Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the United States, with Americans eating an average of 4.1 pounds per person annually. As delicious as shrimp may be, we actually should not be eating them. The process that delivers bags of frozen shrimp to your grocery store at cheap prices has devastating ecological consequences, and you’ll probably not want to touch that shrimp ring ever again after reading what’s really happening behind the scenes.
Shrimp is either farmed or wild, but neither option is good for the environment. Farmed shrimp are kept in pools on the coast, where the tide can refresh the water and carry waste out to sea. Ponds are prepared with heavy doses of chemicals such as urea, superphosphate, and diesel. Then the shrimp receive pesticides, antibiotics (some that are banned in the U.S., but used overseas), piscicides (fish-killing chemicals like chlorine), sodium tripolyphosphate, borax, and caustic soda.
Shrimp farmers have destroyed an estimated 38 percent of the world’s mangroves to create shrimp ponds, and the damage is permanent. Not only do the mangroves not return long after production has ended, but the surrounding areas become wastelands. According to a Yale University research paper, shrimp farming has made certain areas of Bangladesh completely unlivable for people: “The introduction of brackish-water shrimp aquaculture… has, in turn, caused massive depeasantization and ecological crisis throughout the region.”
TreeHugger has covered the problems with shrimp farming in the past. As Stephen Messenger wrote last year:
"It takes five square miles of cleared mangrove forest to produce just over two pounds of shrimp -- and that land is typically left depleted within ten years and rendered unusable for another forty. By comparison, the devastation left behind from cattle-ranch deforestation seems, well, quite rosy."
According to Jill Richardson’s informative article called “Shrimp’s Dirty Secrets: Why America’s Favorite Seafood is a Health and Ecological Nightmare,” wild shrimp isn’t a better option because it usually involves the use of deep-sea trawlers, which kills 5 to 20 pounds of “bycatch” (unwanted species of fish accidentally scooped up by the trawler’s net) for every pound of shrimp. Trawling is comparable to bulldozing an entire section of rainforest to catch a single species of bird. “[The bycatch] includes sharks, rays, starfish, juvenile red snapper, sea turtles and more. While shrimp trawl fisheries only represent 2 percent of the global fish catch, they are responsible for over one-third of the world’s bycatch.” Then the bycatch gets tossed over the side of the boat.
As for health risks, Richardson says that most shrimp is not inspected by the FDA. In fact, when researchers tested imported ready-to-eat shrimp, they found 162 separate varieties of bacteria with resistance to 10 different antibiotics.
There aren’t many ‘good’ options, for those of you who still want to eat shrimp. Some wild pink shrimp from Oregon and spot prawns from British Columbia are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, but they are not widely available and, as Richardson says, not true substitutes for the large white and tiger shrimp that American consumers are used to. Indeed, I’ve noticed that there are no MSC-certified bags of frozen shrimp in any supermarket I’ve visited.
The best option probably won’t appeal to some people – just stop eating shrimp. Until production standards change dramatically, buying shrimp only perpetuates a horrible system; and it’s unlikely that production will change if demand continues at its current level.