Endless shrimp? Alas, no…


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.


  1. Brett says

    Maybe instead of promoting “endless shrimp” the folks at Red Lobster should be talking about endless mussels or tilapia.

    Absolutely. Aside from it tasting great, Tilapia is probably the ideal fish for farming. Freshwater, tolerates crowding, eats anything – it’s got it all.

    • Carlos Perez says

      Tilapia does not like overcrowding.Humans force densities above 1.8 seeding animals per square meter and then freeze animals with hidration to further profitability.The only ones sustainable are air freighted chilled to the US and sold as fresh that were cultivated at densities of 1.5 per square meter.All high density hightech production schemes cannot compete with frozen asian products .Densities of 1.5 animals per square meter to grow out a 1000 gram whole tilapia are very low NO WAY OVERCROWDED.

  2. says

    Thanks Marc,
    I hope reporting like this helps…but is it too late?
    As we laze through the unusual consistency of this summer’s heat wave, it is scary to think of just how many ways we are ‘using up’ the gift of our planetary home.
    Is there any chance of our kid’s having a lifestyle anything like ours? The slog to the apocalypse is starting to be televised in the nightly news and weather.

    • Sibley says

      Louis, if you believe we’re slogging to the apocalypse, please call me! We are destroying many things in the environment, quite sadly, but at the same time there is enormous reason for hope. We will have more suffering this century than we would have had with more thoughtful planning, but I strongly believe that we’ll come out far better than we came into it. I’ll happily bet you that within 30 years, most meat consumed will be grown artificially (e.g. in vats, not on animals) using completely sustainable energy.

  3. Marc Gunther says

    Sibley, I think I agree with you. It’s easy to forget that things generally are getting better–much better. Longer lifespans. Fewer poor people in the world. Technology that would have stunned our grandparents. Less violence, if Steven Pinker is to be believed. It would be a stunning reversal for that to change.

    I could see both meat and fish production becoming more sustainable in the decades ahead. Although I also think (and I think you agree) that the rising prices of meat and fish will persuade more people to eat more of a plant-based diet. Which would be good. I’m now a vegetarian for 20 of 21 meals per week.


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