The Dirty Secret of Shrimp Farming
Shrimp is the most popular seafood in America. The country imports 560,000 tonnes a year and, says aquafind.com, Thailand is the biggest supplier; “the second main supplier is Indonesia, followed by Ecuador.” China and Vietnam are also high on the list. Shrimp farming is often done on a small scale and has been promoted as a way of lifting people out of poverty. However, along with improved living standards comes habitat destruction.
Shrimp Farms Replace Mangrove Forests
Industrial production of shrimp is carried out mostly in developing countries in tropical regions. In many of these nations, mangrove forests and wetlands have been destroyed to make way for the fish farms. According to the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) “one estimate suggests that, of the total global mangrove losses of the past two decades, as much as 38 percent is attributable to shrimp farm development …”
The EJF says that studies in Thailand put the economic value of untouched mangroves at between a low of $1,000 and a high of $36,000 per hectare. But, rip out the mangrove and replace it with shrimp aquaculture lagoons, and the economic value drops to around $200 per hectare.
Mangroves are a Vital Coastal Ecosystem
The Mangrove Action Project points out that “mangroves are comprised of salt-tolerant tree and other plant species from a range of plant families. They thrive in intertidal zones of sheltered tropical shores, islands, and estuaries.”
Take out the mangrove and the EJF describes the results: “Destruction of mangroves has left coastal areas exposed to erosion, flooding, and storm damage, altered natural drainage patterns, increased salt intrusion, and removed critical habitats for many aquatic and terrestrial species, with serious implications for biodiversity, conservation, and food security.”
In 1999, Typhoon Odisha slammed into the north-eastern coast of India. The death toll was 10,000 people, most of them drowned in the storm surge, which crashed ashore because the normal coastal defence of mangrove had been removed. The folks at Coastal Care suggest the casualties “could have been lower if the mangroves had been retained.”
Mangroves provide important habitats for many species. Once they are knocked out of the food chain the effects are felt elsewhere.
Shrimp Aquaculture a Source of Disease
The ponds in which the shrimp are kept are often stocked very densely creating a perfect environment for diseases to spread quickly. An epidemic virtually wiped out the aquaculture shrimp industry in the late 1980s. When a catastrophe such as this happens, the farms are often abandoned and a new section of mangrove forest is cut down to open up a new operation.
Intervet Schering-Plough Animal Health reports that a disease called white spot syndrome involved outbreaks that were first “reported from the People’s Republic of China in 1993 and they spread rapidly thereafter to Japan, Taipei China, and the rest of Asia…” More recently, the disease has shown up in the Americas.
In 1999, an outbreak swept through shrimp farms in Ecuador. The industry was devastated and 150,000 people lost their jobs.
More recently, diseases with tongue-twisting names have popped up in Asia; hepatopancreatic necrosis disease (AHPND), and hepatopancreatic microsporidiosis (HPM) are currently causing concern. These are difficult to detect and mortality rates of 70 percent are reported.
When shrimp get sick they swim to the surface and provide a quick lunch for seagulls. The gulls may then fly to another shrimp farm, poop, and the pathogen is spread. The intensity of shrimp farming just magnifies the effect of disease.
So, shrimp die of diseases with unpronounceable names. No biggie; I’m not a shrimp. Here’s Rodale’s Organic Life to ponder on next time you chow down on garlic shrimp linguine: “Imported shrimp, more than any other seafood, has been found to be contaminated with banned chemicals, pesticides, and even cockroaches, and it skirts food-safety authorities only to wind up on your plate.”
But, we’ve got food inspectors to protect us from the often dirty conditions in which shrimp are raised. True, and they take at look at fully two percent of the shrimp imported into the U.S.
And, along comes Consumer Reports in 2015 to add worries about that shrimp cocktail that looks so yummy. In 2015, the organization bought 342 packages of frozen shrimp in a wide selection of stores across the U.S.
The result of the testing wasn't pleasing: “Overall, 60 percent of our raw shrimp tested positive for bacteria, but it’s important to keep those findings in perspective. By comparison, in 2013, when we tested raw chicken breasts, 97 percent of the samples contained bacteria …”
Among the nasties that turned up were E. coli., antibiotics, and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus “a bacteria that can cause infections that are often difficult to treat.”
Shrimp Farm Waste
The environmental organization mongabay.com notes that “shrimp feed on naturally occurring plankton and micro-organisms, which can be encouraged to grow by adding antibiotics and organic and chemical fertilizers to shrimp ponds. Pollution from ponds is flushed into the surrounding ecosystem by tides.”
More antibiotics in the environment increase the possibility that bacteria that might be harmful to humans and other animals will mutate to develop an immunity.
Shrimp farming operations create large quantities of effluent made up of chemicals, antibiotics, dead shrimp, and feces. This foul liquid pollutes surrounding seawater killing off wild fish species and along with this the livelihood of local fishers.
Responsible Shrimp Farming
Not all shrimp producers do harm to the environment, nor does their output run the risk of making consumers sick. A scheme was set up in 2001 called the Shrimp Seal of Quality (SSOQ), which was funded in part by a U.S. Aid program. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, SSOQ set standards to “cover several sustainability aspects including food safety, quality assurance, traceability, and environmental and social responsibility.”
However, when the U.S. Aid funding ran out the SSOQ diminished in size and scope, “although efforts supported by the World Fish Center allowed the continuation of at least some aspects of the program.”
There are other schemes that help consumers make the right choice. Labels marked Wild American Shrimp or the Marine Stewardship Council certify the shrimp is of good quality; likewise the Best Aquaculture Practices label.
Fifty-five percent of the shrimp consumed in the world is farmed.
The annual per capita consumption of shrimp in the United States is four pounds, which is double the worldwide average.
“In 2016, Bloomberg News reported that as much as 90 percent of the antibiotics administered to pigs in China pass through the animals’ urine and feces and wash into huge farm ponds, exposing fish and shellfish to those drugs.” Dr. Andrew Weil
One final nugget of information is contained in the headline of a December 2015 article in The Guardian: “Shrimp Sold by Global Supermarkets is Peeled by Slave Labourers in Thailand.”
- Coastal Care
- “Farmed Shrimp.” World Wildlife Fund. 2017
- “How Safe Is your Shrimp.” Consumer Reports, April 24, 2015.
- “Is It Safe To Eat Shrimp?” Dr. Andrew Weil, undated.
- Environmental Justice Foundation.
- “Mangroves.” Mangrove Action Project, May 12, 2008.
- “Environmental Degradation from Shrimp Farming.” Mongabay, undated.
- “Shrimp Sold by Global Supermarkets is Peeled by Slave Labourers in Thailand.” The Guardian, December 14, 2015.
Questions & Answers
I've been very excited about spending a month in Ecuador next month and how much shrimp I can eat. I've also just been diagnosed with a condition that means I'm safer avoiding hormones in the food I eat not to make it worse. I've been doing a great job at avoiding all non-organic dairy and meat recently, and suddenly just got worried whether if the shrimp there is farmed. It also may contain hormones mimicking things I need to stay away from. Any idea?Helpful 1