Unsustainable Shrimp Farming Degrading the Environment, Posing Health Risks

January 10th, 2008

Eli Penberthy
The Cornucopia Institute

Consumer demand for shrimp is soaring. In 2006, the US alone imported 1.3 billion pounds of farm-raised shrimp, more than any other seafood. The results are wreaking havoc on the environment, threatening the livelihood of fishing communities, and significantly contaminating the water and food supplies in the US and abroad.

Most consumers probably don’t know that the shrimp they are buying at the grocery store or eating at restaurants was farm raised, and ninety percent of shrimp consumed in the United States is imported from Asia and South America. The high volume of inexpensive imported shrimp is forcing many American shrimpers–who mostly catch wild shrimp–out of business.

Most farm-raised shrimp comes from countries like India, Thailand, and China, where the practice has heavily polluted rivers, streams, and coastal areas. Water polluted with sewage, industrial pollutants, and agricultural runoff has forced fish farmers to use illegal veterinary drugs and pesticides that help keep their fish stocks alive, but that leave toxic and carcinogenic residues on the the seafood.

These aquaculture farms, in turn, discharge wastewater that contains fish feces, rotting fish feed, antibiotics, and other pollutants, leading to acute shortages of fresh water and contaminating the food supply. (Contaminated seafood could cause higher rates of cancer, liver disease, and other long-term illnesses.)

The US is particularly vulnerable to the food safety risks; here, the Food and Drug Administration inspects less than 1% of seafood imports, and the low volume of inspections can mean that contaminated seafood that doesn’t meet standards in other export markets gets sent here. Even more alarming, of the small percentage of seafood inspected by the FDA, more than 20% of all import refusals are due to Salmonella, and of those, 40% are shrimp.

Unsustainable aquaculture practices have also threatened wild fish stocks, which are being depleted as they’re caught and used to feed farm-raised shrimp, and have contributed to the destruction of mangrove forests and other wetland ecosystems, which filter pollution, prevent erosion, and promote biodiversity.

Even wild-caught shrimping is taking an ecological toll; trawling for shrimp off-shore harms the ocean floor and produces high levels of wasteful bycatch (for every pound of shrimp caught, more than four pounds of other marine life is caught and discarded.)

Consumers should ask questions of their fishmongers to ensure that the shrimp they purchase is sustainably harvested. Where is the shrimp from? Is it wild or farm-raised? How is it caught or farmed? Is it managed to protect the marine environment and local communities?

Generally, wild-caught and domestic shrimp is best. Pink shrimp, harvested seasonally in Oregon and Maine, and pot-caught spot prawns from the Pacific Northwest are sustainable choices, as harvesting these varieties produces little bycatch and does not degrade the environment. However, there is simply not enough shrimp to feed the growing demand, so consumers need to think about curbing their overall consumption.

According to Food and Water Watch, a non-profit that challenges the corporate control and abuse of our food supply and water resources, the “troubling trends in shrimp imports are a serious concern for American consumers, given that they eat shrimp more than any other seafood. FDA must increase physical inspection of domestic seafood. Congress must appropriate the money to make this happen, and USDA must expand country of origin labeling to include processed seafood products so consumers are aware of where their seafood originates.”

Here are a few sources of more information about shrimp farming and sustainable seafood alternatives:

http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org
http://www.mangroveactionproject.org/
http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_factsheet.aspx?gid=20
http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/sfw_resources.asp#ssi

To share your views with Congress about shrimp farms, go to:

    http://www.democracyinaction.org/dia/organizationsORG/fwwatch/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=11212

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