Americans love shrimp. As a nation, we consume more than 1 billion pounds of it every year– more than salmon, tuna, tilapia, or any other seafood item. Despite the popularity of shrimp, it remains something of a mystery. For example, what is a shrimp? And what makes shrimp sustainable or not sustainable? We’re glad you asked…
What is shrimp?
Shrimp may be called prawn, prawn may be called shrimp, and something that isn’t shrimp or prawn may also be called shrimp depending on where you are in the world. Don’t let this bother you. All that the term “shrimp” consistently means is that the water creature you are eyeing hungrily is a crustacean with stalky-eyes, an elongated body, a muscular tail, lengthy whiskers, and 10 delicate legs much better suited to swimming than walking.
Sustainable or not sustainable?
Both wild-caught and farmed shrimp can have major impacts on the environment. Wild-caught shrimp can be associated with high levels of bycatch and the destruction of aquatic habitat. Farmed shrimp can be associated with water pollution, increased transmission of marine diseases, release of farmed species into the wild, and destruction of coastal habitat. To avoid shrimp with serious environmental baggage, the two most important questions to ask are, “How are the shrimp harvested?” and, “Where are they harvested?”
How shrimp are harvested is important because some methods, like trapping and closed system farming, tend to have less environmental impact than other methods, like bottom trawling and open-system farming. Where shrimp is harvested is important because some countries, like the U.S. and Canada, generally have more environmentally stringent fishery regulations than other countries. Also, different locations may be more or less vulnerable to the impacts of shrimp harvesting methods– think rocky reef bottom versus a mud bottom.
However, it is really the combination of how and where shrimp are harvested that determines the sustainability of a fishery. For example, bottom trawling gets a bad rap for wreaking havoc on the ocean floor and catching everything in its path. But if it is used only on sand or mud bottoms and paired with a bycatch-deterring device, bottom trawling may be the method of choice for a perfectly sustainable shrimp fishery.
Monterey Bay Aquarium’s SeafoodWatch provides a nice list of shrimp recommendations that are based on these criteria.
Where can I buy sustainable shrimp?
Different shrimp have different seasons, but if you’re not picky about which variety you want, it should be simple enough to find sustainably harvested shrimp. Here are a few places to start your search.
Local sources: fish markets, farmer’s markets
Grocery stores: Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Target
Even in fisheries red-flagged by Seafood Watch and Fishwise as utterly unsustainable, there exist fishermen who meet the highest level of sustainability standards. Click on the pictures below to learn about some fishery leaders who are working hard to make shrimping more sustainable.
The bottom line:
Shrimp harvesting can have major environmental impacts so it is good to know how and where your shrimp was harvested to avoid unsustainable choices. There are handy guides out there to help you make your choice (Seafood Watch), trusted retailers who stock verified sustainable shrimp (WF, TJs), and fishery leaders working to make shrimp more sustainable so that you can keep on enjoying those long-tailed, dainty-legged crustacean thingamajigs for as long as you live.
Fact or Fishy
We've had so many questions about finding sustainable seafood that we've decided to share our knowledge! Below are some of our FAQs about shrimp.
"Traps are the only sustainable method for harvesting shrimp."
While traps have minimal environmental impacts compared to other harvesting methods, that doesn’t mean that they are being employed sustainably, or that other methods can’t be sustainable. Trapping can lead to overfishing and bottom trawling can lead to a healthy fishery depending on how the fishery is managed. Aquaculture, especially recirculating systems, can also provide sustainable shrimp all year.
"Shrimp harvesting has a lot of bycatch."
FACT and FISHY
It is true that shrimp trawling has some of the worst bycatch rates of any fishery with up to six pounds of bycatch discarded for every one pound of shrimp. However, many fisheries are able to reduce bycatch by using bycatch-deterring devices or a harvesting method other than trawling that has lower levels of bycatch. Because shrimp harvesting and farming can have huge environmental impacts, it is particularly important to do a little bit of research when choosing which shrimp to buy.
"Farmed shrimp is not good for me."
FACT and FISHY
Farmed shrimp has gotten its fair share of bad press (ex. “Why you may never want to eat shrimp again”) and for good reasons– chemical additives and destruction of mangrove forests are a couple that come to mind. But closed aquaculture systems, especially recirculating tanks, can have a very small environmental footprint with minimal chemical additives and land destruction (“Is there a sustainable future for America’s most popular seafood?”).
Safe bets when it comes to sustainable shrimp:
- Wild shrimp from Alaska or Canada
- Shrimp farmed in closed containment/ recirculation aquaculture systems in the U.S. and Canada