Disease killing off shrimp in East Asia

Shrimp prices continue to rise in the United States, but the reason behind the jump lies far from home.

A new disease in East Asia has cut Thailand’s shrimp output by as much as 40 percent, the Wall Street Journal reports. Now Western restaurants and retailers are scrambling to make up the difference by raising prices and looking to new sources.

The disease arrived in Thailand late last year after sweeping through China and Vietnam, severely reducing shrimp production in those countries. Now that the disease is affecting the world’s largest shrimp exporter, shrimp prices have been rising worldwide.

The United States relies on Thailand for a quarter of its shrimp imports, which dropped 27 percent last year and another 23 percent between January and April. In recent months, the United States has witnessed a 20 percent jump in prices, which some restaurant owners see as only the beginning of a larger increase.

“We may have to selectively raise prices,” said Chief Financial Officer Rick Liem of Landry’s Inc. Landry’s oversees seafood chains including Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and McCormick & Schmick.

Meanwhile, exporters such as Ecuador and India have been trying to boost their own outputs, but neither has been able to compete with Thailand’s numbers.

According to the United Nations, the bacterial infection — called early mortality syndrome or EMS — poses no significant threat to human beings. However, it is deadly to shrimp and often kills them before they can reproduce.

Researchers from Thailand’s Charoen Pokphand Foods — which saw its first-quarter operating profit drop by 70 percent — have suggested a 30-day quarantine for shrimp larvae to contain the disease. Experts are watching the current batch closely, hoping that the shrimp will survive past three months, the point at which they will be able to reproduce.