What’s the Deal with Shrimp?

By Ariel Kagan, GW Sustainability Collaborative & Food Institute Senior Program Associate

Those who have taken the course, the Sustainable Plate, are well aware of my (in)famous Shrimp Lecture. Those who have met me at parties, networking events, and other social gathers will also be familiar. In fact, I talk about shrimp so much that my boss has sometimes refered to me fondly as “shrimp girl” in our office. Quite the tribute.

The shrimp lecture has three main points: 1) Shrimp is bad for the environment, whether it’s farmed or wild caught; 2) Americans eat a lot of shrimp; 3) Shrimp fishing has a lot of bad things associated with it, like slavery.

You can imagine the friends I’ve made while standing around a shrimp cocktail platter.

So what’s the deal with shrimp?

  • Shrimp is bad for the environment, whether it’s farmed or wild caught.

Shrimp farming is a nasty business. Most of the shrimp we eat in the US (up to 90%) is farmed in countries like Thailand and Vietnam. The best location for a shrimp farm is on the coast, and so many of the mangrove trees that previously provided protection from storm surge and erosion have been removed to make room for shrimp farms. Researchers have shown that strong mangrove ecosystems can save lives in storm events like the 2012 Tsunami and the 2009 cyclone.

In addition to the placement of the shrimp ponds, these farms also rely on feed to grow the shrimp. Surprisingly, shrimp have a big appetite — they are less efficient in turning feed into weight than most other seafood options. And shrimp are carnivores, so that feed is made up of ground up wild fish — typically Peruvian anchoveta — that is experiencing overfishing. So overall, farming shrimp in this way has a negative impact on the environment.

What about wild shrimp? Fans of Forrest Gump may have a more positive view of wild shrimp fishing, but in reality, it’s also a destructive practice. Shrimp fishing has some of the highest rates of bycatch, or non-target species, of any other commercial fishery. Estimates put the bycatch rate at 10:1 – meaning for every one pound of shrimp that is caught, ten pounds of other stuff is also brought up– like turtles, other types of fish, and even bottom habitat that is important for marine life. Shrimp boats use bottom trawls, which drag along the bottom of the seabed and pick up everything in their path. The practice has been compared to clear cutting of the rainforests, but it’s harder to see. There are a few wild shrimp fisheries in the US and Canada that use more responsible fishing methods, but those shrimp will run you over $20/lb at the grocery store. I advise staying away from wild caught shrimp all together unless you’re really sure where they were caught, and with what, and by whom.

2) Americans eat a lot of shrimp


Americans love shrimp. Of the 15.5 pounds of seafood we each eat per year, 4 pounds of that is shrimp (for reference, Americans eat just 2.9 pounds of the second most popular seafood, salmon). In 2015, the US imported over a billion pounds of shrimp. Back before the farmed shrimp industry took over and sent prices plummeting, shrimp was a luxury item– something that was a sign of prestige and wealth. Now of course, you can get popcorn shrimp at fast food restaurants, and Red Lobster has gone as far as to trademark their “Endless Shrimp” experience.

And all that shrimp can have some bad impact on human health. Researchers have identified shrimp as a vector for MRSA and Colistin-resistant bacteria, as well as a carrier of antibiotic residue – many of which are banned in the United States because of the risk they pose in creating antibiotic resistant superbugs. The liberal use of antibiotics in shrimp ponds in Southeast Asia promotes growth and reduces mortalities due to disease and infection, but also carries through to humans when we eat shrimp from these ponds. Antibiotics in our food can lead to antibiotic resistance in our bodies, and has huge implications for personal and public health.

3) Social costs of shrimp

In 2014, The Guardian published a report on a six-month investigation of the shrimp industry in Thailand that found rampant cases of slavery, debt bondage, child labor, and wage theft. Most of this occurs in the shrimp peeling industry, which requires huge amounts of workers to manually peel each shrimp. Unfortunately, it seems that despite the public eye, little has changed. With an opaque supply chain and a huge demand for shrimp, individual businesses are unable to affect change in the forced labor practices in this industry.

Unfortunately, slavery in the seafood industry is a fairly common occurrence. Up to 30% of the global seafood supply is considered “IUU” — that’s illegal, unregulated, or unreported. That makes seafood one of the most prevalent commodities for illegal trafficking, along with drugs, weapons, and people. Workers are often kept on boats against their will, with the illegal items being transhipped– or moved between ships at sea–  so that the illegal vessel never needs to come to port.

It’s been a number of years since I’ve eaten shrimp — it’s the only food I really avoid– because of these reasons. However for true shrimp devotees, there may be a solution on the horizon- Tru Shrimp. This company, based in Southwestern Minnesota, is developing farmed shrimp that is fed soymeal instead of fishmeal, and is grown in indoor tanks rather than coastal ponds. Using local labor means that US labor standards do apply, and from the Youtube videos, it seems everyone is pretty happy to be there. While Tru Shrimp is not commercially available yet, I’m keeping tabs on their product, looking forward to the day- hopefully soon!- when I can dig into some sustainable and ethical shrimp cocktail.