Shrimp is tasty, easy-to-find and downright seductive bathed in a buttery sauce. But before you serve your lover some scampi tonight, be sure to buy these bite-sized crustaceans from a safe, sustainable source. That’s because the imported, farm-raised shrimp that Americans eat might come at a huge human and environmental cost. Whether you’re against forced labor or clear-cutting forests — or just don’t want unapproved antibiotics in your food — here are five reasons why you should seek out shrimp from responsible farms and fisheries this Valentine’s Day.
5. Imported, farmed shrimp can be 10 times worse for the climate than beef
Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the United States, but only a tiny fraction of that comes from domestic sources. Ninety percent of the shrimp we eat is imported, and almost all of that comes from farms in Southeast Asia and Central America. An estimated 50 to 60 percent of farmed shrimp from these regions is raised in ponds that were once mangrove forests — a fact that could spell trouble for the climate.
Mangroves are one of the world’s most productive ecosystems, and are heavyweights when it comes to capturing and storing carbon. Mangroves not only sequester this greenhouse gas in their wood and leaves, they also help to lay down thick layers of soil-like peat — which can lock away CO2 for thousands of years if left undisturbed. But cutting down mangroves and digging up peat releases this stored carbon.
According to one estimate, each pound of shrimp farmed on clear-cut mangroves indirectly emits 1 ton of CO2. That’s 10 times the carbon footprint of beef raised on land cleared in the Amazon rainforest – one of the most CO2-intensive forms of farming around.
4. Local communities in Asia and Central America can suffer when shrimp farms arrive
Local and indigenous fishing communities across Asia and Central America rely on mangrove forests for food, income and other resources like firewood. Mangroves are important nurseries for young fish that grow up to be commercially valuable, and are lifelong homes for scores of fish, shellfish, bird and mammal species. But when a shrimp farm comes to town, it can privatize and destroy this vital resource. And if fishing communities put up a fight, the repercussions can be fatal.
In the past, murders and rapes in Bangladesh have been connected to protests against shrimp farms. In Guatemala, police and private guards have murdered fishers who protest shrimp farms’ pollution and destruction of once-rich fishing grounds. Murders have also been tied to shrimp aquaculture in almost a dozen other countries including Mexico, the Philippines and Brazil.
3. In Thailand, shrimp processing facilities have been linked to human trafficking
Thailand, the biggest supplier of shrimp imported to the U.S., is also a major hub for human trafficking and slavery. In 2014 and 2015, investigations from several major newspapers revealed that a sizeable portion of the farmed Thai shrimp that wound up in American, European and Asian grocery stores and restaurants had directly or indirectly passed through the hands of trafficked workers.
A 2015 Associated Press exposé, for example, uncovered rampant abuses in Thailand’s shrimp-peeling plants. In these facilities — often little more than sheds — impoverished migrants from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos were tricked or sold into debt bondage. Victims recounted 16-hour shifts, grueling child labor and physical abuse. Some were forced to work through severe illness and miscarriage. Others were locked inside for months or years on end.
2. Trafficked workers in Thailand might also catch the fish that feed farmed shrimp
In Thailand, small bait fish like anchovies and sardines are caught, cooked and ground up to make pellets that feed farmed shrimp, livestock and pets. But Thailand’s emptying oceans mean that fishing trips must last longer and go farther to catch fewer fish, meaning that profit margins are razor-thin. For some vessel owners, the gruesome solution to this problem is human trafficking.
As a 2014 Guardian investigation discovered, men kidnapped to work aboard Thailand’s so-called ‘ghost ships’ were starved, drugged and forced to work 20-hour days. Men too sick to work were thrown overboard. Those who disobeyed their captors were tortured or executed.
After these revelations about human trafficking in shrimp feed and processing, many victims were rescued. A flurry of lawsuits followed, along with vows from Thailand that it would compensate victims and promises from the shrimp industry that it would eliminate slave labor from supply chains. However, a subsequent investigation in late 2016 found that some Thai shrimp companies and government officials had failed to follow up on these promises.
1. Imported, farmed shrimp can be contaminated with illicit antibiotics
Farmed shrimp from Central America and Asia can also pose a direct threat to diners. A 2015 Consumer Reports study found that of 205 imported shrimp samples, 11 from Vietnam, Thailand, and Bangladesh were contaminated with antibiotic residues. Some of these antibiotics have been linked to cancers, while others are illegal to administer to food animals in the United States. Chronic overuse of antibiotics can trigger the development of drug-resistant bacteria — a major and growing concern worldwide.
What can consumers do?
If the thought of eating imported, farm-raised shrimp makes you queasy, your best bet is ask your fishmonger plenty of questions about where your shrimp came from. If it was raised in Asia or Central America, proceed with caution — while there are shrimp farmers in these regions that follow responsible aquaculture standards, their products can be hard to find. If you need help, the Seafood Watch app offers good guidance on what to choose and what to avoid.
Along with being careful about what you buy, a big way to boost sustainable shrimp is by supporting Oceana. We advocate for boat-to-plate seafood traceability around the world, which makes it much harder for human trafficking to sneak into supply chains. And in the Southeastern United States, we’re working to get devices installed in all shrimp trawls that let sea turtles and other animals escape.