It was exciting to see a recent article in the New York Times that featured sustainable seafood – in this case, wild Gulf-caught shrimp. Shrimp is the most popular seafood item in the U.S., but many are unaware of the ecological effects and consumer health implications of imported farm-raised shrimp.
Usually farmed along the coasts of southeast Asia and South America, development of shrimp farms frequently requires the wholesale destruction of important mangrove ecosystems – a dense, shrubby habitat that occurs naturally at the border between water and land along many tropical coasts, which a wide variety of marine creatures (including fish, birds, turtles and many mammals) call home. Mangroves play an important role in coastal ecosystems, and their absence in parts of Southeast Asia may have contributed to the severity of the 2004 tsunami in that region, as mangroves can act as a protective buffer.
Aside from these environmental concerns, shrimp farms in other countries may also produce products that are harmful to human health. The shrimp are often so closely packed together that diseases can run rampant, and the way that shrimp farmers often address this is with daily doses of antibiotics in their feed, or sometimes even dumping the drugs directly into their ponds.
Many of the drugs used in international shrimp farms – like oxytetracycline and ciprofloxacin – are an essential component of human medicine. When these antibiotics are released into the environment regularly, it can result in the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria – which is of huge concern to consumers! The World Health Organization is very concerned with the possibility of antibacterial resistance in humans, and notes that the misuse of antibiotics – such as in the open environment, and for prophylactic purposes – is a huge risk to future medical treatments.
Making matters worse, there are also a handful of dangerous chemicals used in international shrimp farms for a variety of purposes – often to kill undesired creatures that may appear in a shrimp pond such as fish, mollusks, fungi, plants and insects. One example of a chemical that’s been in the news in recent years is malachite green, which is often used to kill fungus on shrimp eggs. This chemical is popular among shrimp producers because it is cheap, effective and widely available. However, it is also a potential carcinogen that has been found to cause tumors in laboratory mice and rats. Once it has been used, malachite green will stay in the flesh of shrimp for a very long time: more than 200 days in water that is 50˚ F.
With all of these environmental and health-related concerns surrounding international shrimp production, it’s no wonder that the author chose U.S. wild shrimp as a sustainable alternative! Choosing U.S. caught or produced seafood can help consumers eat healthier and more sustainable fish because our environmental, health, safety, and labor standards are much more stringent than many other countries. And with the FDA inspecting less than 3% of seafood imports, choosing domestic products simply makes more sense.
For more guidance on choosing sustainable seafood – which isn’t always easy – check out our Smart Seafood Guide that makes recommendations on how to select healthier and more sustainable seafood, and offers alternatives. (Note that there are regional guides as well as our national guide, so you can choose local seafood sustainably, too!) You’re also welcome to post a comment on this article to let us know of any questions you have about selecting smart seafood!
And for those of you looking for more delicious ways to cook seafood – even on a budget – take a look at this year’s Fish & Tips recipe cookbook, the product of an annual competition in which fans of Food & Water Watch submit their favorite recipes for seafood from our Smart Seafood Guide. Now it’s time to reap the fruits of your knowledge about sustainable seafood – go ahead and give one of these recipes a try for dinner tonight!
Marie Logan, Researcher & Policy Analyst