Contemporary Shrimp 101

The terms “eat local” and “sustainability” have quickly taken root in American culture. Popular authors and films (think Michael Pollan and Food, Inc.) showcased these two themes to a wide audience, quickly ramping up fervor and action among society. While I cannot deny the effectiveness on illuminating the injustices and lack of traditional farming in the U.S. beef, poultry, and seed patent industries, there has been little explanation about how the seafood industry, especially shrimp production, has adapted to meet increasing demand at low cost.

Wait, who really cares about shrimp?! In fact, Americans do! We consume more shrimp than any other country in the world. Even more surprisingly, about 90 percent of this shrimp is imported, and about half of that is unsustainably farmed (not wild-caught.) This says that we care enough to demand shrimp in abundance, but not enough to understand how it landed on the all-you-can-eat buffet.

So what exactly are we in the dark about? Much like the comfort we get from the picturesque farm packaging of industrially farmed meat, we maintain an idyllic fantasy of trawling for shrimp with the sun on our backs and the wind in our hair. In reality, about half of internationally traded shrimp is farmed in artificial ponds that require active management of elements such as bacteria levels, pond aeration, feed distribution, and waste water to produce healthy shrimp. Most ponds are located in countries that have very little infrastructure, regulatory power, or oversight resulting in significant externalized costs. Some of the most popular ways to externalize costs are by indiscriminately using antibiotics, pesticides and unsustainable feed, mistreatment of waste water, and converting healthy mangrove forests into open coastal shrimp ponds rather than building inland circulating systems.

Here is where the sustainability element really hits the bottom of the pond. To produce 1 pound of farmed shrimp, it takes 2.8 pounds of wild-caught fish (and by-catch) such as anchovies, sardines, and herring that could otherwise be eaten. Mangroves are already sustainable ecosystems that provide habitat for about 70 percent of tropical fish, watershed filtration, and local livelihood for coastal communities. Once the mangrove forests and their accompanying ecosystem services are slashed, “ponds only last for 5-7 years before the high levels of disease and sediment pollution” rendering the ponds useless, according to Food & Water Watch.

Still want to order shrimp at your favorite restaurant? The Mangrove Action Project (MAP) can help! We have contacted chefs in Seattle and Western Washington about making it easier to enjoy local, wild-caught, or North American farmed shrimp (not coastal imported farmed). These chefs and retailers have signed our pledge to question the shrimp they source and serve. Next time you want a delicious shrimp dish, check our list of pledged chefs and celebrate their pledge! You too can sign our pledge and learn more about MAP by visiting