Worrying about bills and plummeting shrimp prices, Dwayne Harrison stopped to apply for a mowing job one morning recently before dropping his nets in the Houston Ship Channel.
The cents-a-pound he was getting last week for small, head-on wild shrimp is one-third the price of a year ago and less than his catch brought in 1998, the year he bought his 50-foot vessel, Angel Lady.
Harrison, 51, is among Gulf shrimpers who say they’re leaving the business or are barely afloat, and many blame imports, which make up more than 90 percent of the shrimp market in the United States. Last year, imports rose by 143 million pounds and are up another 2 percent in 2015.
While driven to the brink, shrimpers in Texas also are driven to anger by the indifference of American consumers.
“In those restaurants,” Harrison pointed out, “people will be watching our boats come in while being served shrimp from halfway around the world that are fed antibiotics to keep them alive.”
Foreign competition and the rise of aquaculture to fill the world’s seafood needs are familiar issues. But illegal antibiotics in farm-raised Asian shrimp is a lesser-known story, one that Gulf shrimpers have begun telling. Shrimp that is being sold in Charlotte grocery stores.
Food and Drug Administration records suggest they have reason to sound warnings.
In August, FDA inspectors set a monthly record by refusing 72 shipments of shrimp, much of it from Malaysia, that either tested positive for antibiotics or lacked evidence of being drug free. Most of the shrimp was turned away from the agency’s Southwest Import District, which includes Texas ports.
Through October, the FDA has refused 377 separate shrimp entries — from large containers to small packages — citing antibiotics or veterinary drug residues. In all of 2014, the agency turned away 208 shrimp shipments due to illegal drug residues, and that was nearly four times the refusals of a year before.
The FDA actions acknowledge the worrisome fact that antibiotics relied on for decades are becoming ineffective because of overuse in human health care and indiscriminate use in farming. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 2 million people a year contract serious infections that don’t respond to antibiotics and that at least 23,000 die.
In foreign aquaculture, some operators persist in giving shrimp hatchlings feed laced with antibiotics that are prohibited in the United States. They do so to strengthen their immune systems against bacterial diseases. No antibiotics are approved for shrimp farming in the United States.
The discoveries raise questions about whether the speed of global trade has outpaced the ability to keep food safe. Some in the domestic seafood industry contend that the pending 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement could make it even more difficult for regulators to do their jobs.
The FDA has been criticized over the years for lack of attention to antibiotics. The uptick in refusals suggests that the agency may be getting more vigilant at the borders.
Even so, the FDA inspected just 3.7 percent of 110,000 shrimp shipments last year and tested far less than that in a monitoring system that focuses on risk.
What’s more, the FDA, citing lack of resources, is ignoring a 2011 law ordering inspections of thousands of foreign food plants.
For Texas shrimpers enduring one of the hardest seasons in memory, the hit-and-miss regulatory system is another vexing reality. In interviews, several said they’re convinced that ships turned away for contamination seek out other ports to bring in their wares.
“It doesn’t look like they (the FDA) are doing anything,” Dwayne Harrison said, dodging a tanker and barges during a fruitless day on the water.
In April, Consumer Reports disclosed finding antibiotic residues in about 5 percent of imported shrimp purchased at some 300 groceries, big box stores and even at “natural” retail outlets across the country. Tests also found bacteria, including Vibrio, which can cause serious illness.
“The FDA can’t be catching all the illegal products on the market when it comes to shrimp and antibiotic residues,” Urvashi Rangan, Consumer Reports’ director of consumer safety, said in an interview.
After publishing its findings, Consumer Reports made recommendations to top FDA officials, noting that antibiotics in shrimp were especially concerning. The magazine never heard back.
Shrimpers like to say that consumers have no clue what they’re getting, no matter what labels and menus say. DNA tests by the advocacy group Oceana last year bear out those concerns. Oceana found that 35 percent of shrimp tested nationwide was misrepresented, a level of mislabeling that rose to 41 percent in groceries.
In a common deception, farmed shrimp, largely from Asia, was sold as Gulf shrimp or simply labeled “wild.”
Even in the Gulf region, home to America’s biggest shrimp fishery, genetic tests on dozens of shrimp products in nine cities, including Houston and Galveston, showed 30 percent were misrepresented.
Scientists found imported shrimp not listed on the FDA’s list of 1,842 species of seafood consumed in the United States and shrimp with unrecognized genetic makeup. Tests on a bag of salad-sized shrimp imported from Vietnam sold at a Gulf grocery showed banded cleaner shrimp, aquarium pets not intended as food.
“When you find out it’s your own local seafood involved in this bait-and-switch, it wakes people up,” Kimberly Warner, Oceana’s senior scientist, told the San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/1QqmB3r).
In Texas, shrimpers say they’re falling behind even while catching more.
In September, Texas vessels landed 6.1 million pounds, 600,000 pounds more than September of last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported. For the year, the catch in Texas is 8 million pounds more than at this time in 2014, attributed to abundant spring rains that moved shrimp from bays and estuaries into the Gulf.
The bigger catch in Texas, it turns out, almost exactly matches the decline in Louisiana from a year ago.
That hasn’t made up for abysmal prices shrimpers are getting across the Gulf — one-third lower than a year ago for large shrimp and half the price for medium-sized. Smaller shrimp were bringing just one-third the price of 2014, NOAA said.
Far fewer vessels than a decade ago are chasing the crustaceans.
Andrea Hance, executive director of the Texas Shrimp Association, said the number of permits across the Gulf had shrunk from 5,000 in the early 2000s to about 1,400. Of those, roughly 1,100 are operating, she said.
Hance, who operates two vessels out of Brownsville, said the catch had tailed off after early fall successes. But the price she got last week for her large brown shrimp had ticked up to $3.25 a pound, albeit about half of what it was a year ago. Overall, imports were down 6.5 percent in September, a hopeful sign for the Texas industry.
Shrimpers’ challenge, she said, is saving money to withstand times like these and expensive repairs — like the new $25,000 freezer on one of her trawlers.
“One of these years, the sun, the moon and stars will align and we all will make some money,” she said.