Tucsonans with a yen for wild Mexican shrimp may be in for some disappointment - or at least for a bigger bite of their wallet - due to a new U.S. government ban on importing these shrimp in the name of sea turtle protection.
Wild Mexican shrimp is considered a premium product, and costs more than most other varieties. It is sold at many local restaurants and is prized for its sweet, salty flavor and large size, which is tough to duplicate in a shrimp farm, said David Preece of Merit Foods, a distributor of shrimp in Tucson.
Travelers to the Sonoran seaside towns of Rocky Point and Guaymas often bring home shrimp with them - a tradition that the embargo will outlaw.
Whether ordering shrimp out or buying it to grill at home, the price could rise sharply due to a decline in overall shrimp supply. Some food and restaurant industry sources say the embargo already is driving up shrimp prices. But its real punch won't be felt until next fall - when the next Northern Mexico shrimping season kicks into gear.
U.S. and Mexican officials hope to work out their differences and lift the embargo by then, but it's not clear if they can.
In the meantime, owners of four popular Tucson restaurants that feature shrimp say that if the embargo takes effect as planned on April 20, they will have to rely on farmed shrimp, which they consider not as tasty, or stop serving shrimp altogether. They also could use pricey artisanal shrimp, which is not included in the import ban because it is caught by a hand-held trawl rather than the mechanized shrimp trawls known to kill turtles.
The embargo stems from the Mexican government's failure to ensure that its shrimp fishermen are using the proper devices to keep protected sea turtles from getting caught up and dying in the large nets used to catch shrimp, the U.S. State Department said.
Mexico is this country's sixth-largest shrimp supplier, having exported more than 90 million pounds of wild and farmed shrimp to the United States last year, according to Seafood Source.com, a seafood industry Web site based in Maine.
Last week, the Mexican government issued a statement defending its shrimping practices, and a delegation of Mexican officials traveled to Washington to meet with a top State Department official about the issue. Mexican officials also asked the U.S. government to speed up its inspections of shrimpers so they can resume fishing by the time the fall shrimp season begins.
JANOS READY TO COPE
In Tucson, the owner of Janos and J-Bar restaurants said he expects no problem getting enough wild Mexican shrimp to last through the summer because his supplier typically buys large amounts at the end of the shrimp season and puts it in the freezer.
But in the fall, "if it comes down to it, I have no problem with taking shrimp off the menu," said Janos Wilder, whose restaurants are at 3770 E. Sunrise Drive. "I can make lots of other things that people will love if I can't serve shrimp."
If the wild shrimp embargo lasts, he said he has no plans to substitute farmed shrimp because of concerns that fish farms can be polluting.
"Some farmers do a pretty good job. A lot of farmers do a lousy job," he said. "They screw up estuaries. A lot of the muck from the farms pollutes."
Rodriguez Seafood Wholesale and Retail on Tucson's south side gets its shrimp from Mexico but has gradually shifted from a 75-25 ratio in favor of wild shrimp to 50-50 between wild and farmed. That shift would only be accelerated if the embargo holds.
"Even before the embargo stuff, they were pushing the farmed stuff out of Mexico even more," said Gloria Rodriguez, co-owner of the business at 3541 S. 12th Ave.
Embargo or not, people will probably have to adjust their palates to accept farmed shrimp, she said. The taste of farmed Mexican shrimp is now about 60 percent as good as Mexican shrimp, she said, "and that is really good."
Everyone wants wild-harvest shrimp, she said, "just like everyone wants wild salmon," she said. "You don't get wild catfish anymore, and rainbow trout is usually farmed."
PRICE already RISING
Seafood distributor Preece and Kingfisher restaurant owner Jeff Azersky said they're already seeing Mexican shrimp prices rise since the embargo was announced late last month. But prices had been so low for the past year that the increase so far hasn't been much of a problem, Azersky said.
At Mariscos Chihuahua on 1009 N. Grande Ave., owner Cirilo Preciado offers at least 10 shrimp dishes at a given time. About 90 percent of his restaurant's shrimp come from Mexico, mostly wild shrimp from the Sea of Cortez. He wouldn't switch to farmed shrimp "unless everything was shut down and everybody was using farm-raised, and people understood they were going to be giving up taste and quality," he said.
