Meals of Mass Destruction: Shrimp

06/22/2010 11:37 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Gulf oil spill has lots of backyard grillers wondering whether or not to include shrimp on the weekend menu. After seeing the horrifying pictures, many are about as interested in eating seafood that's been swimming in the Gulf as they are in diving into the water themselves. So when we asked our able intern, Julia Black, a self-described "pescatarian" with a particular fondness for shrimp, to look into the matter, what she discovered was that the shrimping industry itself is an environmental scourge much older than the oil spill. What follows is an excerpt of her excellent piece which you can read here on NRDC Simple Steps in its entirety.

Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the U.S. and the demand for it has been growing rapidly in the last twenty years. Americans currently consume more than one billion pounds of shrimp every year, and about 90 percent 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, on the other hand, is almost always caught wild offshore. Until recently, most wild North American fisheries were based in the Gulf of Mexico, though that has changed due to recent events. Other common varieties include "Pink Shrimp" which comes from Oregon and "Spot Prawn," which is fished in British Columbia.

Unfortunately neither fishing nor farming is a truly sustainable way to produce shrimp. Farming is responsible for habitat destruction and is often done cheaply, producing a lower quality product, while trawling for wild shrimp is harmful to the oceanic environment and its inhabitants. So which is the lesser of the two evils? There's no easy answer.

"There are three main production methods in shrimp farming," explains Victoria Galitzine, a science analyst at Fishwise, a non-profit organization committed to improving the sustainability of seafood producers.

The majority of production is comprised of open ponds with a small amount of water exchange. Next are inland ponds that either only drain once a year or recycle their water. Finally, there are intensive recirculating systems that produce no effluents and recycle [the treated wastewater] within a closed system.

The last option, which is the most expensive to run, produces the least environmental impact among the three.

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.

Wild-caught shrimp, though they have the advantage of often coming to us from much closer on the globe, do not come without cost. The practice of shrimp trawling essentially means scraping a massive conical net along the ocean floor, taking not only shrimp, but important parts of the seabed with it. (Read "Here's the Catch" to learn which harvesting methods are "good" and which are "bad" like bottom trawling). For each pound of shrimp caught, trawling results in up to 15 pounds of "bycatch," the unintended capture of other species. Bycatch, which includes seabirds, marine mammals, fish, and sea turtles, is typically left to die on boat decks and then discarded at sea. (Read OnEarth Magazine's report on the effect of fishing operations on sea turtle populations here).

Not all wild shrimp operations are created equal, however. North American wild shrimp, at least on paper, is better than imported varieties, since American trawlers must follow stricter environmental standards than their foreign counterparts. A series of laws passed over the last twenty or so years, for example, mandates the use of bycatch reduction devices and turtle excluder devices in the United States. Unfortunately, the profits to be made by disregarding these laws far outweigh the penalties, so there is a lack of incentive to abide by them fully and many companies cut corners to save money. If you live near the coast, it might be a good idea to talk to your local fishermen to try to separate out the good operations from the bad. Wild-caught shrimp that originates in the Pacific Ocean is generally a better choice than shrimp from the Atlantic, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, because Pacific shrimp fisheries are monitored more closely than Atlantic and trap-catching in BC is much less destructive than trawling.

What's a shrimp-lover to do? 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. Independent certification programs, such as the Marine Stewardship Council's, make it easy to identify responsible seafood producers when you're shopping or eating out. The New England-based seafood distributor Ecofish is a leading example of an MSC-certified alternative to industrial shrimp producers.

"Our mission from the outset has been not only to provide consumers with a solution to the seafood problem, but also to set an example that you can sell sustainable seafood and still be successful," says Henry Lovejoy, President and Founder of Ecofish. "We've partnered up with an independent advisory board of leading marine conservation scientists who recommend responsible shrimp farms for us to support, something that was unheard of ten years ago."

Though there is still no USDA organic standard for "aquaculture" or fish farming (one should be released in about a year for shrimp, tilapia, and catfish farming, according to Lovejoy), the farms that Ecofish works with down in Ecuador are certified organic by the Naturland Association for Organic Agriculture. The company uses inland-style ponds with minimal water exchange, a practice most closely aligned with the second method described above by Galitzine. Unlike industrial farms, these farms don't release polluted water into the surrounding environment or use any pesticides or chemicals, and they have a relatively low protein-diversion ratio when it comes to the amount of shrimp being produced per pound of feed. Also, not only is there no mangrove destruction associated with their farms' production methods, but Ecofish even plants new mangrove forests in the surrounding area.

Whether you pledge to eliminate shrimp from your diet or simply try to be more conscientious about which brands you support, shrimp is one part of your diet that definitely deserves a closer look.

Simple Steps You Can Take

  • 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!
  • Check out NRDC's Sustainable Seafood Guide for species to eat and those to avoid. Or text "okfish" plus a fish species name to 69866 to find it out if it's okay to eat.