Touted as a healthy source of lean protein, shrimp have gained tremendous popularity in recent years, becoming the most consumed seafood in the United States. Our voracious appetite for these delicious crustaceans has created a huge demand for more harvests wherever possible.
Where do we get enough shrimp to satisfy this demand? Currently about 90% of shrimp are imported from outside the country, half from the ocean and half from farms. Is our demand sustainable, or are we, in a quest for “all you can eat” abundance, eating up all the shrimp? Not to worry, shrimp grow faster than we harvest them, and they are in little danger of extinction. However, rampant unregulated fishing and farming practices, if left unchecked, will certainly have dire impacts on the environment.
Here is a quick look at the good, bad and better aspects of shrimp fisheries and farms in the larger context of environmental sustainability. With this knowledge you can choose the shrimp and prawns that are sustainably harvested, with little damage to wildlife, the ocean bottom, and coastal ecology.
Most of the shrimp imported into the US comes from open pond farms along the coast of countries with tropical environments and lush mangrove forests, the natural habitat of young shrimp. The farms use large amounts of pesticides, antibiotics, and other intensive inputs that soon toxify the growing ponds. Mangroves, critical to climate regulation, are being cleared away to make shrimp farms that rapidly become polluted and are soon abandoned. These farms last three years on average until they become so toxic with pollution that nothing will grow. The cycle repeats, more mangroves are cleared and the farms move along the coast leaving a swath of destruction and pollution. Mangrove clearing is a serious threat to the global climate because mangroves sequester enormous amounts of carbon. Clearing mangroves is equivalent to clear cutting thousands of acres of rainforest.
If shrimp are so abundant in the wild, why do we need all these farms? We could certainly harvest enough shrimp from the ocean, but they are so darn small, it gets expensive to fish sustainably. Because shrimp are small and live near the ocean bottom, the nets have small holes and require weights to sink. These nets can cause tremendous damage as they are dragged along the ocean bottom. They physically damage coral reefs and snare reef wildlife in the small holes. Commercial fishing vessels catch a lot of unintended marine life along with their target species. This “bycatch” may include endangered marine animals, fish, tortoises, and sea birds. Unfortunately, these creatures do not survive being snared in the shrimp nets. The driving factor in most international fisheries is quantity of shrimp at the cheapest cost, which does not allow for practices to reduce bycatch or protect delicate sea floor eco systems.
Mass market economics may pressure fisheries away from sustainability, but there is some hope for improvement. In the natural foods industry, the call for sustainability is loud and strong! Here is an example that demonstrates the power of the marketplace to effect positive values. Currently, every US gulf state with shrimp fisheries, except Louisiana, enforces requirements to protect fish and sea turtles from ensnarement in shrimp nets. A 1987 law in Louisiana prohibits the state government from enforcing federal fishing law. This directly contravenes the sustainability and environmental concerns of all the other gulf states and even hurts the majority of Louisiana fish captains who use turtle protectors and bycatch reduction technology.
In response to growing consumer demand for sustainable seafood, many retail stores are adopting Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch standards for seafood. Because of Louisiana Shrimp Commission’s refusal to follow federal law, Seafood Watch places all shrimp from Louisiana under the Avoid category. Stores who follow Seafood Watch recommendations no longer buy Louisiana shrimp. At the same time, shrimp from the rest of the gulf states is surging
in popularity and production. As the market increases demands for sustainable shrimp, the Louisiana Shrimp Commission will be forced to rethink its stance on sustainability.
Three standards are fundamental in managing sustainable wild fisheries: habitat protection, reducing bycatch and managing stock. The success of shrimp fisheries in Oregon and Alaska demonstrate that it’s possible to economically maintain a sustainable harvest. The Oregon pink shrimp fishery is MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certified sustainable because of the work of its members. Reduction of bycatch is the factor that most helped this fishery achieve certification. Through innovation and trial and error, devices such as the “Otter Trawl” or “round gate”
which directs fish up and out of the trawl nets, allowed shrimp boats to reduce bycatch to 2% or less. Compared to the 300% by weight bycatch levels found in some unmanaged open-ocean shrimp fisheries, this simple device makes a tremendous difference.
A growing trend in shrimp farms is for closed recirculating ponds that are sustainable and even organic. Recirculating farms could be considered the optimal solution to meet the growing demand for shrimp sustainably. Non-GMO plant-based organic feed and recirculating water is the best option for generating a premium healthy shrimp to meet domestic consumer demand.
Unfortunately, good practices in shrimp farming come at an added cost and it is hard to compete against Asian and South American imports. The path toward sustainability is in the hands of the consumers. It is difficult to counter the belief that food should be cheap, yet this is exactly the pressure facing US shrimp consumers: choose sustainable harvests or choose exploitation and environmental destruction. It may seem an insurmountable obstacle but the growing awareness and demand for sustainable foods has already affected seafood markets significantly.
LifeSource bases our seafood selections on recommendations from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Seafood Watch recommends several farmed shrimp options, but only two wild US fisheries are considered Best Choices: the MSC certified Oregon pink shrimp fishery, and the Alaska wild shrimp fishery. Both the Oregon pink salad shrimp and the Alaskan or Canadian spot prawns offered in the LifeSource fresh meat case are from “Best Choice“ sustainable fisheries. Monterey Bay Aquarium is re-evaluating some of the wild fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, especially those working towards MSC certification. Occasionally, LifeSource may offer Seafood Watch “Good Alternative” shrimp or prawns from wild fisheries in the Gulf or elsewhere in the North American continent.
Make your seafood purchases count. Buy MSC and Seafood Watch sustainable products, avoid “all you can eat” cheap foreign shrimp, and support local fisheries and families. Together we enjoy the flavor of sustainability.