BURAS, La./Ho Chi Minh City (Reuters) - Savun Sim looked dejected as a large plastic vacuum hose sucked 2,600 pounds of wild Gulf of Mexico shrimp from his trawler’s ice hold.
With dock prices at their lowest since 2009, pressured by a flood of cheap imports from shrimp farms across Asia, Sim said he would barely cover the cost of fuel for his two-day voyage at the far reaches of the Mississippi Delta.
The Cambodian immigrant got 75 cents a pound for his mid-size shrimp - less than half last year’s price - from the Ditcharo Seafood dock in Buras, Louisiana.
The woes of the Asian-American shrimping community here highlight a unique clash of interests with a part of the world their families largely left in the 1970s and 80s, now brought to a head by plunging prices and a looming Pacific trade deal.
Gulf shrimping looks vulnerable as President Barack Obama’s signature 12-nation trade pact nears its final negotiating stages. U.S. officials say the Trans-Pacific Partnership will not unleash a surge of imports as there are no general tariffs on shrimp - unlike other industries such as textiles and autos.
But Gulf shrimpers fear that the TPP’s food safety provisions will make it harder to stem the flow of cheap imported shrimp raised on illegal antibiotics. Ultimately, they say, the low prices may do what Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill could not: put them out of business and end a way of life.
“We can’t make money,” Sim told Reuters aboard the Miss Wannda, his weathered fiberglass “skimmer” vessel. “I’ll probably lose the boat if it goes down more than this. Right now, we’re working for the diesel only.”
The TPP is a centerpiece of Obama’s push to reassert U.S. economic power in Asia. It would include Vietnam and Malaysia, the fourth- and eighth-largest exporters of shrimp to the United States last year, and two countries frequently criticized for antibiotics use in aquaculture.
The sweet crustacean is America’s favorite seafood, with 1.1 billion pounds consumed in 2013. But more than 90 percent of it is imported, mostly from farms in Southeast Asia, India, China and Ecuador.
At the moment, the world is awash in shrimp.
A wave of disease that decimated Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese shrimp ponds in 2013 and 2014 sent prices higher. But Gulf shrimpers are now feeling the brunt of full production, especially as India and Indonesia add capacity, putting pressure on Vietnamese farmers as well.
So far in 2015, U.S. shrimp imports are on pace to top their record in 2006 before global economic woes cut demand.
Starting from war refugees applying their coastal fishing skills, the Gulf’s Southeast Asian community quickly grew. Ethnic Vietnamese and Cambodians now make up around 40 percent of the Gulf’s shrimp fishermen.
New Orleans-based fisherman Thieu Tran, who left Vietnam 30 years ago, acknowledged that shrimp exports have helped his former homeland. He said the TPP will help it even more, but believes Washington should protect U.S. shrimpers.
“We’re now worried that shrimp prices will put us out of business,” Tran said through an interpreter.
The number of jobs in Louisiana’s $1.9 billion seafood industry shrank to 33,391 in 2012 from 46,389 in 2003, according to National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration data, with more than 20 seafood processing operations closing.
With the TPP being negotiated in secret, suspicions abound that it can only mean more bad news for the Gulf.
Virtually the only duties on shrimp imports are those imposed by the U.S. Commerce Department to combat unfair subsidies or “dumping” at prices below production costs. It has just cut average duties on Vietnamese shrimp to 0.9 percent from 6.4 percent after recalculating cost data.
Many in the Gulf industry are pinning their hopes on U.S. ports turning away more shrimp tainted with illegal antibiotics. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently has the capacity to inspect only about 1 percent of U.S. seafood imports.
Echoing concerns raised by some anti-trade U.S. lawmakers, Louisiana Shrimp Association Director Clint Guidry said he believes the TPP may make it harder to strengthen those inspections, because such actions could bring court challenges.
U.S. lawyers representing Vietnam’s seafood exporters are preparing to challenge a separate U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection program for catfish once it is launched. They argue that the new rules could cripple imports of Vietnam’s popular pangasius catfish.
“In my experience, if you’re not at the negotiating table, you’re usually what’s for dinner,” Guidry said.
But the U.S. trade agency insists that based on completed sections of the talks, the TPP will take steps to raise food safety standards for member countries, bringing them in line with science-based U.S. rules.
“TPP will not require lower food safety standards or any changes to existing U.S. laws or regulations,” said Matthew McAlvanah, a spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative.
“It will also include tough new customs provisions and rules of origin to help us combat illegal transshipment, including of seafood, and identify food safety risks before they get to our shores,” he said.
Gulf shrimping interests have complained that Chinese shrimp has been shipped through Malaysian exporters to skirt high anti-dumping duties on China.
At the recent VietFish expo in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, shrimp exporters expressed similar angst about low market prices and the TPP’s effect on their industry.
Top on their list of concerns is that the TPP will ultimately force shrimp farmers to give up their use of antibiotics, and that compliance with country-of-origin rules and environmental and labor standards will raise costs.
Several farmers, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity due to the issue’s sensitivity, said the use of antibiotics is still widespread in Vietnam despite government efforts to promote new farming techniques without the drugs.
But shrimp ponds remain susceptible to diseases that can wipe out entire farms overnight.
“These technical barriers are unreasonable,” said Nguyen Van Kich, chairman of Cafatex Corp, a Vietnamese shrimp exporter. “Raising shrimps and fishes ... without medicine, they are unlikely to survive.”
Tran Van Linh, chairman of Danang-based Thuan Phuoc Seafoods & Trading Corp, said he believes that under TPP, Vietnamese exporters could no longer buy shrimp from India to process and re-export. Vietnamese farmers would also have to develop more brood stock, now mostly imported, so that their shrimp is completely Vietnamese.
But Linh said this will hand an advantage to India, a non-TPP country with lower costs that in 2013 supplanted Thailand as the biggest shrimp exporter to the United States.
Faced with rock-bottom prices, U.S. shrimpers are trying to market wild Gulf shrimp as a premium product, with mixed results. Part of the problem is that the industry is set up to service large grocery chains and other institutional buyers that have grown accustomed to the regularity and uniformity of imported supplies, said Todd Rushing, co-founder of Shrimptrader.com, an online sales platform based in New Jersey.
“Southeast Asia will still find a way of getting cheap product into the United States,” he added.
Rushing said he is getting more inquiries from shrimp boat owners to offer product on his website directly to retailers. Some are taking matters into their own hands.
George Barisich, who fishes out of Shell Beach, Louisiana, said he sold about 600 pounds of his largest shrimp, about 10 percent of a recent haul, directly to retail clients at $5 a pound. The dock was offering only $1.50.
Lance Authement, a fourth-generation shrimp processor in Dulac, Louisiana, has a simpler proposition.
“People are going to have to eat more shrimp or the government’s going to have to control the amount of shrimp coming into the country,” he said. “One of the two.”
Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Stuart Grudgings and Dan Grebler