Is There Such a Thing as Guilt-Free Shrimp?

Lots o' shrimp

The season for Northern Shrimp typically begins in December.

Shrimp is a staple in our household. It’s easy to cook, versatile, and, tastes good virtually any way you prepare it.

Although I’ve known for a long time that 90 percent of the shrimp that we eat in the US is farm-raised under unsavory conditions, I’ve never figured out what to do about it. Pretend I don’t know? Eat it, but feel guilty? Only eat wild shrimp? Stop eating shrimp altogether?

(For terrific reporting about the shrimp business, I recommend Jim Carrier’s piece, “All You Can Eat: A journey through a seafood fantasy” in the March/April 2009 issue of Orion and Barry Eastabrook’s article, “Do I Dare to Eat a Shrimp?” in the March 2007 Gourmet.)

Until recently, I’ve made an effort to purchase or order shrimp that was designated as wild,” whenever it looked good and/or I felt I could afford it.  I just assumed that “farm-raised = bad, wild shrimp = good.”

This week, I realized that it was time to ditch my simplistic approach to choosing shrimp and try to learn something about what I was buying. First, Legal Sea Foods Restaurant “stirred the pot” by hosting a well-publicized, $115-a-plate dinner in Boston on January 24 featuring Atlantic cod, haddock, and tiger shrimp—fish that sustainable seafood experts encourage consumers to avoid. For example, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommends that consumers avoid purchasing black tiger shrimp because farming harms mangrove forests and artisanal fisheries.

The mainstream media, bloggers and many respected organizations have been buzzing about the dinner. According to the Boston Globe, Legal’s stated that “outdated scientific findings unfairly turn the public against certain species of fish,’’ so they are serving the “blacklisted fish” to counter “misinformation” about sustainability.

Since I eat at Legal’s fairly often and think of them as seafood experts, I decided to try to find out if they were justified in serving farm-raised shrimp. Although not everyone agrees, I learned that some people believe shrimp farming is here to stay and it can be done in a sustainable way.  I also found out that wild shrimp fishing isn’t problem-free.  The nets the shrimpers use can pick up anywhere from 2-10 pounds of unwanted seafood and junk (known as “by-catch”) for every pound of shrimp. Even though they sort through the haul, save the shrimp and throw the other fish back, it’s often already dead. So much for my simplistic farmed = bad, wild = good equation.

In my favorite article about the Legal’s brouhaha, titled “DON’T PANIC: Sustainable seafood and the American outlaw,” marine biologist and blogger Miriam started by confessing that despite what she knows about shrimp farming, she can’t resist eating a “Surf ‘n’Turf” burrito with shrimp now and then. She interviewed Rich Vellante, Executive Chef of Legal Sea Foods, about what he put on the menu for the famous dinner. Vellante said Legal’s had sent people to Vietnam to inspect the shrimp farming operations and there were “certain stipulations” that had to be followed, but he didn’t have the details of what that meant, and Miriam was unable to get hold of anyone else who did.

She was, however, able to locate the latest scientific findings (from  June, 2010), indicating that–despite massive mangrove restoration–shrimp farming continues to cause severe water pollution in Vietnam. So even if Legal’s has found some responsibly farmed Vietnamese shrimp, it’s certainly not all good.

Coincidentally, my Cape Ann Fresh Catch Community Supported Fishery (CSF) share this week consisted of featured 5 pounds of whole, head-on “Northern Shrimp” (Pandalus Borealis).  The Northern Shrimp fishermen have virtually eliminated the bycatch by using nets with a mesh size that minimizes unwanted fish and by not using mechanical devises to sort the fish that could damage the ones that are thrown back in the sea. Seafood Watch rates Northern Shrimp “a best choice.” and the Blue Ocean Institute gives it its highest (Green) ranking.

A plate of pasta

Northern Shrimp are easy to peel, but small.

I took the shrimp home and immediately washed them and removed the heads, as instructed. It was surprisingly easy to remove the heads—just a little twist and they were separated from the bodies–but because these are small shrimp, it took an hour to go through all five pounds. I made shrimp linguine with sautéed onion, garlic, olive, tomato, and pea pods. Many people rave about the sweet flavor of Northern Shrimp; I can’t say I noticed any special taste, but I really enjoyed eating my meal, guilt-free!

Unfortunately, I can’t get all the fish I need from my CSF, but I’ve resolved to do my best to “know my fish” by asking questions at the fish counter and at restaurants. Despite Legal Sea Foods’ skepticism, I believe that the lists of which sea foods to choose and which ones to avoid are a wonderful starting point, so I’ve downloaded the free iPhone apps for both Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute. (Blue Ocean also offers a FishPhone texting service to receive ocean alerts with info on new rankings or breaking ocean news.  To opt in, text BLUE to 30644).

While I know I won’t be able to resist the occasional shrimp taco, in the future, I may smile at the person behind the counter and ask if she knows where they get their seafood.

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5 Responses to Is There Such a Thing as Guilt-Free Shrimp?

  1. Miriam Goldstein says:

    So glad you liked the blog post! I am jealous of your Northern shrimp – the thought of five pounds of tasty fresh shrimp (sauteed in butter and garlic) makes me drool.

  2. tibbs says:

    Hey – thanks for this. I’ve been “worrying” and not doing anything, too. Perhaps you would share 1) what questions you ask at the seafood counter 2) what answers drive what behaviors. That is, where do you draw the line and say, “Thanks – I’ll choose something else”.

  3. Tammy McLeod says:

    I really enjoyed this post Myrna. I have that farm raised = bad attitude and I love that you’re offering alternative opinons. As crazy as it sounds, we have a shrimp grower here in the desert. Two of my kids won’t eat shrimp at all but the rest of us really enjoy it.
    This week, I heard that the Monterrey Bay aquarium now has an iphone app that you can use at the grocery store to see if the catch is sustainable.

  4. Pingback: “Lazy” Shoppers Guide to Sustainable Shrimp | The PescoVegetarian Times

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