U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor is leading the fight to reduce the nation’s reliance on Chinese shrimp imports that typically forgo federal inspections and undermine the local market.
Stakeholders say the influx of foreign products places the state’s $262 million industry in peril. The local congresswoman recently introduced the Laws Ensuring Safe Shrimp (LESS) Act to bolster domestic purchases and increase U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) funding.
Castor explained the bipartisan legislation’s importance Wednesday morning at Bama Sea Products’ expansive headquarters. The St. Petersburg-based seafood distributor operates a 100,000-square-foot facility along 8th Avenue S. with 80 employees.
“Domestically produced shrimp have to adhere to environmental requirements,” Castor said. “They are tested by the FDA. Shrimp from China doesn’t adhere to those same kinds of standards.
“I serve this Congress on the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition with the Chinese Communist Party, and they are trying to undermine our economy in a number of ways.”
Bama Sea Products is the U.S. Military’s largest shrimp supplier. Castor noted that servicemembers and their families receive weekly shipments that first pass through St. Petersburg.
Michael Stephens, CEO of Bama Sea Products, said livelihoods are in danger as foreign supplies outpace local demand. He said boats now sit at docks without a place to sell their catch.
“That only has to happen once or twice, and then they’re going to stop going out,” Stephens added. “Everybody that would buy it has an inventory of product that’s not selling.”
Florida produces about 110 million pounds of shrimp annually. While seafood production remains an integral part of the state’s economy, Castor said, “you have to work to keep it that way.”
She noted that Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian imports often contain banned antibiotics. Those shrimps are typically cheaper than their domestic counterparts.
“We’re going to support our local fisherman,” she said.
Castor co-sponsored the LESS Act with Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), and the two introduced the legislation in July. It would require federal officials to deposit about 70% of imported shrimp taxes into an inspection and consumption fund.
The FDA would receive half the money to eliminate banned substances from shrimp supply chains. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) would use the other half to purchase domestic products for food distribution programs.
Stephens said the LESS Act would help the U.S. industry “tremendously” by increasing the amount of shrimp provided by USDA food insecurity and school lunch programs.
The Southern Shrimp Alliance has lobbied Congress to address a long-standing problem. John Williams, executive director, said the USDA purchases would mitigate the surplus of domestic products.
He also noted that European Union officials test about 40% of their imported shrimp. “We’re down to 1% for the FDA,” Williams said.
“And that’s just not good enough,” he added. “We consider this a health issue for consumers because these products are getting in with antibiotics, pesticides and a lot of other things.”
Dr. Tom Frazer, dean of the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, said the LESS Act would also help combat illegal and unregulated fishing. He said it “evens the playing field” for local shrimpers to compete in the global market.
Castor expressed confidence that the bipartisan legislation would become law. She and Graves included it in the 2023 Farm Bill, which Congress must reauthorize this year.
She noted that the bill includes appropriations for supplemental nutrition programs for kids and families, and other economic aspects “that shouldn’t be hijacked by politics. We should be able to get this done,” Castor said.