Audubon at Home
Pass the Cocktail Sauce!
Boiled, sautéed, or fried, shrimp is our most popular seafood—and one of the most environmentally destructive. A new, guilt-free version should put it back on your plate.
When I was growing up in Houston in the 1960s, my family often took day trips to Galveston’s beaches. If we kids behaved, my parents would indulge us with dinner at an airy, ceiling-fan–cooled seafood place about halfway home, where our normally parsimonious papa, relaxed by sun and surf, would treat my siblings and me to mountains of fried shrimp. A bounty of these plump, golden-brown crescents had left the Galveston docks only that morning, headed north as we drove south, and reached their rendezvous with our plates fresh, juicy, and delicious.
This pleasure seems distant now, and not just because childhood recedes. For at least two decades my awareness of shrimp’s high ecological cost—immense bycatch from trawling, coastal devastation caused by shrimp farms—has steered me clear of the noble penaeidae. Recently, however, the arrival of some of the nation’s first certified organic shrimp at my local food co-op offered a chance to reacquaint myself with this delicacy. A chef friend came over and created a trio of shrimp dishes: boiled and dipped in cocktail sauce; sautéed over fettuccine with pesto, white wine, onion, and tomatoes; and marinated in olive oil, ginger, garlic, and herbs, then skewered and grilled. The feast was toothsome, for sure, and all the more delectable because this shrimp, fed strictly organic foods and raised in inland ponds that were filled with only rainwater and produced no waste, avoided the stunning impacts that most other shrimp meals inflict.
“I chose to raise organic shrimp because both the wild fisheries and the shrimp-farm industry have huge impacts,” says David McMahon, founder of OceanBoy Farms, which grew and packaged the shrimp I feasted on. McMahon got the idea for OceanBoy in the 1990s, while studying the feasibility of organic shrimp farming for his master’s degree in oceanography. He started the company in 1998, the same year he earned his master’s degree; donated his grad-school nickname—OceanBoy—as the company moniker; and went on to get a doctorate in 2003. “Shrimp farms are destroying wetlands all over the world,” he says. “They use up to three pounds of food to produce a pound of shrimp. And the trawlers, dragging those nets, just anger me. They’re destroying not just reefs but the entire ocean bottom environment. If we want to get out of the mess we’ve made of the oceans, this is the sort of thing we need to be doing.”
Certified organic shrimp has arrived at a time when Americans are eating more of the conventional variety than ever. Shrimp passed tuna as our favorite seafood in 2001, and in 2004 we spent about $7 billion to eat 1.2 billion pounds, or 4.2 pounds per capita—most of it caught by trawlers or grown on the ever-multiplying shrimp farms.
Both trawling and conventional shrimp farming create a multitude of problems. Trawling not only damages ocean floor habitat but often ravages nontargeted species that get caught in the shrimp nets and are then discarded, dead. This so-called bycatch can compose well over 90 percent of a trawler’s haul, creating a discard-to-catch ratio that, while typically 4 to 1, can run as high as 20 to 1. Bycatch reduction devices, or BRDs (net modifications meant to retain shrimp while releasing other species), have not cut these rates as much as anticipated. Gulf of Mexico fisheries managers, for instance, had hoped that BRDs adopted in 1998 would cut the Gulf’s 5-to-1 red snapper bycatch rate by 40 percent, but they managed only a 12 percent reduction. As a result, the Gulf shrimp fleet still kills millions of young red snapper a year, crippling efforts to restore that most valuable and most overfished Gulf species. “These reductions have helped,” says Pam Baker, a fisheries biologist who tracks Gulf of Mexico fisheries for Environmental Defense, “but they’re hardly enough.”
A few wild fisheries bag their prey without undue bycatch. Upper West Coast spot prawns, for instance, are caught mainly in traps that allow the fishermen to release other species unharmed, reducing bycatch to near zero. And off eastern Canadian shores, as well as in New England, shrimpers pursuing northern “pink” shrimp use Nordmore grates, ingenious devices that release other fish, dramatically lowering bycatch. Unfortunately, the supplies of these more sustainably caught wild shrimp tend to be mainly local and unavailable to most consumers (see “How to Buy Good Shrimp”).
“I chose to raise organic shrimp because both the wild fisheries and the shrimp-farm industry have huge impacts. Shrimp farms are destroying wetlands all over the world. And the trawlers, dragging those nets, just anger me. They’re destroying not just reefs but the entire ocean bottom environment.”
