Imported shrimp is often caught or farmed in ways that cause severe environmental damage. Luckily, there are sustainable alternatives.
Experts agree that certain types of seafood should be avoided because they come from overfished stocks or are harvested in a way that damages the environment. Check out our Know Your Seafood infographic and our GO! Fish campaign for more information on the Red List and the delicious and eco-friendly alternatives.
Shrimp. We love them. In everything from scampi to sushi, we eat them up. There are thousand of species of shrimp, and they inhabit all the oceans, as well as lakes and rivers.
These popular shellfish are crustaceans, like crabs and lobsters; they are not related to the other shellfish, such as clams and oysters, which are mollusks. They are incredibly important economically, and many different varieties are eaten around the world. For example, off the coast of Washington, there are over 80 different species, seven of which are commonly eaten. When you go out to eat, you could encounter brown shrimp, tiger prawn, and rock shrimp, just to name a few. When shrimp is prepared for sushi it is called ebi or amaebi.
Photo by Beth Hoffman via Flickr, Creative Commons License.
Here’s why they’re on the Red List.
While shrimp are resilient to fishing pressure since they reproduce quickly, they are caught in a way that is extremely damaging to the rest of the ecosystem: bottom trawling. Most spend their time near the seafloor, sometimes in very deep water. Every day they migrate up in the water column to search for food such as worms, plankton, and other small things they can forage. Back on the seafloor, they get hit by bottom trawler nets which drag heavy equipment along the seafloor, destroying the habitat, uprooting plants and corals and leaving a barren path behind it. This method captures everything in its path – not just shrimp. Lots of other animals are accidentally caught and killed by shrimp nets, and then thrown back as bycatch, usually dead. For every pound of shrimp, 3 to 15lbs of other animals are killed.
Some imported shrimp may have been caught using sustainability measures (such as hatches to release certain bycatch), but it is difficult to know which are sustainable and which aren’t. Therefore, almost all imported wild-caught shrimp have landed on the Red List.
Sometimes, shrimp are raised on aquaculture farms for consumption. This can cause serious habitat damage as well. For example, in Thailand, over 60% of the native mangrove habitat, which filters runoff and protects the coastline from erosion, has been cleared for shrimp farms. The shrimp are often farmed at very high densities in low-quality ponds; to prevent the spread of disease under these conditions, the farmers may give them antibiotics and other toxins – so avoiding such types of shrimp can benefit your health as well. The runoff from these farms then typically flows unfiltered to the coast where it smothers coral reefs. Imported farmed shrimp may be raised responsibly but it can be next to impossible to confirm, so seafood guides also recommend avoiding most varieties of imported farmed shrimp.
Photo by karendotcom127 via Flickr, Creative Commons License.
Luckily, there are many other delicious and sustainable varieties of shrimp that you can eat. Most varieties of shrimp caught or farmed in the US are labeled as either a best choice or a good alternative, because they are subject to stricter environmental regulations. There are also a few select wild and farmed varieties that are imported safely.
US wild-caught shrimp from the South Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico, US spot prawn from the Pacific, any wild US rock shrimp, and US or Canadian wild northern shrimp are good alternatives – they’re on the Yellow List, not as highly recommended as the Green List, but okay to eat occasionally. Farmed varieties on the Yellow List include any shrimp farmed in open systems in the US, and shrimp from Thailand farmed in fully recirculating systems (which have less of an environmental impact than conventional open systems).
Meanwhile, wild-caught spot prawn from the Pacific coast of Canada is on the Green List, along with pink shrimp from Oregon, which chef Barton Seaver calls “clean and sweet in flavor and a real treat,” US farmed freshwater prawn, and shrimp from US farms with fully recirculating systems.
When it comes to shrimp, the important factor is what kind of shrimp. Download Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch pocket guide or mobile app to stay on top of what varieties to eat and which to avoid.