University of Arizona professor and one of the world's leading experts on shrimp pathology, led a team of researchers that recently found EMS is caused by a bacterial agent.

Transmitted orally, it enters the shrimp's gastrointestinal tract and produces a toxin that destroys the digestive organ and other tissue.

EMS affects shrimp in the first 10-40 days after stocking and has a 40 percent to 90 percent mortality rate, according to the Global Aquaculture Alliance, a St. Louis-based trade association.

The disease, which affects white shrimp and black tiger shrimp, was first found in eastern China in 2009.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-380-5646.

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