Yes, Shrimp Gelatin Is a Real Thing, and It Could Save a Lot of These Tiny Fish

An innovative ocean recycling program could cut costs and save the Atlantic menhaden.

(Design by Lauren Wade)

Mar 3, 2014· 2 MIN READ
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison Fairbrother has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

A researcher at Louisiana State University has created a delicious snack using shrimp shells and gelatin—but before you get all grossed out about seafood-flavored Jell-O, simmer down: The snack is not for human consumption; it’s artificial bait designed for Louisiana’s blue crabs.

The state’s blue crab fishermen currently use Atlantic menhaden, a tiny forage fish, to lure crabs into traps. But because menhaden are subject to overfishing in the Atlantic Ocean, Julie Anderson, an assistant professor at Louisiana State University, has been working on a fish-friendly replacement. After recently presenting blue crabs with all sorts of alternative flavors—including oysters, shrimp, and even other crabs—she’s determined that the crustaceans are most attracted to shrimp-flavored gelatin.

This is good news for crabbers. Anderson believes her bait may last longer in the water than decomposing menhaden, meaning crab fishermen could save on fuel by checking their traps less often.

It’s also a boon for shrimp harvesters. Approximately one-third of shrimp is often-discarded shell and head, which processors have to pay to have shipped away. Anderson’s discovery could result in a kind of ocean recycling program.

“This is using another man’s trash to solve a problem, which is a beautiful thing,” said Paul Eidman, founder of the advocacy group Menhaden Defenders. “Recreational fishermen have been using artificial lures for years instead of important forage fish like menhaden. It’s high time that commercial fishermen caught on.”

Forage fish like menhaden, herring, and sardines form the base of the food chain for many marine species, from whales to predator fish to seabirds. But because menhaden are valuable for their omega-3 fatty acids, they are netted by humans too—vacuumed out of the ocean and ground up to make pet food, feed for farm animals, and fish meal for aquaculture.

In the past 60 years, 47 billion pounds of menhaden have been harvested from the Atlantic Ocean, according to statistics maintained by the federal government. “The best available science says menhaden are at an historic low,” said Bill Goldsborough, director of fisheries at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Another benefit of using shrimp Jell-O and other artificial bait products in lieu of forage fish? Sustainability.

Shipping frozen menhaden from the Atlantic coast to the Gulf of Mexico not only removes food supplies from Atlantic predators but creates an added layer of cost for crabbers, and carbon pollution in the atmosphere. “We’re not only talking about utilizing menhaden, a dwindling resource; we’re also talking about an over-the-road pollution habit,” Eidman said.

Whatever the outcome of Anderson’s gelatin experiment, the use of artificial bait as a replacement for wild fish is part of a larger conversation about the importance of species like menhaden that feed oceans of predators.

A recent report by a group of international ocean experts called the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force found that forage fish are worth more when left in the ocean than they are when hauled from the sea and pressed into pellets. The value of keeping these fish in the marine food chain is $11 billion—twice as much as the $5.6 billion they are worth in the net.

The takeaway? A menhaden’s job is to be eaten by Atlantic predators, not to be frozen and shipped to the Gulf of Mexico to attract crabs.

“Menhaden are an essential link in the food chain, and many fish species and other marine animals depend on them as food,” Goldsborough said. “They are a keystone species in the Atlantic marine ecosystem.”