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Surging Fish and Shellfish Industry Celebrates Sweet Success : Shrimp Makes Biggest Waves at Sea Fare '86

February 20, 1986|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

After having spent decades as a mere afterthought on the national food scene, the seafood industry can now savor the adoration of consumers, nutritionists and restaurateurs alike.

The resulting high spirits were especially evident at Sea Fare '86, a recently concluded, three-day convention devoted to all aspects of the business, held at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim.

Most of the 300 exhibitors were content to savor the recognition being lavished on the vast array of fish and shellfish species on view for the more than 5,000 in attendance. Yet, despite the popularity of virtually all foods from the sea, one item received a disproportionate amount of attention and was unmistakably in a class by itself.

"There is no question about it. Shrimp is No. 1," said Frank Riggio, vice president of Bee Gee Shrimp Co. of Lakeland, Fla., while stationed in front of his firm's booth--a popular location, particularly when another large batch of butterflied fried shrimp was emptied into a generous serving bowl to provide free samples.

An Insatiable Appetite

Riggio was not overstating the situation out of loyalty to his firm. Americans have an insatiable appetite for shrimp and the increasing fondness has made the curly crustacean the top-selling seafood in this country for the last 20 years.

"Shrimp are the darling of the seafood industry," said Ernest Wayland, executive vice president of Crest International Corp. of San Diego. "It's where the action is. They're the fastest-moving commodity in a fast-moving market."

Underscoring the popularity are analysts who estimate that per capita consumption in the United States reached record levels of 2.5 pounds per person during 1985. This figure is up a substantial 56% from 1974, when the consumption rate was only 1.4 pounds. Consumers were able to savor more shrimp than ever before because about 600 million pounds were sold in this country last year alone.

This unyielding demand has made the buying and selling of shrimp as competitive and risk-filled a venture as anything on the commodity exchanges. The gambles are particularly high because the U.S. shrimp boat fleet's share of the market has been decreasing since the 1970s. Today, domestic supplies constitute only 35% of all shrimp consumed in this country, forcing brokers to increasingly depend upon unpredictable foreign sources.

In fact, last year's imports, a record total of 359 million pounds, came to this nation from more than 60 countries from around the globe, according to William D. Chauvin, publisher of a New Orleans-based shrimp industry newsletter.

The numerous supply sources have also contributed to the fact that there is no one dominant firm in the shrimp business as wholesalers scramble to obtain the product. The nature of the industry has also precluded the emergence of a well-known national brand.

So the question of who has the most shrimp at the best price throughout the year was one that seafood buyers from both restaurants and supermarkets were eager to discover while perusing the exhibit hall.

Though quick to celebrate this shellfish, most suppliers bemoaned the fact that profits are so slight while potential losses can be staggering.

"Any sane person would not even look at selling shrimp (as a business)," said Ernest Y. Doizaki, president of American Fish & Seafood Co. in Los Angeles. "The potential (wholesale) profit is only 10 to 15 cents a pound. Compare that with a downside risk that ranges from between 50 cents and $1.50 a pound. One year we lost $1 a pound on three truckloads of the stuff, and that was in 1977 dollars. At that point, we got out of shrimp in a major way."

Another supplier readily admitted that profits can be slim, but a razor-thin margin can often be overcome by tremendous sales volume.

"There certainly are times when we have to eat our losses," said Ed Monette, of Clouston Foods in Gloucester, Mass. "These are really stock market conditions . . . but the risk is worth it."

At least for now, Monette could afford to be bullish because his company recently posted shrimp sales increases of between 35% and 40% during the last 18 months. The firm claims to be the nation's second-leading distributor of the shellfish.

In order to protect their companies from being too susceptible to wild swings in shrimp prices, most brokers also offer a number of other seafood items. One such operation, Aptco Inc. of San Francisco, hedges its bets by selling squid.

"(Squid) is a cheaper item that everyone can afford," said Gilbert Oei, Aptco president, who was decidedly unenthusiastic until the topic turned to shrimp. "You've got to know this game. But when you're in it as long as I've been, then you become an addict for the (shrimp) business."

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