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    FRESH FOOD: Fresh Developments: Boston's 'Hurricane Alley'

    The ravaged Gulf Coast's seafood industry will be a focus of the nation's top seafood show.

    A band of Gulf Coast seafood brothers will blow into the 24th annual International Boston Seafood Show (IBSS) -- set for March 12 to March 14 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center -- to assemble in the aptly named "Hurricane Alley" for the purpose of discussing with attendees the impact, challenges, and recovery they face as the result of the multiple hurricanes that have devastated their regional industry.

    "Hurricane Alley allows us the opportunity to highlight the devastation that our Gulf Coast fisheries have suffered, and provide a unique opportunity for networking and exchanging ideas with colleagues from across the United States," says Mary Larkin, IBSS v.p. of expositions. "It's imperative that we show our support for our colleagues as they work to rebuild their infrastructure and restore the fishing communities that generate nearly a fifth of the nation's overall seafood industry."

    To be sure, hurricanes Katrina and Rita could not have come at a worse time for the $2.5 billion American shrimping industry, which has already been hammered for years by high gas prices and cheap imports from Asia.

    What's more, the full brunt of the economic impact resulting from the devastating hurricanes has yet to be fully realized. Entire fishing communities and ports have vanished, causing the permanent loss of capital and infrastructure such as boats, fishing gear, docks, marinas, and support facilities. The manmade infrastructure losses are estimated to be $330 million across the Gulf, not counting the hundreds of millions of dollars more in natural losses of wetlands, reefs, and oyster beds.

    Part of the Alley's mission is to draw attention to the recovery efforts of the Gulf Coast industry, says Ewell Smith, executive director of the Metairie-based Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.

    "By putting us together in that aisle, we'll be able to tell folks from around the country that we're still here, we're coming back, and we're going to make it," says Smith. "It will also help generate attention to the fact that the Gulf states are working together as a unit, because what affects Texas affects Louisiana affects Mississippi, and right on down the line. So we're all working on this Gulf-wide initiative together, because that's how we're going to survive."

    As for what the post-hurricane recovery efforts will mean to consumers and restaurant-goers as spring and summer nears and seafood consumption spikes, Smith says that the Southern states' fisheries industry is further along than others in finding its way out from beneath the rubble.

    "As a state we're coming back, but recovery efforts have been very slow -- not just for our fishing communities, but for New Orleans and the state as a whole, and the other states as well. But what's inspiring," Smith continues, "is that when you go down to the fishing communities, the fishermen are not waiting for the federal government. The ones who have the resources are doing everything they can to get back on track."

    For those in the trade wishing to assist the Gulf Coast seafood industry's recovery efforts, Smith makes a straightforward, heartfelt petition: "The most patriotic thing the consumer and the retailer can do at this point is to ask for the domestic product. If you're a retailer, sell it; if you're a consumer, ask for it."

    Enter Tarpon Springs, Fla.-based Wild American Shrimp, Inc. (WASI), the marketing arm of the Southern Shrimp Alliance, formed nearly two years ago to create awareness by casting Gulf shrimp as a niche commodity in the same vein as Maine lobster.

    A number of prominent retailers from the across the country have already signed on with the WASI initiative, including Montvale, N.J.-based A&P, which became the first national retailer to roll out products branded under chef Emeril Lagasse's signature line; Dierbergs; Gerlands; The Fresh Market; Food Town; Fiesta Markets; Kroger; Publix, and Winn-Dixie.

    Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle and the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, have been particularly strong backers of WASI's retail program. In September Giant Eagle inked a deal with Northbrook, Ill.-based Penguin Frozen Foods, to provide its 237 retail locations with a dedicated supply of certified Wild American Shrimp.

    Says Rich Castle, Giant Eagle's director of seafood: "We've built our reputation and brand on providing premium products and services to our customers. By guaranteeing our customers have a choice of premium, domestic wild-caught shrimp, we extend that legacy and deliver a fresh and nutritious product to our clientele."

    Eddie Gordon, WASI's executive director, says it's important for the American public to understand that while Katrina affected domestic shrimp operations, "[t]he industry remains healthy and able to meet the demands of discriminating seafood consumers."

    In November, on the deck of the Alma Marie shrimp boat, Wal-Mart signed on as the latest major retailer to supply its customers with Penguin to supply wild-caught domestic shrimp.

    "We're committed to providing our customers with the absolute highest-quality products, and, if possible, from local U.S. suppliers," says Peter Redmond, Wal-Mart's v.p. and divisional merchandise manager of deli and seafood.

    Participating Wal-Mart stores in nearly 900 locations now carry Penguin's fresh/frozen domestic shrimp in their full-service areas.

    Meanwhile, at presstime, Wal-Mart had also revealed plans to purchase all of its wild-caught fresh and frozen fish for the North American market from Marine Stewardship Council-certified fisheries within the next three to five years, as part of a commitment to offer sustainable products at affordable prices to its customers.

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