After years of planning, state officials are closer than ever to unveiling a program that would certify the authenticity of Louisiana shrimp at a time when the domestic industry has never been more desperate for an economic boost. It's among the many actions the Louisiana Shrimp Task Force hopes to fast-track in the coming months as both harvesters and fishermen compete for a foothold in what has become a treacherous environment. U.S. shrimp inventories are now stockpiled at half the typical national annual consumption rate, cheap imports have cornered niche markets like restaurant chains, and prices for fuel and ice are following inflation.
Gov. Bobby Jindal created the task force after fishermen went on strike this summer. Some pointed fingers at processors, claiming they acted together to drive down prices. State officials have tiptoed around the animosity, and task force members are urging the two factions to find common ground. While various legislative proposals appear to be on tap for the 2010 session, most factions are excited about the certified shrimp program. Big seafood buyers nationwide have become increasingly interested in certified quality-control products, which can essentially account for every stop they make on the way to the consumer, says Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. "We're not that far off from having a preview of what that program might look like," Smith says.
Supporters hope the voluntary program will broaden the market for Louisiana shrimp. Alaska, among other states, has a similar seafood program on the books; it took nearly two decades to implement. Wildlife and Fisheries Assistant Secretary Randy Pausina says Louisiana's program won't take that long. "There will be a draft completed soon," Pausina says.
Lafitte fisherman Clint Guidry, who represents shrimpers on the task force, says the program offers a middle ground. "I don't think anyone in the industry is against this program," he says. "It's all about trust. If they trust our brand and know our quality, our prices will go up and everyone benefits." But improving quality on the boats, at the docks and inside the plants won't be cheap, he adds. Government may need to assist. "If you want us to put value in our products, we're going to need money," Guidry says. — Jeremy Alford