Shrimp aquaculture causes another host of problems. As John Hocevar, ocean specialist for Greenpeace, notes, “It’s hard to say which is worse, shrimp fishing or shrimp farming. But farming, at least the way it’s practiced now, inflicts a huge array of environmental and social problems.” Almost nonexistent in 1970, the shrimp aquaculture industry now produces nearly 4 billion pounds of shrimp annually—about half the world’s supply—helping drive retail prices to less than $10 a pound. These cheap shrimp incur jumbo-size environmental, social, and food-health costs. The farms displace mangroves, marshes, and other wetlands that control flooding, protect coastlines, filter seawater and freshwater, and provide breeding, nursery, and migration habitat for marine life. Worldwide, shrimp farms have eliminated an estimated 2.5 million to 3.75 million acres of such wetlands and have degraded many millions more through pollution, water supply, and flooding problems. Since 1970 about a quarter of the world’s mangroves have been uprooted to make room for shrimp farms.
Shrimp aquaculture also cripples vital local fisheries, and the pollution and depletion of freshwater often strain local farms. Meanwhile, both product and profit go elsewhere. In Southeast Asia, for instance, it takes almost twice as much water to grow a pound of shrimp as it does to grow a pound of rice, according to a recent study by Canadian researchers. But these farms may produce a tenth as many local jobs and export their entire crops.
If all that doesn’t curb your appetite for farmed shrimp, consider the chemicals. Many conventional shrimp farms overseas spray their ponds with pesticides, such as malathion and carbaryl, and powerful antibiotics, including the banned carcinogens chloramphenicol and nitrofuran. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has found these chemicals in shrimp entering U.S. ports several times, despite testing only one to two percent of all imports. “The farmed shrimp don’t really taste quite as good as wild to start with,” says Bryan Severns, my chef friend and an instructor at the New England Culinary Institute. “But they taste even funnier if you think about the stuff they put on them.”
Organic shrimp operations seek to avoid these pitfalls. When the USDA established provisional organic aquaculture standards in 2004, two companies quickly applied for and won temporary certification. One, Permian Sea Organics, of Imperial, Texas, raises and sells some shrimp but functions primarily as a research and testing ground for organic aquaculture. The other, OceanBoy Farms, in Clewiston, Florida, is distributing its organic shrimp to grocery stores, food co-ops, and even Internet shoppers nationwide.
Not long after OceanBoy’s prawns ended my shrimp strike, I visited its facility in Florida. The company has its own broodstock and nursery, and it feeds its shrimp organically fed tilapia raised onsite. “We wanted a completely closed system,” says McMahon. “We draw no water and dump no water. We grow all our own food and process all our own waste. We’re growing these things with the sun.” Virtually the only energy introduced into the farm by people is used to move water, fish, or equipment. The rest of the energy rolls through a closed loop, with the sun nourishing plants that sustain the tilapia (a vegetarian species) that feed the shrimp that support, with their waste, the plants that start the loop all over again.
A landlocked location smack in the middle of the Florida peninsula is OceanBoy’s first line of defense against the bacterial and viral infections that lead conventional operations to use chemicals and antibiotics. I encountered the second line of defense just inside the facility’s gate, when I had to drive my rental car slowly through a shallow pool of bleach solution to disinfect the tires, then get out and stand in bleach solution while I washed and dried my hands, then wiped them with a biocidal hand rub. After that, Mike Mogollon, the facility’s director, asked me to don a synthetic white jumpsuit, “in case,” he said, “you got near any shrimp lately.”
I told him the only shrimp I’d eaten in years were his.
“Well,” said Mogollon, smiling, “you might have got near some and forgot.”
I put on the suit. Then we drove through another bleach-and-wash station to reach the hatcheries.
OceanBoy’s operation sits on 1,000 acres once occupied by an organic produce farm. Its greenhouse-like structures hold tanks where mating stock sexually mature and mate. On “nursery raceways,” mite-size hatchlings grow into cricket-size fry as the salinity of their tank water is slowly dropped from the ocean’s 3.5 percent to 0.3 percent. The shrimp finally grow to adulthood in open freshwater rearing ponds. Pull a shrimp from anywhere, and Mogollon can tell you its pedigree and every tank, raceway, and pond it’s ever lived in.
