Shrimp is the #1 seafood in the USA. It is tasty, usually quite inexpensive, and is easily cooked and eaten. Unfortunately, such a craze for shrimp has created an environmental nightmare.
Americans currently consume over one billion pounds of shrimp every year, and about 90% of that is imported from overseas. The primary producers of shrimp—namely China, Thailand, Vietnam, Brazil and Ecuador—provide mostly farm-raised shrimp. American shrimp is almost always caught in the wild. Nevertheless, neither options are ideal or sustainable, and both have horrific consequences on the sea.
- Shrimp farming affects human health
The majority of shrimp farms is comprised of open ponds with a small amount of water exchange. Shrimp farming is usually based in coastal areas, and can be destructive to both the ecological and human communities with which it comes into contact. When multiple intensive farming operations are concentrated around the same river, estuary, or bay, as they often are, the waste, uneaten feed and bacteria produced by the farms pollutes the surrounding waters, overwhelming the environment and harming other species. This waste also creates conditions that breed infections among the shrimp themselves.
To protect from the shrimp pathogens that inevitably spread, some farmers feed their shrimp chloramphenicol, a carcinogenic antibiotic which may be unsafe for human consumption. Shrimp may also be treated with sodium triple phosphate, a neuro-toxicant, to prevent it from drying out during shipping, and borax to preserve its pink color.
Upon arrival in the U.S., few if any, are inspected by the FDA, and when researchers have examined imported ready-to-eat shrimp, they found 162 separate species of bacteria with resistance to 10 different antibiotics.
(Shrimp farms in Borneo on the edge of mangroves. Photo by Marc Gunther)
- Shrimp farming affects mangroves and local ecosystems
Scientists have found that shrimp farms have destroyed over 40% of the world’s mangroves, which are some of the most diverse, productive and necessary ecosystems on the planet. Mangroves indeed act as carbon sinks, and serve as valuable buffers against hurricanes and tsunamis, while also providing a safe nursery habitats for many invertebrate, fish, and shark species.
A shrimp farmer will clear a section of mangroves and close it off to ensure that the shrimp cannot escape. Then the farmer relies on the tides to refresh the water, carrying shrimp excrement and disease out to sea. In this scenario, the entire mangrove ecosystem is destroyed and turned into a small dead zone for short-term gain. Even after the shrimp farm leaves, the mangroves do not come back.
- Wild-caught shrimps, bottom trawling, and bycatch
Farmed shrimp have their problems, but wild-caught shrimp aren’t always a much better alternative. Fisherman catch wild shrimp using fine-meshed trawl nets pulled through the water. Worldwide, for one pound of shrimp, there can be 5 pounds of bycatch—other species that become trapped in the nets. Scientists have found that up to 90% of marine life in the nets brought onboard during shrimp harvesting is actually not shrimp! On top of fish that ultimately end up being dead or dying from being in the net, nets routinely pull up 9,000 endangered or threatened sea turtles annually, in addition to sharks, red snappers, and other animals.
(Typical shrimp bycatch. Photo credit: Powered-by-produce.com)
The vast majority is caught using trawling, a highly destructive fishing method. Football field-sized nets are dragged along the ocean floor, scooping up and killing several pounds of marine life for every pound of shrimp they catch and demolishing the ocean floor ecosystem as they go. Where they don’t clear-cut coral reefs or other rich ocean floor habitats, they drag their nets through the mud, leaving plumes of sediment so large they are visible from outer space!
While shrimp trawl fisheries only represent 2% of the global fish catch, they are responsible for over 1/3rd of the world’s bycatch. Trawling is comparable to bulldozing an entire section of rainforest in order to catch one species of bird.
The truth is, not everyone is willing to give up eating shrimp. And you don’t necessarily have to. New, more sustainable production practices are being developed, but it’s up to the consumer to ask for them in supermarkets and restaurants.
What You Can Do!
- Eat less shrimp! The Worldwatch Institute estimates that for every 1,000 people who stop eating shrimp, we can save more than 5.4 tons of sea life per year.
- Replace your industrial shrimp purchases with Henry & Lisa’s Natural Seafood (Ecofish’s retail brand) available at 3500 stores nationwide, including Whole Foods and Target Superstores.
- Seek out the blue Marine Stewardship Council ecolabel, which indicates sustainable practices, when shopping or dining out. Here’s a list of stores and restaurants that stock MSC-certified products.
- When buying wild-caught shrimp, look for varieties from the Pacific coast, particularly Oregon and British Columbia.
- Ask your favorite restaurants and stores what kind of shrimp they are stocking, and if you’re not satisfied with their answer, let them know!