You Can Buy All Sorts of Shrimp Without Shirking on Sustainability Concerns

Whether America’s favorite crustacean is caught in the wild or raised in a pond, there are plenty of good sources of it.

Spot prawns. (Photo: Flickr)

Sep 23, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

Are all kinds of shrimp off-limits due to sustainability issues?

Gene Shankman

Shrimp is America’s favorite seafood: Mild and sweet in flavor, it’s also quick-cooking, relatively inexpensive, and readily available thanks to flash-freezing, a technique in which ultralow temperatures are used to freeze seafood solid in a matter of seconds. Each of us eats, on average, almost four pounds per year. I pretty much consume my share during my annual week at the beach in North Carolina, where wild-caught local brown shrimp are sold at roadside stands.

To satisfy our everyday desire for what was once considered a special-occasion food, the United States imports around 94 percent of the shrimp we eat. Examine the packages in the average supermarket frozen seafood case—or ask a question or two at your neighborhood fish store—and you’ll soon discover that most of the shrimp on offer comes from aquaculture operations in places such as Mexico, Ecuador, Southeast Asia, China, and India.

If that raises a red flag as far as sustainability goes, you get a gold star. The dire environmental consequences of farmed shrimp—from the clear-cutting of vast stretches of coastal mangroves to the intensive use of antibiotics and harmful chemicals—have been chronicled by Barry Estabrook and others in unsettling detail.

But because of improved management practices, particularly in Asia, the situation has taken a remarkable, go-figure turn for the better in recent years. Based on new scientific research assessments, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program published updated recommendations on all imported farmed shrimp in January 2010.

Giant freshwater prawns farmed in Central and South America and giant tiger prawns from Selva Shrimp Verified Farms in Southeast Asia are “Best Choices,” for example, and “Good Alternatives” include whiteleg shrimp raised in ponds from Ecuador and Honduras, whiteleg shrimp raised in infrequent exchange ponds from Thailand, and giant freshwater prawns raised in ponds from Asia.

New and improved aquaculture practices don’t necessarily address the issue of antibiotic residues (illegal in shrimp under U.S. food-safety laws), nasty little pathogens, or sketchy governmental oversight. “Despite America’s massive intake of shrimp, the Food and Drug Administration tested only 0.7 percent of foreign shrimp shipments last year,” read a Consumer Reports study released in April. Among its findings were that 60 percent of 342 samples of frozen shrimp it tested contained salmonella, vibrio, listeria, or E. coli, and 2 percent tested positive for the superbug MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

“It’s important to keep those findings in perspective,” Consumer Reports stressed. Testing of raw chicken the organization conducted in 2013 found that 97 percent of samples contained bacteria. “Compared with the chicken samples, far fewer shrimp contained salmonella, which is often responsible for outbreaks of food poisoning. But of concern, we found vibrio on many shrimp samples. Vibrio is the most common cause of food poisoning from eating raw oysters,” the study continues. “And even though most bacteria on shrimp would be killed during the cooking process, our test results raise real questions about how shrimp is raised, processed, and regulated.” And, I might add, yet another good reason for careful food-handling practices at home to prevent cross-contamination.

In a perfect world, consumers would be content with an occasional shrimp fix from wild American (or Wild American, as the case may be) fisheries. So-called Gulf shrimp, for instance, are the brown, white, or pink shrimp found along the Southeastern U.S. coast, as far north as Maryland, and along the entire Western Gulf. “It’s hard to tell the Gulf species apart,” says the professional edition of the Seafood Handbook: The Comprehensive Guide to Sourcing, Buying and Preparation. “A pink can look white, a brown can be gray, etc.” But no matter—they’re all good, although sweet, firm-textured whites are the standard against which other shrimp species—domestic and imported—are often measured.

There are cold-water shrimp species, too, both in the North Atlantic and the Pacific, from California to Alaska. The small, valiant Maine shrimp fishery has increasingly struggled since I last wrote about it in 2011. Warming water temperatures and a decline in phytoplankton abundance (a food source for shrimp) in the Gulf of Maine are among the factors that have contributed to the declining biomass. The wintertime fishery, which formerly took place in the early months of the year, has been shut down since 2013; according to a recent article in the Portland Press Herald, the board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is developing a proposal to control the number of fishers who can fish for the shrimp. The plan will likely be the subject of public hearings next year and could apply as soon as the 2017 fishing year.

The situation is brighter on the Pacific Coast, primarily from Washington to Alaska, where spot prawns (aka spot shrimp) and two other closely related coldwater shrimp, the sidestripe and the coonstripe (both of which may be marketed as spot shrimp or prawns), have minimal conservation concerns. (The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program considers them all “Best Choices.”) In Alaska, a short, monthlong season begins in October (although small openings can take place in the winter and spring if the entire quota is not taken in the fall), so my advice to people fortunate enough to live within striking distance is to pounce at the earliest opportunity.

Spot prawns, by the way, are far from shrimpy in size; they reach lengths of just under 12 inches, which makes them ideal for grilling. When it comes to the usage of the terms “shrimp” and “prawn,” the word that springs to mind is “inconsistent.” Typically they’re all prawns in the U.K., and in North America, they’re most often called shrimp, with the exception of Pacific Coast spot prawns, which are shrimp, technically speaking. Suffice it to say that shrimp and prawns are similar crustaceans that are closely related (they are from different suborders within the Decapoda order) and, happily, interchangeable in the kitchen.

When it comes to shopping for shrimp, Consumer Reports has a handy cheat sheet of shrimp labels. Here’s its rundown.

Marine Stewardship Council

Indicates that wild shrimp are caught using sustainable fishing practices. That can include outfitting nets with devices that allow other animals to escape.

Aquaculture Steward­ship Council

Indicates shrimp are raised without antibiotics and according to guidelines that protect the environment. This label also ensures that shrimp farms do not use forced labor. However, the guidelines permit the use of certain chemicals, including some pesticides, and don’t limit the number of shrimp in a pond.

Naturland

Indicates that shrimp are farmed following guidelines that prohibit overstocking of shrimp ponds and the use of chemicals, including antibiotics, pesticides, and disinfectants. Shrimp are fed food made of sustainably caught fishmeal, and farms do not use forced labor.

Whole Foods Market Responsibly Farmed

Certifies that shrimp are raised in conditions that protect the environment, without anti­biotics, and with limited use of chemicals. But there’s no limit on the density of shrimp in ponds. This label is found only at Whole Foods Market stores.

Consumer Reports also includes labels that may sound good but are meaningless.

Environmentally Aware

An easy claim to make, but it’s not backed by a consistent set of standards to ensure that shrimp were sustainably caught or farmed.

Natural

This term has no official definition for shrimp. Ignore it.

No Antibiotics

On meat and poultry, this term means what it says, but when it comes to shrimp, the term is not defined by the FDA.

No Hormones

There is no government or official definition for this term on shrimp.

Organic

There is no approved standard for organic seafood in the U.S.

Sustainable

There is no regulated definition of “sustainable.” Any seller can make this claim.

Turtle Safe

This claim is not backed by a consistent set of standards.