Fishing for sustainable shrimp in muddy waters

Rating: NNNNN Q: I hear the shrimp fishery is really a disaster? Are there any shrimps okay to eat? A: How many.

Rating: NNNNN

Q: I hear the shrimp fishery is really a disaster? Are there any shrimps okay to eat?

A: How many shrimp can you down in one sitting? A dozen, half a ring maybe (if the cocktail sauce is tasty)? Well, North Americans eat about 4 pounds of the pink swimmers a year on average, beating out our old fish fave, tuna salad, back in 2001. Tasty stuff, no doubt, but any way you dip it, catching shrimp’s a fishy business.

Start trawling for dirt on the glorious crustaceans and you’ll find your appetite suddenly vanish. About half the shrimp we eat come from the ocean, where giant weighted nets bring up 4 to 20 pounds of unwanted bycatch for every pound of shrimp.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Org, we’re talking nearly 2 million tons a year of discarded sea turtles, sharks and fish, a mix of commercially useless species, undersized juvenile fish and seabed debris that get pulled to the surface so quickly, anything still living ends up dead.

So the farmed stuff should be safer, right? Well, the bulk of farmed shrimp comes from Asia, where a recent report from the AFL-??CIO-affiliated Solidarity Center revealed the kind of worker rights abuses that make you want to cry “vegetarian.”

The three-year-long investigation yielded a report documenting physical and sexual abuse, child labour, human trafficking and debt bondage. Not all crustaceans from the two countries investigated (Thailand and Bangladesh) are sweatshop shrimp, but we do know that Costco, IGA, Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club were selling shrimp from farms fingered in the report.

Funny, when just last year Wal-Mart got credit for greening shrimp with its demands that all its shrimp meet sustainability standards.

But while the industry-led Aquaculture Certification Council might have cleaned up farming’s footprint, it’s been pretty weak on the labour front. The org hasn’t pressed for a limit to the workday, or for monitoring rights beyond generalities about following local laws. Wal-Mart and the Thai government are both talking about cracking down on abusers.

Labour abuses aren’t the only thing that’s fishy about shrimp farms. Remember the tsunami of 2004? Blame the brunt of its brutality on the rampant mangrove deforestation tied to shrimp farming. Same goes for the horrific cyclone that hit Burma.

As well, non-certified shrimp get daily doses of antibiotics, including human-grade drugs like Cipro. Oh, did I mention that chemical pesticides banned in North America are commonly used to kill parasites, fungi and insects in shrimp ponds? At the end of the road, shrimp can be tested for illegal residues when they enter Canada, but how many do you think are really checked? In the U.S., it’s 1.2 per cent.

I have to admit I love seafood, so as a selective pescatarian, I’d like to find a sustainable source for shrimp as much as you, dear reader. Search the oceans closer to home and you’ll find the number-one eco-conscious choice is BC’s wild-caught shrimp. Though not perfect, trap-caught spot shrimp are pretty damn green. Another strong choice is Oregon pink shrimp (the fishery has been certified sustainable by the respected Marine Stewardship Council), but, sadly, neither of the these is available at any of the fishmongers I called in Toronto.

If you look a little harder, though, you will find smaller coldwater salad shrimp from Atlantic Canada. Their stocks are healthy, and bycatch reduction devices, closed areas and seasons and other measures have brought trawl bycatch down to less than 1 per cent and shrinking. Pretty impressive.

Plus, thanks to soft, muddy ocean beds, trawlers cause much less damage there than they do in coral-lined seas. You can find some at Mike’s Fish Market and the Seafront Fish Market (both at the St. Lawrence Market) and at Snappers Fish Market in Bloor West.

And, surprise, the organic label is coming to fish farms the world over. Though the USDA has yet to officially iron out its organic seafood program (until it does, California refuses to allow the label on seafood), a number of Southern U.S. farms are raising organic shrimp certified by European orgs. U.S. brands are hard to find in Canada, but you can score certified organic Ecuadorian shrimp at Snappers.

Organic shrimp are even coming to the freezer aisle. Blue Horizon makes pre-??prepared frozen goods with triple-certified imported organic shrimp. Naturland also certifies that fair wages were paid to farmers. You’ll find Blue Horizon products in freezers at places like the Big Carrot on Danforth.

Wherever you shop, let the seller know that when it comes to crustaceans that aren’t eco (and worker-friendly), you’re not going to bite.

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