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  July/August 1998 Features:
Our Only Ocean
A Place of Unrest
The Lobster Trap
Just Beneath the Surface
The Hidden Life of Shrimp
 
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Sierra Magazine
The Hidden Life of Shrimp

by Tracy Baxter

Your local takeout serves shrimp and snow peas in a savory sauce that you find irresistible. But however it's prepared—sautéed in butter and garlic, fried, or just boiled and dipped in cocktail sauce—shrimp is one of your favorite foods.

You're not alone. Shrimp is now second only to tuna as America's top seafood, a taste that has helped create a $6 billion global industry. Each year Americans gobble down nearly 850 million pounds of shrimp, over one-eighth of the total consumed worldwide, or three pounds per capita. Over the past decade, the developed world's culinary love affair with shrimp has translated into a 300 percent increase in its consumption in the United States, Japan, and Western Europe, and the feeding frenzy shows no sign of stopping.

Not long ago, coastal shrimp cultivation in Southeast Asia was a low-tech enterprise with modest yields, and shrimp fetched $20 per pound. The local fisheries were stable and the coastal mangrove forests, where 80 to 90 percent of tropical fish species spend part of their life cycles, remained intact, also protecting tidal flats from high winds and erosion.

Although exact figures aren't available, it's estimated that in the past 20 years, 2.5 million acres of coastal wetlands have been destroyed to make way for high-yield shrimp ponds. About two-thirds of the Philippines' one million acres of mangrove forests has vanished. Thailand, the world's leading producer of farmed shrimp, has lost almost 500,000 acres. Ecuador, 160 square miles, or one-fifth of its mangroves.

Shrimp now costs about $5 per pound, which allows for feasting at seafood restaurant chains but precipitates fasting elsewhere. For every acre of mangrove swamp wiped out, the wild fish catch drops by 676 pounds per year. While the implications are global, the swelling fisheries crisis most severely affects developing nations, whose people derive 20 to 30 percent of their protein from the oceans.

As many as 121,000 harvestable shrimp jam each acre of an industrial farm operation. Because overcrowded stocks are susceptible to disease and infestation, they're liberally dosed with antibiotics and pesticides. Combined with shrimp excrement and partially eaten fishmeal, these substances are then flushed into the surrounding environment, depleting wetlands of oxygen and poisoning the groundwater. Three to five years of intensive shrimp aquaculture is all it takes to turn a once highly productive ecosystem into a dead zone. Entrepreneurs then set off for pristine shores, and local farmers who attempted to cash in on the shrimp boom go broke. Highly saline "mud deserts" are left where there were once sea-grass beds, coral reefs, and other marine habitat.

Harvesting wild shrimp also takes its toll. For every pound of market-size wild shrimp captured by trawlers, two to ten pounds of other sea creatures are entangled in their nets. In the Gulf of Mexico and the south Atlantic, juvenile catfish, croaker, mackerel, and other fish species are thrown overboard dead or dying. Fisheries experts attribute nearly 90 percent of red snapper juvenile mortality to shrimp trawling. Nets also kill some 150,000 endangered sea turtles annually. Environmentalists believe that many shrimpers are purposely disabling their turtle excluder devices, or TEDs—escape hatches placed in shrimp nets—fearing a reduced catch. Yet when used properly, TEDs, required by federal law since 1991, can increase the shrimp catch and reduce operating costs.

To help consumers exercise pocketbook power, the Sea Turtle Restoration Project of Earth Island Institute has begun certifying shrimpers, shrimp retailers, and restaurants with a stamp that guarantees that the shrimp was wild-harvested using proven turtle-saving technology. (Earth Island does not certify farmed shrimp.) If Turtle-Safe wild shrimp isn't available in your area yet, try sweet-and-sour tofu for a delicious change of taste. (And why bother with wasteful disposable chopsticks? Reusables work just fine.)


Research by Tom Lombardo. For more information, contact the Industrial Shrimp Action Network, 317 W. Republican St., Suite 3, Seattle, WA 98119, (206) 301-9815; Earth Island Institute, P.O. Box 400, 40 Montezuma Ave., Forest Knolls, CA 94933, (800) 859-SAVE; Mangrove Action Project, 4649 Sunnyside Ave. N., #321, Seattle, WA 98103, (206) 545-1137. This first installment of a 12-part series of environmental audits was inspired in part by the book Stuff (Northwest Environment Watch, 1997).


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