"Endless shrimp." Type it into Google and you'll get page after page of Red Lobster all-you-can-eat shrimp chatter. Shrimp has already dethroned tuna as the most eaten seafood in America, and Canada is seeing a similar trend.
It's not tough to convince yourself that shrimp is easy on the oceans. After all, those delicious sea beetles reproduce like crazy, don't need a lot of food to mature and grow to market size in just a few months. Heck, even the cute factor is low for a creature more suited to a scene in Starship Troopers than Finding Nemo.
But the reality is the shrimp industry, specifically in the southern hemisphere, has a massive effect on the world's oceans even though its own stocks aren't in trouble per se. From mangrove destruction to collateral trawling damage, that pink vessel for shovelling cocktail sauce into your mouth is not, as dieticians might argue, guilt-free.
"Even very aware people have no idea how their shrimp are caught or farmed," says Wallace J. Nichols, a researcher at the California Academy of Sciences and the founder of light-shedding site shrimpsuck.org.
Just to be clear, the shrimp that we eat are either caught in the wild by trawlers or farmed in huge pools adjacent to saltwater.
"It doesn't get much worse than dragging nets on the ocean floor, catching everything from invertebrates, fish and sharks to sea turtles. In some places 90 per cent of what's caught isn't shrimp," says Nichols.
"We're looking at 20 kilograms (of unwanted bycatch) for every kilo of shrimp caught in destructive shrimp fisheries," says Robert Rangeley, WWF Canada VP for the Atlantic Region, making his number even higher.
"It's like catching a squirrel by clear-cutting a forest," says Monterey Bay Aquarium spokesperson Alison Barratt. Logically, when you're after something as small as a shrimp you're taking in everything bigger, but there have been improvements.
But here's the rider: if you down North American shrimp, you're way further ahead on the sustainable scale. U.S. and Canadian trawlers have excluding devices in their nets, and lobster-trap devices that allow bycatch to be removed alive are used for Pacific spot prawns.
Much of Canada's Atlantic shrimp, which is all the wild-caught variety, actually goes to the UK.
Our shrimp is increasingly attaining MSC certification.
That's great for the few who seek out sustainable shrimp. But these days even Dairy Queen and Taco Bell sell shrimp. "It's everywhere and it's cheap," says Nichols.
To feed that cheap need, Asia fills the void. Three-quarters of global production comes from China, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.
"Consumers are contributing directly to the loss of mangrove forests, and wild fisheries, and to climate change problems," warns Alfredo Quarto, executive director of the Mangrove Action Project.
In the case of roughly half the world's shrimp industry, farming is the production method of choice - and mangroves are often razed so operations can be near salt water.
"Governments promoting shrimp farming aren't able to control the industry," says Quarto. Loose regulations allowed for the loss of 70 per cent of Ecuador's mangroves, he adds. The number in the Philippines hovers around 60 per cent. It's the same for Thailand, and India's losses are estimated at 30 to 40 per cent.
It's because of the market forces that will allow cheap shrimp to thrive that Quarto's against certification, in particular by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), which is to farmed shrimp what the MSC is to wild shrimp. The label is set to roll out in coming months.
"We're protesting and trying to get them to postpone. They're not adhering to real needs and lessening public demand for shrimp," says Quarto. The alternative to this destruction, he says, is supporting your local shrimp industry and accepting it as a seasonal food.
But criticism of shrimp farms doesn't end at habitat destruction. "White shrimp are easy to farm, and that might mean you're growing them where they're not native," says Barratt. "They're invasive, and you risk escape with inland ponds."
And then you have to consider diseases. "Waste is a huge problem. Ponds can become unusable, and you're discarding treated (think antibiotics and pesticides) sludge into the environment," says Barrett, whose organization's Seafood Watch guide recommends avoiding all imported shrimp in favour of Canadian wild- caught and some U.S. farmed and wild varieties.
What makes U.S. farms work is tank farming that recirculates water without destroying coastland. Understandably, it's more expensive.
Mark Powell, WWF International's global seafood leader, believes that progress is being made on the shrimp front. He gives an example of a novel plan in Vietnam where the government is leasing spots in a coastal national forest area where shrimp feed as though they were in the wild.
"Farmers are allowed to grow and sell shrimp, but the situation is natural, and there's no food input. It's like a harvest lease - a hybrid between farming and fishing."
And there's always you and me. "Buyers can motivate change," says Powell. "When customers express an interest in better shrimp, retailers and wholesalers make a change."
It almost makes you want to plan an all-you-can-eat endless shrimp fiesta - which is precisely the attitude we should fear.