Americans love shrimp. We eat about four pounds of the little pink crustaceans per person, per year, three times as much as we ate back in the 1970s and more than any other species of seafood. (Canned tuna used to be No. 1.) The trouble is, our appetites can’t be satisfied by wild-caught shrimp: Wild-shrimp stocks are fully fished or overexploited in much of the world. So aquaculture–shrimp farming–has stepped in to fill the gap.
This is good news for shrimp lovers. Restaurant chains like Darden’s Red Lobster promote Endless Shrimp® specials, and wholesalers sell imported shrimp for less than $4 a pound, NOAA reports. In poor countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Ecuador, shrimp farming has created tens of thousands of much-needed jobs as well as export income. But the impacts of shrimp farming on the environment are serious. They range from the destruction of mangrove groves to the depletion of ocean stocks of small forage fish that are caught and made into fish meal to feed the shrimp on farms.
Today, on the Yale Environment 360 website, I write about efforts to fix shrimp aquaculture. A nonprofit coalition called the Aquaculture Stewardship Council has developed standards for shrimp farms, as well as other forms of aquaculture, that are designed to guide buying decisions by big companies like Darden and Walmart as well as individual consumers.
Here’s how the story begins:
Carlos Perez, a well-to-do businessman, has been farming shrimp in Ecuador since 1979. He has seen the industry boom: Ecuador exported about $1.2 billion worth of shrimp last year, and its shrimp farmers employ about 102,000 people. He has also watched as shrimp farms have played a major role in the destruction of two-thirds of the country’s mangrove swamps — rich ecosystems that serve as buffers against storms, store carbon, and support fish, birds, and small mammals.
There’s got to be a better way, Perez says, and so he is working closely with a global alliance called the Aquaculture Stewardship Council to develop, test, and deploy new standards for shrimp aquaculture. The Aquaculture Stewardship Council, or ASC, hopes to do for fish farming what its sister organization, the Marine Stewardship Council, or MSC, has done for ocean fishing: Reward the most responsible producers. “It is the most demanding standard that has ever been produced for shrimp and fish,” Perez says.
But, as the story goes on to say, these efforts are complicated by existing aquaculture standards that are less stringent. You can read the rest of the story here.
One thing the story does not address is whether consumers can be persuaded to eat differently. Much journalism about food and the environment assumes that current consumption habits and patterns will continue; in particular, the assumption is that as another billion or two people enter the middle class, they will consume more meat and fish.
This need not be so, of course. Americans’ tastes are constantly shifting — away from canned tuna to shrimp, for example. They can shift again, ideally towards seafood that is lower on the food chain and therefore more sustainable. (Or better yet towards a plant-based diet.) Fast-growing fish that don’t require as much feed, or those that rely on vegetable-based feed in place of fish meal, have a lower environmental impact. The technical term for this is “feed fish efficiency ratio,” or FFER, and it’s much higher for salmon, say, than for shrimp. Some of the most innovative work going on in aquaculture focuses on species that are more sustainable, albeit not as popular as shrimp, salmon or tuna. Later this week I’ll report on plans for a mussels farm off the coast of California.
Meanwhile, in the UK, as Mallen Baker reports, supermarkets say that sales aof more sustainable fish, such as tilapia and pangasius, are growing. Retailers are promoting the alternatives, as are food writers. Maybe instead of promoting “endless shrimp” the folks at Red Lobster should be talking about endless mussels or tilapia.