Shrimp is America’s favorite seafood. We eat an astonishing amount of it—almost 1.3 billion pounds a year—far more than other seafood favorites, including salmon or canned tuna. A few decades ago, most of the shrimp in American markets and restaurants were wild-caught in the Gulf of Mexico, but today, the vast majority—nearly 90 percent—are imported from countries such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Ecuador. These imported farm-raised shrimp tend to be cheaper than domestic wild-caught shrimp, but some may also come with a bevy of hidden costs, including pollution, antibiotic use, and habitat destruction as well as something far more troubling: human trafficking and modern-day slavery.
The Most Pressing Problem: Slavery
In December 2015, the Associated Press reported that in Thailand’s network of shrimp-peeling sheds, migrant workers and children were being forced to work 16 hours a day for little or no pay in horrific conditions. That shrimp then found its way into restaurant chains such as Red Lobster and Olive Garden and into 150 American supermarkets, including Walmart, Safeway, and Albertsons.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident. Since at least 2013, there have been reports of human rights abuses in another part of Thailand’s shrimp supply chain. These reports show that immigrants, many from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos, have been promised good wages and steady factory jobs, only to discover they’ve been tricked by traffickers. Held captive at sea aboard Thai fishing boats, they’re forced to work for years under brutal conditions, fishing for what’s typically called “trash fish.” That catch is then ground up and used to feed shrimp in Thailand’s vast shrimp industry.
And slavery isn’t the only alarming issue tied to shrimp farming. Rampant chemical and antibiotic use, pollution, and destruction of environmentally important mangroves have long been on the radar of environmentalists. While there are earnest efforts to improve all of these practices, the industry still has a long way to go.
Three Ways to Find the Good Ones
For most of us (including me, a food writer who’s been covering seafood extensively for years), knowing which shrimp we can feel OK about purchasing and which we should avoid is tricky. Not all farmed-raised shrimp is bad, and not all wild-caught shrimp is good, but which is which?
Beyond stating whether the shrimp is farmed or wild-caught, and what country it’s from, most packaging is vague. You probably won’t know if it’s a whiteleg shrimp or a giant tiger prawn. If the shrimp was wild-caught, you won’t know if it was harvested using a skimmer trawl or an otter trawl—or that the latter is a better environmental option. If the shrimp was farmed, there’s no information on the aquaculture practices used to raise it. These variables make seafood buying guides like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch—which base their recommendations on species and harvesting methods or aquaculture systems—less helpful.
Fortunately, there are other ways to ensure the shrimp you bring home is the best choice you can make regarding human rights and the environment.