Sept. 14--Chef Randy Evans can't take Gulf shrimp completely off the menu. After all, shrimp corndogs are among his signature appetizers.
But diners at his restaurant, Haven, where Evans is chef and co-owner, may see fewer shrimp topping their entrees in coming months and fewer shrimp main dishes, too.
By late last week, a growing imbalance between supply and demand for the Gulf favorite had driven up the wholesale prices Evans was paying by nearly $3 a pound, from $6.90 a pound at the end of May. The price has gotten high, he said.
"It's crazy how high," Evans said.
"There's a huge hole in the market," added Hector Medellin, who oversees business development at Seafood Wholesalers, a Houston-based importer and distributor. "It's not 'How much is shrimp?' but 'Do you have shrimp?'
"I've never seen anything like this where shrimp actually goes up by the hour."
The shortage is due in great part to a bacterial disease known as Early Mortality Syndrome, he said. In countries such as Thailand, the disease has cut production by 60 percent.
Also, in recent years the U.S. Agriculture Department has begun charging "anti-dumping" duties on imported shrimp to protect the price of domestic shrimp, causing some international producers to stop selling in the U.S., Medellin said.
He also cited the cyclical nature of catching wild domestic shrimp, including in the Gulf of Mexico. Catches are not at peak levels this year, Medellin said.
The higher prices are welcome news for those hauling in those catches.
Andrea Hance, who operates a shrimp boat with her husband at the Port of Brownsville, said the couple is now getting wholesale buyers wanting to buy the entire contents of their boat "before it hits the dock." That has not happened in her area in a decade.
Hance, executive director of the Texas Shrimp Association, an advocacy group for the industry, said that in recent years it has been hard to make a living. As recently as 2009, prices were at a 50-year low, she said, with imported shrimp flooding the U.S. market.
Rising fuel prices also hurt shrimpers and the BP oil spill "tarnished the reputation" of Gulf shrimp, she said.
In 1987, 5,000 shrimp boats operated in the Texas Gulf, Hance said, and now there are about 500.
She also said people forget shrimp prices are about the same as they were in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, demand for shrimp of all kinds continues to grow, said Jim Gossen, chairman of Sysco Louisiana Foods, a seafood distributor and manufacturer acquired by Houston-based food distributor Sysco last year.
There are more restaurants, more people dining out and more grocery stores with fresh seafood departments than there were in decades past.
But restaurants in recent months have been less likely to offer shrimp specials, he said, because it becomes hard to turn a profit.
As shrimp prices rise, Houston-based Landry's has been "strategically enhancing" its menus, said Rick Liem, the company's executive vice president and chief financial officer.
The company owns more than 500 restaurants, many of which sell shrimp. Liem said more focus is being put on other types of seafood, including fish, lobster and crab.
He said he expects shrimp prices to continue to "increase dramatically."
Shrimp already is "astronomically expensive," said Chris Shepherd, chef at Underbelly restaurant on Lower Westheimer.
"I don't know too many people who don't like shrimp," he said, "but we don't use it as much."
Not as a garnish
Shepherd traditionally uses shrimp as a garnish when serving other fish, for example. But now, he said, "it has to take center stage" or he won't use it.
At Haven, an Upper Kirby District restaurant, Evans said he typically starts thinking about making seafood gumbo with shrimp around now.
"That's not happening" this year, he said. Instead, it will be chicken andouille sausage gumbo.