In a previous letter, I mentioned that commercial fishermen and shrimpers are in need of consideration on several different issues. After many years in the industry, I have come to the conclusion that protection from imported seafood is way down the list in the order of importance amongst those issues. Here’s why:
All of us in the industry, including myself – and most notably the actual harvesting persons – the fishermen, shrimpers, clammers and crabbers, etc. – are guilty of using the exact same mindset as the folks from other countries who export their catches to the USA.
When I was a young “creekman” many years ago, I had a little black book with a list of restaurants and individuals who would buy clams from me right out of the creek. But – as soon as Paul Nance announced that he had found a buyer up north that could increase my income if I sold my clams to him, I started selling my clams to Paul. In one fell swoop I quadrupled my income per clam. This is what is happening with many of the seafood products being harvested in South Carolina.
For decades the Canadian market has been the place that most of our locally caught fish has been sent. Why? Because they pay cash at a higher price than the local market would bear. For many years I have bought fish from local vessels commensurate to what the Toronto, Montreal, New York or Boston markets were paying. If I want to sell any local fish in this area, the price would have to reflect the prices being paid by those markets.
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The same is true with many other products: about 80 percent of the shad roe harvest is sent up north or overseas – as far away as China, for the same reason. Jumbo North Carolina flounder and bluefin tuna are sent to Japan. The roe from South Carolina Wreckfish too – while many of the fish are sent to California for big money.
Left handed whelk are harvested each fall and sent to a buyer in New Jersey who pays top dollar to process them into “northern conch” and “scungilli”. River eels are shipped live to Japanese exporters.
Blue crabs are at the whim of the Maryland market. For many winters, I worked as a hunting guide and waterman in Maryland where I learned just how crazy Maryland folk are about their blue crabs. Due to cooler water temperatures there is a very short harvesting season for crabs in Maryland. In South Carolina we catch them year round.
I used to sell bushels of #1 (large male) blue crabs in my market for $25 retail. Nowadays the retail price is closer to $125 or higher around holidays or when crabs are not plentiful. Right now the trucks from Maryland are paying over $100 a bushel wholesale to the crabbers for #1 males. Crabs were so scarce this spring that I was not been able to purchase them (due to lack of availability and high price), and I usually begin offering them in early April. Why? Because the crabbers don’t care about my needs – or anyone else’s – they care about the bottom line for their hard work.
Soft shell (molting) crabs are a seasonal local delicacy that South Carolinians only get to enjoy a very small percentage of. Why? Because the market is also controlled by the prices paid in faraway places. Due to scarcity, I am paying record high prices and selling them for less than a wholesale markup in my retail store – just to satisfy my customers who look forward to buying them every spring.
So, my point is that the folks in faraway lands who export seafood products to the America are using the same tactics as our local harvesters – taking the fruits of their labor to the highest bidder. With FDA HACCP regulations in place, these folks have their quality and logistics up to speed – and therefore, very seldom is the price a whole lot cheaper than what local products would cost.
In many cases, the imported seafoods fill a major void during times of scarcity or closed seasons on local seafood products. Some local shrimpers drive around in their pickups with a bumper sticker that reads “Friends don’t let friends eat imported shrimp”. Well now, are the consumers supposed to ignore the fact that only 4 percent of the shrimp sold worldwide are caught in the wild? What are we supposed to do – stop eating shrimp for the majority of the year when the local shrimp are all gone? What would the price per pound be if that were the case? A lot more than most folks could pay.
The real issues that positively affect the future of the seafood industry are in getting back to the basics. Water quality in the estuaries is the most important thing. Investing in research and development of the industry that is such a prestigious calling card for our state is just about as important. Lower diesel fuel prices and insurance rates would help too.
Until we learn to stop polluting the estuaries to the point where they can’t produce seafood like they used to – and invest in the long term management of our fisheries to bring them back to the days of plenty that occurred just a few years ago – the plight of local harvesters will be at the whims of the same world market that they take advantage of at every opportunity.
Blaming misfortune on the imports is like a coon dog barking up an empty tree – or whining about your cake being gone after you have eaten it.
The writer is owner of Murrells Inlet Seafood.