The coalition is challenging seven countries that exported $4.3 billion worth of shrimp to the United States in 2011, accounting for 85 percent of all imports and more than three-fourths of the U.S. market: China, Thailand, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The group, which represents processors in Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas, said it had documented more than 100 programs that provided benefits to shrimp producers in those countries, including grants, low-interest loans, tax breaks, even shrimp feed.
Among the examples cited: Thailand buys shrimp from farmers and sells it to processors at low prices; India provides subsidies to reduce ocean freight costs; China has provided financing to build the world's largest shrimp-processing and export plant; Malaysia is spending millions to build shrimp farms and processing plants aimed at exporting more shrimp.
On top of that, Veal said, the countries pay lower wages.
Veal, of Biloxi, said that as recently as 30 years ago, U.S. processors accounted for 80 percent of all shrimp sold in the country.
But the Gulf shrimp industry has been particularly hit hard in the past decade, he said, enduring at least a 50 percent reduction in the number of shrimp vessels, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the largest oil spill in the nation's history five years later. He said the industry was still contending with false fears that Gulf shrimp weren't safe to eat as a result of the spill.
The Commerce Department and the International Trade Commission are looking into the case. On Thursday, the Commerce Department will decide whether there are sufficient grounds to proceed with an investigation. On Friday, the International Trade Commission will have its first staff hearing to begin examining data. It could take a year or longer to resolve the case.
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said it doesn't comment on pending cases.
But Nkenge Harmon, the deputy assistant U.S. trade representative for public and media affairs, said President Barack Obama's administration "has demonstrated that we will make our trading partners play by the rules."
McLendon said the Gulf Coast processors were battling countries that were in much the same position as the United States not so long ago.
"They're becoming industrialized, they're putting people to work, and the middle class is developing," he said. "So they're putting these stimulus programs together to not only put people to work but also to feed this newly developing middle class. And that's fine and dandy, if they keep the product in their own country."
Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the U.S., with each American eating an average of 4.2 pounds per year, according to industry statistics.
Larkin, who in a previous job in the 1990s handled shrimp procurement for such restaurants as Red Lobster and Olive Garden, said the domestic industry - even in the best of times - no longer could provide enough shrimp for the vast U.S. market.
Imported shrimp has become a much bigger business than the domestic industry, Larkin said, providing thousands of jobs in the United States for truckers and longshoremen, on steamship lines and at ports, warehouses and supermarkets.
Overall, imported seafood accounts for roughly 454,000 jobs in the U.S., according to the National Fisheries Institute.
"Imports have stepped in to fulfill a market demand," Larkin said. "The product is available all year around, the quality is consistent and the production is predictable. ... This is a market-driven commodity."
Gollott said prices had fallen sharply, noting that a pound of medium-sized shrimp, which sold for $4 in the mid-1980s, now goes for as little as $3, a drop of 25 percent. But while diesel fuel sold for 90 cents a gallon in 2001, it's now $3.20 a gallon, he said.
McLendon, 34, said prices for some types of shrimp were even much higher than that in the 1980s.
"During Hurricane Katrina, our whole building was destroyed, and I actually found some financial statements and tickets from the late 1980s. They were paying as much as $11 a pound for some shrimp," he said.
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