NEW ORLEANS - An abundant supply of Gulf seafood, especially shrimp, bodes well for sales during the upcoming holidays.
Consumers should see a better selection and lower prices this year, retailers said. The plentiful supplies stand in sharp contrast to last year, when retailers contended with shortages that were a result of the hurricane damage.
As Thanksgiving and Christmas approach, demand for fresh seafood picks up in a lot of places, but nowhere is it as popular as in the Gulf states, several retail sources said.
"Down here in Bayou Country, the holidays would not be the same without our fresh, local seafood," said Donald Rouse, co-owner of 16-unit Rouses Supermarkets, Thibodeaux, La. "When I think of past holiday meals I remember the shrimp dip and the shrimp-stuffed mirlitons [chayote-type vegetables], the Thanksgiving turkey with oyster dressing made from fresh, Louisiana oysters."
A native of the Gulf region, Rouse emphasized the variety and appeal of local seafood.
"My mom always had baked redfish on Christmas Eve and seafood gumbo," he recalled.
Other area retailers talked about the freshness of local seafood and how their customers simply expect it.
"A holiday here is not a holiday without fresh, local seafood. Last year, the supply was down about 50%, but I think it'll be OK this year," said John Sunich, owner of two Oak Point Fresh Markets, based just outside of Baton Rouge.
Customers want fresh, local seafood, he stressed. "I think we take it for granted," he said. "There's no comparison to what's imported."
In addition to being plentiful, the shrimp also are larger this year, sources said.
"These shrimp are big, most of them 16 to 20 count. Last year most were 21 to 25," said Donald Rouse. "And they're so plentiful the cost to us is down so we can retail them for less. In fact, we're retailing the bigger ones for the same as we sold the smaller ones last year."
With the bounce-back of shrimp, Rouses is able to offer 1-pound bags and 5-pound boxes of peeled, headless, frozen Louisiana shrimp under the retailer's private label. Those products, Rouse said, have always been big sellers, but they weren't available last year. Katrina knocked out many shrimp processing plants, among them the one that has for years processed private-label shrimp for Rouses.
"Now that our packer is back in business we have plenty of them. We also have lots of fresh, wild-caught, head-on shrimp right off the boat that we sell from our seafood case. We have a shrimper come to our stores Friday evenings and talk about his catch."
Customers like that, and sales are great, Rouse added. Lower retail prices also add to the product's appeal.
"Because there's so much, the shrimpers aren't getting that much for the product, so we're passing that on to our customers," he said.
Another retailer, based in Metairie, La., said his shrimp supply is adequate and the quality is excellent.
"Like everything else down here, there's disruption, with not as many boats and some docks that won't be back at all, but all the species are thriving. Oysters, too, have rebounded, even those in St. Bernard parish," which was particularly hard hit from the hurricanes, said Barry Breaux, owner of three supermarkets in metro New Orleans, operating under the Breaux Mart Supermarkets banner. "The [shrimp] is beautiful and plentiful. It's good for the guys that can get out, and also for us. We'll have all we want for the holidays. At least, that's what we're anticipating."
Likewise, Breaux and Sunich, who are supplied by wholesale group Associated Grocers of Baton Rouge, said the abundant shrimp catch has enabled them to lower retail prices, and AG expects the supply to remain sufficient through the holidays. AG will offer four varieties of raw, frozen Louisiana shrimp this holiday season, said Mike Bove, AG's vice president perishable procurement.
While AG also will be offering four varieties of imported shrimp to give customers a choice of quality and value, Bove said he's working with Wild American Shrimp and other organizations to build the Louisiana shrimp business.
From all appearances, the supply of local shrimp will hold steady. Retailers and others said they expect adequate quantities even as demand peaks around Christmas time.
"We are confident this year's record harvest will meet consumers' demand for certified wild American shrimp. As consumers plan their upcoming holiday meals, they can be assured a choice of premium domestic shrimp will be available," said Eddie Gordon, executive director of Wild American Shrimp, a Charleston, S.C.-based organization devoted to raising public awareness about the nutritional and economic benefits of domestic, wild-caught shrimp.
Another source at Wild American Shrimp pointed out the amount of shrimp caught this year surpasses record volumes in 2001.
Hurricanes usually have a positive effect on the shrimp catch and other Gulf seafood supplies, sources said.
"I know it was true with Camille," Sunich said. "This isn't normal. This year's [shrimp catch] is definitely an aftereffect [of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita]. I don't know the scientific reason for it, but maybe the winds push them and their food closer to us."
Actually, the most widely accepted theory, according to Wild American Shrimp spokeswoman Jenny Schmitt, is that storms do indeed affect currents that bring a greater supply of nutrients into the waters, so the shrimp eat better and grow bigger and healthier.
Shrimpers caught a record number of white shrimp with fewer shrimp boats because many have not been put back into operation.
"I really have to commend all those commercial fisherman who go out. They've overcome so many adversities. They repaired their boats, [and] have been living on them," Sunich said.
While the shrimp supply is more than sufficient now, Sunich believes that, with just a fraction of boats in operation, and some docks still not restored, supplies may be strained by the time the holidays are over.