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What You Need to Know When Buying Shrimp

How to choose the best, plus why it really matters where they came from

April/May 2016 Issue
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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.

Look for Certification Labels

A good place to start is to search the package for certification labels. Look for the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) logo on wild shrimp, or the ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council) or GAA (Global Aquaculture Alliance) Best Aquaculture Practices certi cation on packages of farmed shrimp. these organizations have established standards on how shrimp are caught or farmed. Fishermen and shrimp farmers must meet tough rules on impacts that range from bycatch and fishing gear used when harvesting wild shrimp to pollution, antibiotic use, and habitat destruction for farmed shrimp. If your supermarket doesn’t carry any certified shrimp, ask them to start.

Shop at Grocery Stores with Sustainability Commitments

Walmart and Costco have pledged to review their supply chains to ensure slave labor was not used in their products. Other supermarket chains, including Safeway, Kroger, and Target, all have made public seafood sustainability pledges in recent years, but some (like Whole Foods) are much farther along than others (like Publix).

Whole Foods was also named in the Associated Press story as one of the supermarket chains receiving slave-peeled shrimp, but the company disputes the findings, saying they “do not purchase any shrimp from peeling shed facilities” and that they inspect processing facilities, farms, docks, and distribution centers firsthand. Furthermore, Whole Foods’ shrimp standards (which outline the rules they follow to source shrimp for their stores) do not allow shrimp farmers to use antibiotics or pesticides. There are also rules governing impacts on the surrounding environment, guidelines on water quality, and details on what is and isn’t allowed in shrimp feed.

Buy American

America has strict labor laws and some of the best environmental policies on the planet when it comes to the harvesting of our own seafood. We have a variety of delicious wild regional choices, including flavor-packed shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico and southern Atlantic, delicate pink shrimp from Oregon, Florida rock shrimp, and tasty West Coast spot prawns, to name a few.

Concerns over slavery, antibiotic use, or pollution are not associated with U.S. wild-caught shrimp. However, it’s not automatically a problem-free choice. The majority of U.S. shrimp is caught using trawls—nets that are dragged along the seafloor. That means shrimpers catch a lot more than just shrimp. Sometimes they snare turtles, sharks, or other fish known as bycatch. In the 1990s, the amount was an astonishing (and unsustainable) 4 pounds of bycatch for every 1 pound of shrimp harvested. Today, that number is between 2 and 2.5 pounds of bycatch for each pound of shrimp, but scientists and fishermen are finding some promising techniques that could whittle that number down even more.

Conscientious shrimpers like Louisiana-based Lance Nacio of Anna Marie Shrimp take sustainability challenges seriously and have modified fishing gear and partner closely with environmental groups to minimize bycatch. “We try to be as sustainably minded when we fish as possible. We want to lessen our impact when we’re out fishing. When we pull up the net and there’s just shrimp in it, that’s the best case for us. My goal is to minimize it to less than 10 percent and often 5 percent. You can’t get it all out, but we’re trying,” he tells me.

And that’s the good news for folks who love shrimp and want to do right. Yes, you can keep enjoying shrimp—and the recipes linked below are good ways to do that. You just need to take some extra care when buying it. The price might be higher for the good ones, but the peace of mind that comes with them is priceless.

Louisiana shrimper Lance Nacio and his boat, the Anna Marie, which he’s outfitted with fishing gear modified to reduce bycatch.


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