Whether it’s battered and fried, steamed and cocktail-sauced, or boiled until tender in spicy brine, shrimp is a national obsession. Our consumption has been escalating, up to about 4.4 pounds per person per year, a marked increase from 4 pounds per person just 5 years ago. It seems we will eat as much shrimp as we can get our hands on — more than 1.5 billion pounds per year.
Lower prices and increased supply have whetted our appetites. According to John Sackton, founder of the online industry publication Seafood News, 49% of American families put shrimp in their shopping carts in 2018, a record.
“Because shrimp prices have been consistently low and stable,” Sackton said, “it’s allowed supermarkets and restaurants to do promotions, which spurs consumption even higher.”
Shrimp is now seen as a value ingredient, something to pluck out of the freezer and toss into a pan of buttery garlic whenever you need a convenient dinner.
Amid this boom in consumption, however, are questions hanging over the industry. Is our shrimp habit environmentally sustainable? Have shrimp farming methods changed since past reports of slave labor practices (particularly in Thailand), disease outbreaks, the widespread use of antibiotics, liquid-waste pollution and the destruction of mangroves? Is the fishing of wild shrimp devastating the turtle population? And why exactly do some shrimp sell for $5.97 a pound while others cost three times as much?
Perhaps the most important question is this: When craving a bowl of garlicky scampi, which are the best shrimp to buy, both in terms of sustainability and flavor?
Although the U.S. coastline once was thick with wild shrimp, environmental factors and overfishing have left fisheries extremely diminished.
Domestic, wild-caught shrimp, much of it from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean off the Carolinas and Georgia, accounts for less than 10% of all the shrimp we eat. That number is unlikely to increase, because even as our hunger for shrimp grows, the number of wild shrimp in the ocean is finite — and fragile.
Not that the shrimp themselves are fragile. As Paul Greenberg, the author of “Four Fish,” “American Catch” and “The Omega Principle,” said, “Shrimp breed like crazy and grow like bugs wherever there’s wetlands.”
It’s their habitat that’s precarious. “Shrimp is a huge paradox because, by nature of its biology, it should be sustainable,” Greenberg said.
But the degradation of their environment — from changes in climate, algae bloom from fertilizer runoff, the corroding of coastal marshland from oil spills and hurricanes, and the changes in salinity of coastal waters from flooding — is taking its toll.
Most wild shrimp is frozen and shipped around the country, where you’ll find it either in bags in supermarket freezers, or thawed and piled on ice. Quality varies hugely.
At the low end are wild shrimp treated with chemical additives, frozen and refrozen several times, which can make them mushy and bland. This is probably what you’re getting in bargain bags at big-box stores.
Far better-quality wild shrimp frozen without chemicals is found at upscale supermarkets and fish shops; ask for chemical-free wild shrimp. If the fishmonger doesn’t know the difference, you might want to find another store.
Most experts agree that without aquaculture, there won’t be enough seafood to go around in a decade. The ocean is already under too much pressure to be the sole resource.
But shrimp aquaculture in particular has a very grim reputation. Nearly all the farmed shrimp on the market comes from Southeast Asia (particularly Vietnam), India and South America. Those farms vary from well-run facilities that have fair labor practices, don’t misuse antibiotics or overcrowd their ponds, and are environmentally sustainable, to murky operations in areas without much government oversight.
As for domestic farmed shrimp, the industry is tiny, accounting for less than 1% of the shrimp we buy. Labor and other operating costs have made it hard for U.S. shrimp farms to compete.
(In Hawaii, the dominant aquaculture operation is Kauai Shrimp, which promotes its shellfish as raised in saltwater ponds without chemicals or antibiotics. The shrimp, known for its sweetness, is only sold whole, with heads and shells intact.)
Because overseas shrimp farms tend to be small and family run, particularly in Southeast Asia, it’s impossible for importers and supermarkets buyers to keep track of them all.
Instead, these buyers either rely on partnership with an organization like Seafood Watch to identify better shrimp farms, or they can look for a certification from an independent, nonprofit agency. (Only 3% to 6% of shrimp farms are assessed, a voluntary process the farms pay for.)
The certification a U.S. consumer is most likely to encounter is from the Global Aquaculture Alliance, which has developed standards called Best Aquaculture Practices. If you see a frozen product with a BAP rating of at least two (of four) stars, buy with confidence.
At the end of the day, if consumers want the best, most sustainable and most ethical shrimp, it’s up to them to seek it out — and demand it.
“When the U.S. market talks, the supply chain listens,” said Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, vice president of global initiatives at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “So we rely on the market to send a clear signal that we will buy the seafood that is the most sustainable.”
This may also require a shift in expectations, particularly when it comes to price.
“I’ve radically reduced the amount of shrimp I buy,” Greenberg said. “People should think of shrimp like steak: a once-in-a-while thing that’s worth paying more for.”