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Local shrimp sellers still thrive despite global competition

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Published:   |   Updated: June 8, 2014 at 05:57 PM

— A brawny crew hauls corpulent sacks of “pink gold” from the Master Daulton’s freezer hold onto pallets at the Tampa Shrimp Docks.

John Donini runs the pallets of colossal Key West shrimp by forklift into the Superior Seafood packing house, where his cousin, Ernest “Ernie” Donini, weighs them, then logs them in.

In an average year, some 3.5 million to 4 million pounds of wild-caught shrimp rolls into this packing house off Causeway Boulevard, offered up by 25 to 30 shrimp boats. Next door, Versaggi Shrimp Corp. offloads about 800,000 pounds a year from its own six boats.

Despite slimmed-down fleets compared with years gone by, the local family-owned shrimp companies are keeping a Florida tradition alive, contributing to the massive amounts of shrimp consumed in this country each year.

Florida has typically been ranked the third-highest producer of domestic wild-caught shrimp, behind Louisiana and Texas, though Alabama shrimpers have gained an edge over Florida shrimpers just recently.

About 10 percent — or 125 million pounds — of the 1.32 billion pounds of shrimp consumed in the United States each year is wild-caught shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico and the south Atlantic Ocean. The rest — some 1.2 billion pounds — is pond-raised or wild-caught in places like China, Thailand and Vietnam.

The local business owners concede that imported shrimp — the shrimp that is feeding the masses — is a necessity to slake the appetite of this crustacean-crazed nation. But keeping the playing field level so the domestic shrimp industry can compete is a constant job.

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Superior Shrimp has been in operation since 1955, started by the fathers of company president Ernie Donini and vice president John Donini. Their fathers were brothers, and the sons carry on their fathers’ names and the family business.

The operation landed at the newly constructed Tampa Shrimp Docks in 1981 and bustles during shrimp season, between November and June each year. Superior sells most of its shrimp — some offloaded from Ernie Donini’s own three shrimp boats — to wholesale operators, who, in turn, package and deliver it to restaurants and grocery stores in Florida and elsewhere.

Versaggi’s six boats and packing house supply a similar market. Both companies sell some of their shrimp retail, right from the docks.

Superior and Versaggi both once had boats shrimping off French Guyana and other areas of South America, but as times changed, the businesses divested their foreign operations and headed home to Tampa.

At one time, Ernie Donini said, there were 200 to 300 boats working out of Tampa. “Back then, there were 6,000 registered shrimp boats in the Gulf,” he said. “Now, there are 1,500.” Shrimping permits are limited and fishing grounds are monitored by both state and federal agencies to deter overfishing.

Versaggi went into business in 1912 and for a time was one of the largest distributors of fresh and frozen shrimp in the country.

“I started off when I graduated from college by entering the family business,” Sal Versaggi said. “My first stint was in South America.” He even explored the coast of Africa for shrimp beds. “Eventually, as my dad and his brothers retired, I and my brothers, Joe, John and Fred, bought their interest out.” Like Superior, Versaggi eventually sold off its South American business and came home.

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The blue-collar shrimping industry got more political in the early 2000s, when importers flooded the market with cheap shrimp, causing the price of domestic shrimp to plummet. Shrimpers in eight states — Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas — formed the Southern Shrimp Alliance and sent a contingent to Washington, D.C.

“One of our biggest triumphs was that we won an anti-dumping case involving six countries that were dealing in unfair trade and bombarding the market with product and overloading the whole system,” said Versaggi, past president of the alliance. “It had been coming on, and we knew we couldn’t go on forever. We knew we had to unite.”

The alliance worked hard getting duties imposed on a number of countries, making it more difficult for them to dump cheap shrimp on the United States market. “Those duties varied, depending on how egregious the cheating was,” Versaggi said.

“We were successful to a point, but it’s a cat-and-mouse game all the time,” he said. “They (some importers) are always finding a way to circumvent the rules,” including importing shrimp treated with banned antibiotics and other animal drugs.

“We went to the (Food and Drug Administration) and we alerted them to the fact that this was going on. About 80 percent of the seafood is coming in from elsewhere, they inspect 2 percent, and maybe 1 percent will go through a lab. In Europe and Japan, they inspect 20 percent. So, where are you going to send your product? Those are the things we try to tell Washington, D.C.”

Some importers also circumvent the rules on duties by taking their shrimp to a country that doesn’t have duties imposed on it and then shipping it to the United States from there, Versaggi said.

The good news for U.S. shrimpers is that consumers are more educated and are seeking out foods that don’t contain chemicals and antibiotics, so they turn to ocean-caught shrimp.

And U.S. consumers want the taste that comes from wild-caught shrimp, John Donini said. “I used to think a shrimp was a shrimp, but ocean shrimp is much more flavorful and sweet than pond-raised. It’s the difference between a prime rib and a round steak.”

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Despite that change in consumer mindset, the issues with imports remain.

“We are a lot more proactive than we used to be,” Ernie Donini said.

The Southern Shrimp Alliance grew out of that proactive stance. It remains the shrimpers’ agent in the continuing struggle to keep the playing field level.

“There are always import issues,” said John Williams, executive director of the alliance, based in Tarpon Springs. “One thing we try to make very clear is we are not against imports. We can’t supply the market, but there has to be fair trade, and with some imports, there are these issues of food safety. We try to address those on a federal level.”

The push is working, at least to some extent. In April, the FDA issued an alert stating that “the use of unapproved antibiotics or chemicals in aquaculture raises significant public health concerns,” including cancer-producing effects.

The FDA reports that it continues to find residues of some banned animal drugs in shipments of farm-raised seafood products from China and has given its district inspectors the ability to detain and screen shipments from China if they come from companies other than those on its “green list.”

A disease known as shrimp Early Mortality Syndrome (EMS), caused by a strain of a bacterium commonly found in brackish coastal waters, has during the past two years caused large-scale die-offs of cultivated shrimp in several Asian countries.

That loss of imported shrimp has actually helped businesses like Superior and Versaggi by keeping the price of domestically caught shrimp high, Ernie Donini said. Right now, he is selling his shrimp retail for $10 to $12 a pound. He said that same shrimp might sell at Publix for about $18 a pound.

yhammett@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7127

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