The Ethics Of Shrimp Farming: A Cocktail of Problems

The ethics of shrimp farming

Love treating yourself to a shrimp cocktail? Prawn sandwich? Better read up on the ethics of shrimp farming first!

By Jody McCutcheon

They’re commonly made into sandwiches in the UK; hung onto glass rims to create ‘cocktails‘ in America; added to national dishes like paella in Spain, glass rolls in Vietnam and Pad Thai in Thailand. But no matter where you’re from, or how you eat them, you need to know this: shrimp are bad for you, and the environment.

With a whopping 152 milligrams of cholesterol per 100-gram serving (that’s four or five shrimp), just two servings would put you over the daily recommended allowance of 300 milligrams of cholesterol. They’re also a main cause of allergies, especially in children, and yet shrimp (as well as prawns and crayfish) remains in huge global demand.

From 2003 to 2009, the US imported between 500,000 and 600,000 tonnes of shrimp annually, while in 2006, the UK imported about 500,000 tonnes. In 2005, 2.5 million tonnes of shrimp was farmed globally, representing about 42% of that year’s total shrimp yield. Since then, shrimp farms have grown substantially. So much so, that it’s time for us to urgently look at the ethics of shrimp farming.

Mangrove Destruction

The need for salt water means shrimp farms must be on or near a coast. About 75% of the world’s farmed shrimp comes from tidal zones in Asia, mainly China and Thailand. Mangrove regions are ideal, as they’re already populated with wild shrimp. Unfortunately, shrimp farming has permanently destroyed an estimated 38% of mangroves worldwide, which unfortunately includes a whopping 70% of Ecuador’s mangroves. On average, about five square miles of cleared mangrove region is required to produce two pounds of shrimp.

The destruction of these precious biomes is disastrous. Mangroves are essential for other species to survive. A large variety of fish, crab, and mollusk species live in these habitats. In turn, they form an essential source of food for other animals higher on the food chain. Mangroves also serve as important carbon sinks and as nurseries for many fish species, including coral reef fish. For example, a study on the Mesoamerican reef indicates that there are as many as 25 times more fish of some species on reefs close to mangrove areas than in areas where mangroves have been cut down.

Importantly, the dense root systems of mangrove forests trap sediments flowing down rivers and off the land. This assists in stabilising coastal areas and preventing erosion from waves and storms. In areas where mangroves are ruined, damage from typhoons and hurricanes is always more severe. By filtering out sediments, the forests also protect coral reefs and seagrass meadows from being smothered.

Thus, destroying mangroves for shrimp farming eliminates natural habitats, reduces biodiversity, and releases huge stores of carbon into the air. Consequently, many countries have written protective laws for mangrove regions. But enforcement in developing nations like Vietnam and Myanmar is problematic due to social, political and economic pressures.

The ethics of shrimp farming
Typical small shrimp farm

More On The Ethics Of Shrimp Farming

But the ethics of shrimp farming is not only focused on the destruction of the surrounding environment. Shrimp farming also depletes other species just to keep the shrimp alive. For example, although farmed shrimp’s FCR is an estimated 1.4:1, catching wild fish like sardines, anchovies and herring to feed farmed shrimp means the seabirds, large fish and whales that feed on them are left in the lurch.

Moreover, some groups, like PETA, claim because it takes up to 3 pounds of wild-caught fish to feed and produce a single pound of farmed shrimp, shrimp farming is causing fish populations to plummet and is leaving us with a serious environmental deficit.

Moreover, we need to consider densely populated shrimp farms when we consider the ethics of shrimp farming. These farms breed diseases like Taura syndrome and Whitespot syndrome, which can spread to wild species. We’ve seen what the use of antibiotics in fish farming can lead to, and it’s no different with shrimp. Plus, without mangroves to filter them, much-used ponds accumulate sludge composed of excrement and other waste products (pesticides, antibiotics, etc). Over the course of a decade or less, the sludge buildup renders the pond untenable due to high levels of salinity, acidity and toxic chemicals. What’s left behind is a farmed-out wasteland. In fact, one study estimates the land’s recovery time at about 30 years.

Little Shrimp, Massive Carbon Footprint

It gets worse. A recent report suggests that a pound of frozen shrimp contributes one tonne of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. That’s over ten times the amount generated by the same amount of beef produced on cleared rainforest land. Yes, that’s right: eating shrimp is actually worse for the environment than eating beef!

And inspection of imported farmed shrimp is no better than that of farmed fish, which is pretty slack. Only 2% of US imported fish are actually inspected at all. Researchers testing ready-to-eat shrimp found 162 different types of bacteria with resistance to 10 different antibiotics. There are even stories of farmed shrimp being fed raw, salmonella-infected poultry manure.

When we weigh in on the ethics of shrimp farming, we need to realise that most shrimp comes from places that have no health checks on this food. For example, there are no restrictions on traces of illegal contaminants such as dioxins, PCBs, and other banned chemicals. Nor is there any control on farmers pumping the shrimp full of saline to plump them up, food colouring to make them look healthier, or growth hormones and antibiotics to keep them freer of parasites. And even if there was control over these factors, it should be kept in mind that shrimp are bottom dwellers who feed on parasites and skin that they pick off dead animals. This means that every mouthful of scampi you eat comes with digested parasites and dead skin. Who would knowingly eat that?

For anyone considering eating only wild shrimp, well, I’m afraid it’s no better. These are caught by trawling, which  is taking a toll on the legions of wild creatures, including dolphins, who make the sea their home. Nets don’t discriminate.

800px-Shrimp_pond_bottom_toxic_mud
Toxic sludge from a shrimp farming pond

So, What’s A Shrimp Lover To Do?

Frankly, there really is no such thing as sustainable shrimp farming, as far as we know from doing this research. While we respect everyone’s right to choose what they want to eat, it’s important to be aware of the environmental impact you’re making by eating a food that’s absolutely non-essential to your health.

Sure, they may have selenium and B-vitamins, but there are many other non-animal foods with the same or better nutritional values. Brazil nuts, for example, pack more of a punch in terms of nutrition than shrimp ever could. Without the cholesterol risks, too.

In short, if you must eat shrimp, you should see them as a luxury, like gold earrings or a fine cigar. Something that you treat yourself to and enjoy, but very rarely indeed.

 All images: Wikicommons, Pixabay (main image)

Jody McCutcheon
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5 thoughts on “The Ethics Of Shrimp Farming: A Cocktail of Problems”

  1. Some of us are allergic to Brazil nuts and not shrimp… What bothers me is the farming displaces shrimp fishing. It’s not that shrimp are bad, it’s that farming them is a short sighted greedy eventually self-defeating practice that should be eliminated.

  2. Quite interesting your appreciation of shrimp, but you have to always look everywhere about the issue. Did you know that Peruvian shrimp produce top quality shrimp with no antibiotics and no chemicals? I did my homework and found out. I really dislike people that write something without the proper information. Not all the shrimp imported to the US comes from East Asia, we also import from Ecuador and Peru. I visited Peru and Ecuador and witnessed first hand how they produce their shrimp in clean hygienic ways, they have socially responsible and environmentally respoinsible programs too.

  3. Why anyone would choose to eat bottom feeding sea insects is beyond me… Now, they’re even less appealing!

  4. Eugene Pommier

    You are right Jody. I guess I will have to give up shrimp. You just put my guilt level over the top.

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