“We track these shrimp from the day they’re born,” he says. “And we monitor their environments constantly.” If anything drifts out of whack, Mogollon or one of the techs prescribes an organic antidote to reverse it.
As with organic vegetables, organic shrimp gives consumers a way to reform an industry that too often sacrifices environmental, social, and personal health to keep prices low. Just as organic tomatoes have introduced many consumers to a broader selection of organic produce, organic shrimp stands to create a market for other organically produced seafood, such as catfish, tilapia, and trout, that will eventually hit store shelves.
This expansion probably won’t come until the creation of seafood-specific organic standards now being brainstormed by a task force of fishing, aquaculture, organic, and environmental interests. The group plans to publish a final draft of the standards for public comment in spring 2007; settling on and then establishing final rules will probably take an additional year. Rebecca Goldburg, a senior scientist with Environmental Defense and a task force member, says the process has been tough but so far seems to be protecting the basic principles of organic certification won for livestock and produce. “It’s trickier with aquaculture,” she says, “and trickier still with wild fish. But with some luck and persistence, I’m hoping the standards will be as rigorous and meaningful as they should be.”
Goldburg believes the organic seafood market will probably expand quickly once standards are set and entrepreneurs can build facilities they know will meet those standards. Organic food and beverage sales overall have increased at a roughly 20 percent annual rate for almost a decade now, and currently represent 2.5 percent of total U.S. food and beverage sales, or $13.8 billion out of $556.8 billion in 2005. The organic meat and poultry sector, which has grown at roughly double that pace, jumped more than 55 percent in 2005 alone, from $165 million to $256 million. The Organic Trade Association projects that the meat, poultry, and fish sector will be the fastest growing, with 31 percent annual sales increases between now and 2010, to $812 million. OceanBoy, meanwhile, saw its sales increased fourfold from 2004 to 2005, and as of last August was on track to double or triple its 2005 sales in 2006. Company president Steve Walton thinks organic seafood could eventually account for 5 to 10 percent of the total seafood market.
Of course, even if organic shrimp gains more of the seafood market, it won’t render sea life conservation and coastal environmental protection efforts unnecessary. As Environmental Defense’s Pam Baker puts it, “We’re going to have to find a more efficient way to catch wild shrimp and run cleaner conventional shrimp farms, too.” But by setting a standard of healthy, low-impact shrimp, the organic market could ease fishing pressure and help create momentum for better standards in nonorganic operations. Maybe a bag of organic shrimp can’t save the entire ocean. But it can help spur change—and for those of us who love shrimp, it offers a guilt-free pleasure long thought lost.
David Dobbs is the author of Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral. His website is www.daviddobbs.net.
How to Buy Good Shrimp: Organic and Wild
For most people, the simplest, surest way to get additive-free, sustainably produced shrimp is to buy shrimp certified as organic by U.S. Department of Agriculture–accredited certifying agents. For now that means ordering from OceanBoy. For the retailer nearest you, contact OceanBoy (www.oceanboyfarms.com; 863-983-9941). Or ask your local retailer to call OceanBoy and order some for you. Another option is to order online through Costco via OceanBoy’s website.
IF YOU HAVE TROUBLE FINDING OR ORDERING THIS SHRIMP, IT'S MOST LIKELY BECAUSE YOU'RE DEALING WITH A SEASONAL PRODUCT. KEEP AN EYE ON THE COMPANY'S WEBSITE FOR UPDATES ON AVAILABILITY, WHICH IS EXPECTED TO IMPROVE BY SPRING.
If you prefer your shrimp wild, a few sustainable sources exist. Northern shrimp caught off upper New England or Canadian shores can be found at local suppliers along those coasts and at select seafood suppliers nationwide; make sure you’re getting northern or coldwater shrimp caught in those waters. Trap-caught spot prawns, also low-impact, are found mainly at local suppliers on the West Coast, though a savvy, can-do fish market anywhere might find them for you. Some food chains, such as PCC Natural Markets in the Pacific Northwest, are making special efforts to carry trap-caught shrimp. An Internet search for “trap-caught shrimp” will reveal several other sources, such as www.spotshrimp.com.
Be careful when buying shrimp marketed as eco-friendly or “organic” by organizations outside the United States. While some international certifiers sell sound product, others allow the use of chemical preservatives or mild antibiotics. Probably not the nastiest stuff you can eat, but hardly what you’re looking for when buying organic.—David Dobbs