Shrimp industry personnel gathered in the conference room at Bonita Bill's Waterfront Caf for a Town Hall-style open forum about the trade's issues on Thursday afternoon.
Four administrative members of the Southern Shrimp Alliance informed boat owners, business owners, captains, crew, spouses and others interested in the industry about food safety, fisheries management, the trade and BP oil spill information.
The SSA is a trade association of shrimp fishermen, shrimp processors and other members of the domestic industry in the eight warm water shrimp producing states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas. Executive Director John Williams, Field Director Richard Vendetti and Florida Board of Directors Sal Versaggi and Chris Gala, who is the co-owner at Trico Shrimp Co, represented the organization.
"When the price crashed in 2001, everybody wanted to do something about it. We decided the best thing was to do something about imports and impose tariffs," said Vendetti. "That brought the industry together."
SSA formed in 2002 and works to ensure the continued vitality and existence of the U.S. shrimp industry, which is being threatened by inexpensive, "unfairly traded" imported shrimp.
"Our main mission is to maintain the economic viability of the shrimp industries by starting out with trade and price," said Vendetti. "The age-old problem has been regulation."
The local trade has dealt with less-costly imported Vietnamese shrimp sneaking its way across American borders. If importers fail at one port, they move to another port with better results.
"There is a lot of product, including shrimp, that's coming into this nation illegally and loaded with antibiotics. China is shipping this product to another country, not only avoiding our duties but avoiding import alert also from the FDA (Food and Drug Administration)," said Williams. "If it gets stopped at the border, the importer has the option of having that product destroyed or sent back. They send it back, bring it to another port and they have a 99 percent chance of getting it through. We've been tracking this. We had a new law pass that will stop a lot of this. I think it goes into effect late this year."
Gulf Pinks are known for their flavor -something a taste test can reveal. According to local shrimp boat owner Tracey Gore, many Beach restaurants (Surf Club being one exception) continue to deal with imported or farm-raised shrimp.
"There is very few restaurants on Fort Myers Beach that serve local Gulf shrimp. When visitors come in, they don't know the difference when you poor sauce on it," she said
Fisheries Management issues such as funding for a shrimp fishing effort program, sea turtles, skimmer trawls and amendments dealing with those issues were discussed.
There were lawsuits against the National Marine Fisheries regarding turtle strandings in the Northern Gulf waters. The lawsuits were unfounded.
"We immediately hired a scientist, did some analysis and used some of their analysis and provided it to National Marine Fisheries, which used a lot of it in court," said Williams. "That stopped the lawsuit, and we weren't shut down. That lawsuit is settled."
Discussion turned to regulations relating to placing turtle extruder devises in skimmer trawls. Membership is being sought to the alliance to aid in the overall process with authorization and establishing a larger voice within the industry.
"They depend on input from us to adjust the regulations," said Versaggi. "If they don't get it from us, they will do whatever they think is best based on their scientists."
Trade issues focused on the Protect Act, the prevention of recurring trade evasion and circumvention act. Immigration Custom Enforcement was reported to be on board with industry practices.
"This will stop a lot of the circumvention," said Williams. "We've been working on it quite a while. We hope this bill will pass. We feel confident it will."
Byrd Fund Distributions are coming to an end, says Williams. Roughly $224 million distributed to the industry since 2006, while only an estimated amount of $50 million is left.
"If it's not completely distributed this December, we are confident that by next December all the funds that are left to be distributed will be wiped out," he said.
Industry members petitioned governmental agencies to become eligible for Trade Adjustment Assistance, a federal program run by USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) to give assistance to producers of commodities that have been impacted by foreign product. In 2010 and 2011, 4,423 shrimpers and their family members received technical training and $34.4 million in grant benefits from Trade Adjustment Assistance for Farmers program. Another $11.7 million in grants may be distributed to shrimpers as individual participants complete long-term business plans.
"TAA for fishermen became available again in 2010, " said Vendetti. "It's not an easy thing to do. In 2010, 11 industries put in for the assistance, and only three passed. In 2011, there was another 33 percent success rate, but we got in both years."
Soon, Congress will include funding for the program involving fishermen and farmers for the next fiscal year. Roughly $1.2 million is left in appropriations.
"There is another close to a year of time for you to complete either your short-term or long-term business plans to take advantage of that money," said Vendetti. "By this meeting, we are trying to pull the industry together. It's not just vessel owners; it's crew, captains, processors, fuel suppliers, net-makers and spouses. The more members you have, the more important your problem is."