11/12/2013 02:47 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Choosing Sustainable Shrimp

by Kim Thompson, Sustainable Seafood Expert for the Menuism Seafood Blog

Recent price hikes in shrimp are largely due to the Early Mortality Syndrome disease in Thailand and Mexico. The sweet and firm crustaceans are the number one seafood import into the U.S., and they account for nearly a quarter of the nation's seafood consumption. But these numbers do not bode well for the sustainable seafood movement because shrimp is a tough item to source responsibly in the quantities it is currently consumed.

In the U.S., shrimp fisheries and producers are well managed under a suite of regulations including the Endangered Species, Marine Mammal Protection, and Clean Water Acts to ensure that environmental impacts are minimal. But responsibly managed U.S. fisheries and farms cannot meet the demand, so most of the shrimp consumed domestically comes from countries with few, if any, regulations in place to ensure that the impacts from shrimp production are minimized. Countries importing wild, trawl-caught shrimp are required by the U.S. Department of State to use turtle excluder devices (TEDs), which allow most turtles to escape in the event that they are caught. But the majority of the imports are coming from farms in Thailand, Ecuador, Indonesia, and Vietnam -- none of which has adequate management in place to ensure that the environmental and social impacts of their shrimp farms are minimized. In addition to pollution from effluents, unregulated uses of antibiotics, and mangrove destruction, recent studies have shown that worker exploitation and child labor are common practice in the shrimp industry in some countries, particularly in Thailand.

This is not to say that there aren't responsible producers in these countries. Many companies operating within these countries have taken initiative under corporate social responsibility programs to improve their best management practices and achieve certification by credible third-party organizations such as the Global Aquaculture Alliance's Best Aquaculture Practices and Naturland. But these producers are still the exception, not the rule.

Rather than looking at these price hikes as a doomsday scenario, we should look at it as an opportunity to change our consumption patterns so they are more conducive to responsible seafood choices -- starting with well-managed domestic shrimp.

In the U.S., most wild-caught shrimp is available in the summer and fall months and farmed shrimp is available year-round. Here are some well-managed shrimp sources to consider:

Pacific Northwest
Oregon pink shrimp (April - October)
Spot prawns (March - September)

Pacific Southwest
Spot prawns (Year round, peak February - October)
Ridgeback shrimp (October - May)
Coonstripe shrimp (May - October)
Pink shrimp (April - October)

Gulf of Mexico
Pink shrimp (Year round, peak in the winter)
Brown shrimp (Year round, peak in the summer)
Brown rock shrimp (Year round, peak July - October)
White shrimp (Year round, peak in the fall)
Royal red shrimp (February - May)

Atlantic Southeast
Pink shrimp (Year round, peak in the winter)
Brown shrimp (Year round, peak in the summer)
White shrimp (Year round, peak in the fall)
Brown rock shrimp (Year round, peak July - October)
Royal red shrimp (February - April)

Atlantic Northeast
Northern shrimp (Winter/spring)

If your favorite shrimp isn't available, try another responsible seafood choice in season! Diversifying our palates for seafood (and food in general) is key to healthy and sustainable living. A diversified meal plan can increase the amount of healthy nutrients we consume and enable us to balance our taste for seafood favorites for which high demand makes responsible harvest and production more difficult, such as shrimp and tuna, with other species that may be produced or harvested more responsibly. In the case of shrimp, which is loaded with the anti-inflamatory nutrient astaxanthin, the antioxidant mineral selenium, Omega-3s, and protein, there are healthy alternatives:

• Selenium - Other crustaceans such as lobster and crabs, shellfish such as oysters and mussels, and even monkfish can provide higher levels of the selenium found in shrimp.
• Astaxanthin - Get it from your favorite salmon recipe.
• Omega-3s - Omega-3s are found in most seafood, but salmon, sablefish (black cod), sardines, mackerel, and rainbow trout are among the heavyweights in this category.

Eating in season, we can responsibly feed our appetite for sweet and flavorful shrimp and may find some other responsible seafood favorites along the way - changing our seafood demand to support responsible shrimp producers and reduce some of the negative impacts of our current seafood demand, while supporting responsible harvesters and producers by consuming more low-fat, heart-healthy seafood protein from these sources.

Related Links from the Menuism Seafood Blog:
What to Know About Imported Seafood
Sustainable Alternatives to Bluefin Tuna
Meet the California Spiny Lobster
• Forget Sea Bass. It's All About Sablefish.

Choosing Sustainable Shrimp originally published on the Menuism Seafood Blog.

Kim Thompson is the program manager for the Seafood for the Future (SFF) program at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. SFF is a nonprofit seafood advisory program dedicated to promoting healthy and responsible seafood choices in Southern California. The program works with restaurants, fishermen, seafood purveyors, government agencies and other nonprofit groups to execute its mission. Visit to learn more about SFF partners and recommendations.