The US shrimp industry seems to operate under the following theory _ if they do the same thing, over and over, the result will eventually be pleasantly rewarding. Twice since 2004, the industry has pressured trade officials to investigate the "dumping" of frozen shrimp from Thailand, the biggest supplier of shrimp to the US. Twice they were defeated. But the persistent protectionists are at it again, hoping once again for a different result and a better life financed by huge fines against Thailand.
Dumping is a sales tactic generally barred in international trade. Simply put, an exporter "dumps" a product when he sells it cheaper in the overseas market than at home. In a fair market, a US industry can prove a Thai group is dumping shrimp by simply comparing prices in US and Thai supermarkets. But of course everything is fair in war and international trade, and the US has brought different rules to the table.
In 2006, as part of preparations for the most recent dumping lawsuit against Thailand, the US passed the Byrd Amendment. It is fittingly named for its sponsor, the late US Sen Robert Byrd. Byrd was once a community leader of the Ku Klux Klan and never known for his friendliness to foreigners. His provision allows the US International Trade Commission to compare the price of Thai shrimp in markets in the US and Japan.
Shrimp is big business around the world, but especially so between Thailand and the US. Thailand supplies more than a quarter of all shrimp eaten by Americans. They bring well over US$1 billion (29.7 billion baht) a year to Thai exporters. The Office of Commercial Affairs of the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington said last week that from January to October last year the US imported $973 million worth of shrimp from Thailand _ just short of 29 billion baht. That is twice as much as Indonesia, Ecuador and India sell.
Thai shrimp imports are an attractive target in the litigious US for several reasons. The US shrimp industry is legitimately hurting, because imported shrimp is cheaper than most US shrimp. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 decimated shrimp fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. Environmentalists love the lawsuits against Thai shrimp because they can slip in references to Thai farms which harm coastal forests. Human rights groups add allegations of child labour in the packing process.
The bottom line, however, is that it is pretty well all about the money. If the US government lawsuit succeeds, Thai exporters will be slapped with so-called "countervailing duties" _ essentially, fines for selling better products at a cheaper price. These fines should end up in the pockets of US shrimpers, who are allegedly hurt by the Thai exporters' success.
International trade disputes are common, and often understandable. Globalisation has brought hardship to local industries in virtually every country. But after three disputes in eight years, the US lawsuits against Thai shrimp exporters are looking more like harassment than legitimate complaints.
The huge volume of Thai shrimp imported by the US over the past decade has made dumping charges illogical. No industry could accept such losses for such a long time. It must be hoped the US will wrap up this latest investigation quickly and get back to dining on delicious Thai shrimp.