Reconsidering Farmed Shrimp

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I stopped eating farmed shrimp--which is to say nearly 90 percent of the shrimp sold in this country--several years ago for three reasons:

1) They taste like ammonia or mud.
2) Too often, they are contaminated with drugs and chemicals banned by the United States government.
And (3) Shrimp aquaculture is one of the most environmentally harmful ways humans have devised to raise food, contributing to the destruction of mangroves, pollution of coastal waters, and decimation of wild species.

I may soon have to reassess my blanket condemnation of farmed shrimp. On January 14, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, which publishes a series of useful pocket guides to sustainable seafood, will issue updated guidelines. "New research has become available on farmed shrimp," Alison Barratt, a spokeswoman for the aquarium, told me. "Some aspects have improved."

Although Barratt refused to give specifics in advance of the release, environmentalists agree that things appear to have gotten better in a couple of key management practices, particularly in Asian countries, the source for most of the farmed shrimp we eat. Aquaculture operations in that area once relied on native tiger shrimp and had to populate their ponds with juvenile "seed stock" caught from depleted wild populations. Over the last several years, they have switched to Pacific white shrimp, an American species, which is bred in captivity.

"The industry has changed dramatically," said Peter Bridson, Monterey's aquaculture research manager. But Bridson added that all shrimp-producing countries are not equal.

In another positive trend, Asian shrimp farms have begun moving away from coastal areas, replacing open systems that flushed dirty water and pollutants directly back into the sea. In so doing, they are reducing water pollution and destruction of mangroves. White shrimp do not require as high a level of salinity as tiger shrimp, facilitating the move away from the seacoast.

"The industry has changed dramatically," said Peter Bridson, Monterey's aquaculture research manager. But Bridson added that all shrimp-producing countries are not equal. "We are recognizing that practices are different in various countries, so we are breaking our research down on a country-by-country basis."

Currently, Seafood Watch tars all farmed imported shrimp with the same bright red "Avoid" recommendation.

Although packages of unprocessed shrimp sold to American consumers are required by law to label their countries of origin, processed shrimp and shrimp sold by restaurants come with no such identification. Even if Seafood Watch does give different ratings to different shrimp-producing countries, consumers may still have no way of knowing where their shrimp were farmed.

Moreover, the new sustainable practices do not necessarily address the problem of chemical contaminants, and the Food and Drug Administration, inspects less than 2 percent of shrimp imports.

It's great if the aquaculture industry is really cleaning up its act. But I'm still tempted to stick with tiny northern shrimp from the Northeast or pink shrimp from the Northwest if I want something small, mild and sweet. If I'm looking to bite into something larger with bolder flavor, it's hard to beat wild-caught shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico and the Southeast. They all taste great, are naturally chemical-free, and earn either "Best Choice" or "Good Alternative" ratings from Seafood Watch.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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