Endless Shrimp? How sustainable are those little crustaceans?
You’ve seen the ads on TV for all-you-can-eat shrimp buffets. Shrimp, once a special treat that you’d get once in a while on a summer seaside vacation, has turned into cheap fast-food like McDonald’s hamburgers. And like fast-food burgers, cheap shrimp is an ecological disaster.
Earlier this month, the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission fielded a proposal to bar commercial shrimpers from the Pamlico Sound—one of the most bountiful shrimp fishing grounds on the East Coast—because of concerns about the tremendous amount of “bycatch,” or fish caught “accidentally,” that shrimp boats are responsible for.
The Trouble with Endless Shrimp
Shrimp boats pull enormous nets behind them that stretch up to 200 feet across. A barred grate is supposed to keep out endangered sea turtles (although many are still caught and killed), and an opening at the top diverts larger fish, but every year, in the Pamlico Sound alone, approximately 200 million small fish are sucked up along with the shrimp, which poses a threat to the entire ecosystem. North Carolina’s gray trout catch, for example, has plummeted from 10 million pounds annually in the 1980s to just 91,393 pounds last year.
North Carolina shrimpers cried foul over the proposed restrictions, pointing out that they already face tough competition from cheap imported shrimp—which now accounts for 90 percent of the shrimp consumed in the U.S.—and the proposal failed. This means that shrimpers are free to continue to ply the waters of the Pamlico Sound, despite their potentially catastrophic impact on fish populations.
Even so, U.S. shrimpers look like Boy Scouts compared to Asian and South American “shrimp barons,” who are clearing huge swaths of ecologically sensitive mangrove habitat to create shrimp factory farms. It’s estimated that one-fifth of mangroves worldwide have been lost since 1980, mostly because they have been razed to make way for shrimp farms. Shrimp that comes from cleared mangroves is estimated to have a carbon footprint 10 times higher than beef from cows raised on cleared Amazon rain forest.
What about farmed shrimp?
Overseas shrimp farms are commonly cesspools of antibiotics, fertilizers, banned pesticides, contaminated water, and other waste. According to Canadian journalist Taras Grescoe, “The simple fact is, if you’re eating cheap shrimp today, it almost certainly comes from a turbid, pesticide- and antibiotic-filled, virus-laden pond in the tropical climes of one of the world’s poorest nations.”
If local villagers object to the farms, which have been blamed for polluting or siphoning the water supply and contaminating agricultural land with salt water and waste, their concerns are often ruthlessly quashed—sometimes with violence, including beatings, rapes, arson, shootings, and even murder. In Thailand, Burmese migrants are press-ganged into working on fishing boats that supply feed to shrimp farms, and workers report appalling conditions—and even executions at sea.
Considering the devastating ecological impact of cheap shrimp—in addition to the accompanying human rights abuses—isn’t it time to put an end to “endless shrimp”?
Image Credit: Fresh Shrimp Sign image via Shutterstock