Andreas Späth

How sustainable is your shrimp cocktail?

2014-05-12 12:20

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Every year, my mother-in-law makes shrimp cocktail for Christmas lunch. It’s totally '70s (think pink sauce, wide cocktail glasses lined with lettuce leaves, a garnish of avo and a sprinkle of paprika) and utterly delicious.

Every time I see it, a vague thought of having read something somewhere about shrimp being somehow problematic from an environmental perspective pops into my mind – and then magically disappears with the first taste.

Now, at a safe distance from Christmas and my mother-in-law’s legendary shrimp cocktail, I thought it was about time to investigate the issue a little further.

Unsurprisingly, shrimp has grown from a relatively little known delicacy into a huge, multi-billion dollar, global business that offers large and speedy returns on investment. Clearly I’m not the only one who likes the little critters.

About 45% of the world’s shrimp supply is trawled straight out of the ocean while 55% is grown in marine and freshwater farms. Thailand is the planet’s biggest shrimp exporter and three quarters of all farmed shrimp comes from Asia (China, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Vietnam and Bangladesh). Much of the rest originates from Latin America (Brazil, Ecuador and Mexico). We consume several million tonnes of shrimp every year and the industry has moved from a base in small-scale family farms to massive industrial monoculture operations.

So what’s the problem?

Environmental concerns about shrimp production are real and serious. In the case of ocean-caught shrimp, two of the main issues are that some wild shrimp populations have been overfished (with the resulting knock-on effects on other species in the same ecosystems), and that netting shrimp leads to considerable by-catch (other animal species, from fish to sea birds, that are unintentionally killed). It’s been estimated that each kilogram of trawled deep-sea shrimp results in between 5 and 20 kilograms of by-catch.

Shrimp farming comes with its own problems. It produces vast quantities of dirty effluent, much of which is flushed out to sea by the tides or contaminates local terrestrial environments. Thai shrimp farms alone are responsible for more than a billion cubic meters of effluent per year. This waste water, which is laced with organic and industrial chemicals, including fertilisers and pesticides, can pollute soils, groundwater sources and estuaries.

Shrimp farmers routinely use antibiotics to prevent and treat disease outbreaks among their stock and some researchers have expressed fears that waste water rich in these chemicals may cause natural pathogens that infect human and domestic animal populations to develop resistance to antibiotics.

The biggest dilemma, however, is that rapidly expanding shrimp farms have led to the wholesale clear-cutting and bulldozing of huge swaths of coastal mangrove forests, millions of hectares of which have been decimated. In many parts of the world, these forests, along with other affected habitats such as salt marshes and wetlands, represent vital breeding, spawning, nursing and migratory resting grounds for a wide variety of species. Beyond their rich biodiversity, mangrove forests also provide an important buffer against storms, rising sea level and marine erosion.

While shrimp are much more efficient at converting their food into proteins for human consumption than pigs or cows (a hectare of shrimp farm can produce about ten times more protein than an acre of cow pasture), studies suggest that shrimp farms replacing mangrove forests have a ten times bigger carbon footprint than equivalent cattle ranches replacing tropical rainforest.

So what’s the solution? No more shrimp cocktail?

Not quite. It turns out that, while global shrimp consumption will have to be constraint to be ecologically sustainable, there are ways of producing shrimp that are less harmful to the environment. There are methods to limit by-catch when trawling for shrimp at sea and the amount of pollution from shrimp farms can be limited by using sealed pond systems that include water recirculation and cleaning mechanisms.

The onus is on shrimp-eaters like myself to find out where the shrimp we consume comes from, how it was farmed or caught, and whether it comes with a certificate of sustainability from an organization such as the Marine Stewardship Council. And it’s up to us to ask our local restaurateurs, seafood shop managers and mothers-in-law to do the same

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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