Tiny crustacean, big transformation: Part 1

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to make the global shrimp supply chain more environmentally sustainable, from family farms in Southeast Asia to customers’ plates in the United States. In this first installment of a four-part series, we examine the growing American appetite for shrimp—and how it’s created a booming industry across the Pacific.

Every night, in kitchens across America, hundreds of thousands of people prepare the same dinner. Recently it was cavatelli pasta with zucchini, garlic and cherry tomatoes, sautéed in butter with mascarpone cheese and tender shrimp.

Shrimp cavatelli dish from meal-kit company Blue Apron. Photo courtesy Blue Apron

The portioned ingredients—down to the optional bottle of Viognier white wine—are delivered to customers’ doorsteps from Blue Apron, a national meal kit company that makes this sophisticated meal easy to prepare. The shrimp is also sustainable: As a partner of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, Blue Apron avoids seafood that’s produced in ways that harm other marine life or the environment.

Carrie Conley of Fort Irwin, California, says she chose Blue Apron because of its partnership with Seafood Watch. Sustainable seafood has been important to her since she started visiting the Aquarium, where she learned about the environmental impacts of fishing and aquaculture

“If I’m actively trying to find organic chicken,” she reasoned, “why not make better choices across the board?” 

Blue Apron makes it easy for customers like Carrie to access sustainably harvested shrimp. But producing that shrimp, and getting it into meal-kit boxes from faraway places like Southeast Asia, is anything but simple.

This is the story of how a broad network—including global seafood businesses, government agencies, Vietnamese shrimp farmers, U.S. chefs and the Monterey Bay Aquarium—are working together to make it happen.

Shrimply irresistible

Thousands of shrimp species live in salt marshes around the world, from the bayous of Louisiana to the estuaries of Ecuador and the mangroves of Vietnam. 

Long and muscular, with slender legs built for swimming, shrimp molt throughout their lives, producing successively bigger shells as they grow. These shells are generated from a dense collagen layer, which gives shrimp a meatier texture than other seafood—and helps explain why so many species find them delectable. Shrimp are critical links in the marine food web, eaten by everything from sea urchins and sea stars to seabirds, sharks and whales. 

Of course people eat shrimp too, in staggering quantities. The United States alone imported 1.5 billion pounds of it in 2017, three-quarters of that from South and Southeast Asia.

Sammy Monsour Head Shot
Chef Sammy Monsour is a vocal advocate for sustainable seafood.

Chef Sammy Monsour has gone through enough shrimp—in gumbo and grits, po’ boys and Creole Bloody Marys—to know the product as well as Forrest Gump’s buddy Bubba. He gets why it’s one of the top three most-consumed seafood products in the world.

“Shrimp are delicious; that’s it,” he says. “So many amazing dishes from around the world feature shrimp.”

For years, Sammy has been on a mission to source ocean-friendly shrimp for his celebrated Los Angeles restaurants, Preux & Proper and South City Fried Chicken. He knew that much of the world’s shrimp supply is unsustainable. As a member of the Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force, a group of about 60 culinary pros, he helps promote seafood that’s caught or farmed in ways that are gentle on the ocean.

For more than 20 years, Seafood Watch has been generating public support for sustainable seafood. Our popular consumer guide helps shoppers identify which seafood products are Best Choices (green), Good Alternatives (yellow) or products to Avoid (red), and encourages sustainable choices. 

“I trust Seafood Watch,” Sammy says. “I know they are constantly doing their research, staying up with industry technology and traveling the globe, while staying transparent and honest.”

That diligence is needed to keep up with the American demand for shrimp—an appetite that’s grown, like a molting shrimp, too big for the structures that once contained it.

An acquired taste

To understand why people are farming shrimp in Southeast Asia for consumption in the United States, we can first look at the history of U.S. shrimp production—and how it moved abroad on a massive scale. 

According to Paul Greenberg’s book American Catch, U.S. shrimp production started in the mid-19th century, when Chinese laborers who had immigrated for the California Gold Rush began catching shrimp in San Francisco Bay. Most of their harvest was dried and exported to China.

In this undated photo, fishermen in the San Francisco Bay Area process shrimp, likely for export to China. Photo courtesy China Camp State Park via CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Over the decades, development decimated the San Francisco salt marshes, and pioneering Chinese American shrimpers moved to the bayous of southern Louisiana. There, shrimp became a signature ingredient in Cajun cuisine, creating regional demand in the American South.

But by the 1960s and ’70s, shrimp started popping up on menus all around the United States—a trend made possible by advances in processing technology, refrigeration and transportation. American companies started marketing shrimp as more than a southern delicacy: Restaurant chains like Long John Silver’s, Red Lobster and Beefsteak Charlie’s targeted consumers coast to coast, advertising plates piled high with the tasty crustaceans. The all-you-can-eat shrimp buffet was born.

At that time, Greenberg reports, 70 percent of shrimp consumed in the U.S. was wild-caught, and most of it came from the Gulf of Mexico. In the Mississippi Delta, ramped-up shrimp production was taking a heavy toll on estuary ecosystems. The biggest problem was bycatch: Untold numbers of marine animals like sea turtles were getting caught and killed in fishing gear meant for shrimp. 

A loggerhead turtle escapes a fishing net equipped with a turtle excluder device, thanks to federal rules intended to minimize bycatch. Photo by NOAA 

Since then, two federal laws have made the American wild shrimp harvest more sustainable. The 1973 Endangered Species Act requires resource managers to address the unintentional impacts of fishing on vulnerable species. Three decades later, the 2006 Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization set science-based catch limits and put other measures in place to minimize bycatch and protect habitats.

Today, most U.S. shrimp is wild-caught in the Gulf of Mexico or South Atlantic and, thanks to strong federal oversight, has a Seafood Watch yellow or green rating. But there’s not enough of it to satisfy American demand, which now amounts to 4.4 pounds per person per year—more than the next two most popular seafood products, tuna and salmon, combined. 

In the decades it took the U.S. to improve the sustainability of our domestic shrimp fisheries, the seafood market became global. Today, Americans import more than 90 percent of the shrimp we eat. Most of it is farmed in Southeast Asia, and almost all of that is rated red.

Most American shrimp is on the Seafood Watch green or yellow list, but there isn’t enough of it to meet U.S. demand.

A market opportunity

Seafood Watch and other seafood rating organizations have inspired more than 85 percent of North America’s seafood retailers and top foodservice companies to commit to sourcing sustainable seafood.

That means businesses like Compass Group, Blue Apron and Whole Foods need reliable shrimp sources that meet both Seafood Watch standards and their customers’ demands. 

Shrimp producers in Southeast Asia, and the governments that regulate them, have invited the Aquarium and our collaborators to help them meet this new bar in shrimp sustainability. The challenge has led us on a transoceanic trek that crosses continents, cultures and kitchens.

– By Kera Abraham Panni, Mark C. Anderson and Magdaline Southard

Continue to Part 2

Featured photo: Shrimp and grits dish by Chef Sammy Monsour. Photo courtesy Sammy Monsour

By choosing seafood that’s recommended by Seafood Watch, you’re supporting a healthy ocean for future generations. Learn more at seafoodwatch.org

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