"We'll probably just have to use shrimp from other sources, like tiger shrimp from Thailand," he said. "It doesn't taste as good."
Kingfisher, at 2564 E. Grant Road, serves wild and farmed shrimp in cioppino, a seafood stew, in a wild mushroom pasta dish and in shrimp cocktail, "grilled and chilled," co-owner Azersky said. But he, like Wilder, Rodriguez and Preece, said he neither supports nor opposes the embargo.
"We've made our living here for 17 years serving our seafood," Azersky said. "Whatever helps keep the oceans going is good for us in the end."
DID YOU KNOW
The difference between Sea of Cortez shrimp and other shrimp:
"It's very nice and firm. It's a little bit sweet and a little bit salty. The texture is really good." - according to Tucson restaurateur Janos Wilder:
"If you put one shrimp in your mouth, you double the amount of flavor. It has a little more of the shrimp flavor." - Mariscos Chihuahua owner, Cirilo Preciado
here's what you need to know about the Mexican shrimp embargo:
Why did the State Department slap an embargo on Mexican wild shrimp imports?
U.S. officials determined that Mexico's method of keeping turtles out of shrimp nets no longer met this country's standards for turtle-excluding devices.
What are turtle-excluding devices? And why does the U.S. government want them used?
A grid of bars with an opening at the top or bottom is fitted into the neck of a shrimp trawl.
Small animals such as shrimp pass through the bars and are caught in the trawl. When larger animals, such as marine turtles and sharks, are captured in the trawl, they strike the grid bars and are ejected. The devices can reduce deaths of sea turtles caught in the nets by 97 percent, the State Department said.
How well are Mexican shrimp fishermen complying with U.S import regulations requiring the use of these devices?
"Mexico considers that its regulations and actions prove, without a doubt, that its protection measures for turtles in shrimp trawling are comparable to the measures taken in the United States," said a statement released last week by the Mexican government's Office of Environmental Protection and its Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fishery and Foods.
In the coastal tourist town of Rocky Point, local boats - and most of those throughout Sonora - meet all fishing and ecologic standards, said a statement from Mateo López León, secretary of the local office of the Mexican National Chamber of the Fishing Industry (CANAINPES). His comments were posted on a business-oriented Web site called "Join Us in Rocky Point."
But an East Coast attorney with a long track record working on both sides of the seafood regulation issue said he has heard from U.S. officials that they would go to Mexico over the past two or three years and find trawlers whose devices to keep turtles out of the nets either were disabled or weren't properly installed.
"The feeling this year was that it had just reached a point where there were a number of vessels - not all but a number - where there didn't seem to be adequate enforcement and not enough motivation to fix the problem," said Richard Gutting, former counsel to a U.S. House subcommittee on fisheries and a former president for the National Fisheries Institute, a trade association.
What effect would an embargo on U.S. imports of Mexican shrimp have on Mexico's fishing industry?
It would be catastrophic for the Rocky Point shrimping fleet and the rest of Mexico's fishermen, Lopez Leon said. Between 80 and 90 percent of Rocky Point's shrimp is sold in the U.S., he said.
The Rocky Point shrimping fleet creates nearly 800 direct jobs, not counting those created at processing plants and other intermediary businesses, he said. An embargo would eliminate most of those jobs, he said.
But will the embargo really kick in down there?
Last week, the manager of a major importer of wild Mexican shrimp into this country was quoted on SeafoodSource.com, a seafood industry Web site, as saying he was hopeful the U.S. government will recertify Mexican shrimping practices as environmentally sound before the embargo does much damage. While the Gulf of Mexico shrimp season starts in July, the Sea of Cortez's shrimp fishery - the source of many of the shrimp sold in Arizona restaurants - starts in August or September.
But Gutting said that for Mexico to be recertified, the U.S. government must send a team of inspectors for an on-site visit, he said. That probably wouldn't happen until next shrimp season, and a decision might not be immediate, he said.
What are the possible solutions?
Parts of Mexico could be allowed to resume exporting, while others remain shut off.
Also possible, though, is that turtle protection groups worldwide go to court to try to block recertification.
"Shrimp and turtles is probably the most heavily litigated seafood trade issue we have," Gutting said.
Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or email@example.com