Food & Drink

Ordering seafood in the Lowcountry? It might be from China. Here’s why

With the ocean visible from many restaurants in Beaufort County, it would seem to be a foregone conclusion that the seafood you order would be fresh.

“Do I think that people assume that just because they’re on an island, they’re eating fresh seafood? Absolutely,” said Andrew Carmines, owner of Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks on Hilton Head Island.

That isn’t necessarily the case, though.

According to Fishwatch, a website run by the U.S. Department of Commerce, more than80 percent of the seafood eaten in America is imported, with China listed as the top source of imports. Thailand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam and Ecuador are also listed on the site as top sources.

There are a number of reasons why that fish you just ordered might have nothing to do with the waters you can see from your table.

Here are a few of them, and a few tips to ensure that the fresh local seafood you’re eating is actually fresh and local.

Price

Local seafood is more expensive than its imported counterpart, said Carmines, adding that local shrimp can be at least $2 per pound more expensive than foreign imports.

Carmines still uses local shrimp, and serves 200 to 300 pounds of it a day over the summer, he said. At $2 per pound more, that can add up to an additional $4,200 a week to keep things local.

“We do it because its what we’re known for, and we appreciate the quality,” Carmines said. “But I can understand why some places don’t do it.”

Bluffton Oyster Company owner Tina Toomer deals with the price difference by placing an “up charge” on items like locally caught shrimp, grouper and wreckfish as they come in season. She believes people are willing to pay the difference for a better product.

“People don’t come here for Chinese shrimp, they come here for local shrimp,” said Toomer. “If it costs a little more, they’ll pay the difference.”

Labor

Adding to the price burden of local seafood: labor costs, which can pile up on top of already more expensive product.

“To process your own local product tends to get really expensive,” said Carmines. “The swordfish boat that we buy from? They don’t deliver. We have to literally drive up there and meet the boat when it docks at 5 a.m. and ice the seafood and bring it back.”

After that seafood gets to his restaurant, it still must be processed, which can include heading, gutting and fileting each fish before they are ready to go in the pan, whereas frozen product can be ordered fileted.

“We have shrimp boats that dock right here on the docks, and when we are in the middle of the summer we have to peel about 150 to 200 pounds of shrimp in a day,” Carmines said.

The labor costs to do just that one job, he estimated, would run more than $200 a day. Fortunately, Hudson’s has a machine to do that work.

The comparatively low cost of imported seafood can make meeting labor costs impossible for some in the local seafood industry.

“That’s why there aren’t very many shrimpers out there, because imported shrimp pushed them out of business,” said Toomer. “You can go to Sam’s Club right now and get a platter of 200 cheap shrimp already cooked, peeled and deveined, and it’s coming in from China. We can’t do that.”

Seasons

Outside of price, there is another factor that might keep fresh, local seafood off your plate. The seasonal nature of the business means that many products are available locally for just part of each year.

If it is outside the local season for the fish or shrimp you want, what you order will be either imported or frozen.

“We do frozen fish. We have to, but you’re going to know it before you buy it,” said Toomer. “You have to sell frozen if you’re going to stay in this business year round, because everything has a season.”

The difference between local and “local”

Even if you’ve been assured the fish you are eating is local, it is possible to eat a piece of local fish that has been every bit as processed and frozen as fish that came from overseas, said Carmines.

“I could say that my swordfish on the menu is local if it was caught locally and then taken to a processing facility in New York where it was cut into 8-ounce portions and frozen and sold back to me,” said Carmines. “But the customer would be assuming they’re eating fresh local fish when they’re actually eating something that was caught six months before.”

That definition of local won’t work for Carmines.

“The way we define local seafood is that we’re purchasing it directly off the boat from the person that caught it,” he said.

How to ensure you’re getting fresh, local seafood

There are some ways to make sure what you are eating has been locally caught, and to tell if it has been frozen.

“The questions customers should ask are ‘is this product fresh?’ ‘Where did it come from?’ and ‘How long has it been out of the water,’ ” said Carmines.

Once the food is on the table, there are additional telltale signs of frozen or imported seafood.

Fin fish should be moist, Carmines said. Freezing will cause dehydration, so if your fish is dry it could be an indicator that it has been frozen. Fresh fish with a mild flavor should have no unpleasant odor, and fresh shrimp should have a firm texture and not taste rubbery.

Toomer also has a suggestion for ensuring your shrimp is local.

“We don’t catch a big huge jumbo shrimp locally,” she said. “So if you go in and get a shrimp that is the size of your hand, that is coming in from overseas.”

Michael Olinger: 843-706-8107, @mikejolinger

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