By Karis Wright
The shrimp industry has come a long way since the earlier 1930’s. From the first couple of small tanks holding larvae, to the disease ridden populations, to the immense pools containing millions of shrimp. The act of consuming shrimp on a regular basis has gone from a luxury to a common practice. Shrimp farming has had a tremendous impact on the environment by destroying thousands of acres of the greatest carbon sequestering plant matter. While dumping chemicals into the water systems and pumping the product with antibiotics, this industry has expanded like no one would have expected. The environmental ethics and negative impacts of shrimp farming seem to be protected by the social construction of shrimp consumption.
Short History of Shrimp Farming
The first seed of the shrimp farming industry was planted in the early 1930’s in various parts of the world including Japan and the United States. Dr. Motosaku Fujinaga, a Japanese biologist, was studying the artificial propagation and culture of the kuruma shrimp, Penaeus japonicus (Stickney and Treece 2012). He started by conducting small scale survivorship experiments, because at this point the shrimp were dying during the third stage of the life cycle. By 1939, Dr. Fujinaga discovered how to keep the shrimp alive until the adult stage. With this major discovery, the first commercial farms were developed in the 1960’s along Japan’s Seto Inland Sea (Stickney and Treece 2012).
On the other side of the world, J. C. Pearson was also beginning to learn the life histories of American penaeids in the 1930’s. However, the first attempts to spawn shrimp weren’t until 1953. The U.S. used a technique called the “Galveston Method,” as known as “clear water”. This was designed at the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Laboratory in Galveston, Texas. Constant aeration of the small tanks was required to keep everything suspended and allowed for high stocking densities. Whereas, in Asia, the Green Water Method was preferred. This technique kept larvae and their food source in the same tank, which restricted stocking densities. As these techniques were improved, higher stock densities led to growth development issues. Viral diseases ravaged populations at companies, small and large, from the 1980’s through the 21st century (Stickney and treece 2012). Scientists were called in to figure out how to decrease the spread of disease and how to improve the overall health of the shrimp. Chemicals were put in the water to help kill bacteria. Antibiotics were dumped into the larvae feed in order to strengthen their immune system. Stricter regulations were enforced to prevent the sale of diseased shrimp. In addition to these regulations, better management plans were implemented.
By the 1990’s, the shrimp farming industry was booming. Crops of 1.46 billion pounds of live shrimp were being produced, which was 17% greater than the year before. Nowadays, the demand for shrimp is so high that about 4.10 pounds of shrimp per person were consumed in North America in 2016 (Overview of the US Seafood Supply 2017). With each year that passes, the demand for shrimp increases and technology allows for higher production. This billion dollar industry seems to be growing exponentially with no plans of slowing down. The economic and social constructs around this commodity are two contributors driving the expansion of cheap accessible shrimp. Simultaneously, the environmental ethics within this industry have been pushed aside to allow this amplification.
Social Construction & Just a little Corruption
There have been multiple factors contributing to the high demand for shrimp. With the rise of technological innovations, certain products were becoming available. “With such variety and availability, the over-indulgence of the first decade prevailed — at least among the wealthy” (Leite 2017). In the 1900’s, products such as sugar, butter, and seafood were reserved for the wealthy upper class. At this point shrimp was caught wild and sold on the market for a high price. Therefore, the consumption of shrimp quickly became associated with affluence. “Delights such as Shrimp Patties, Oyster Cocktails and Mushrooms Stuffed With Pimientos filled makeshift bars. Customers brought the idea into their homes, and the cocktail party was born” (Leite 2017). The American dream drove home the desire to acquire large sums of wealth in order to one day have that white picket fence, with a beautiful family, and the perfect job. A social construction around the idea of shrimp was becoming more and more evident with time.
As the shrimp industry began to take off, the price of shrimp began to decrease. “The leading shrimp-producing nations include China, Thailand, Vietnam, Brazil, and Ecuador... Before the 1980’s, less than 1 percent of the world's shrimp was farm-raised” (Koerner 2006). Now, it is estimated that 55% of shrimp is farmed globally (Farmed Shrimp). After 1985, shrimp was considered an everyday food due to advertisements like Popeye’s Cajun Popcorn Shrimp (Koerner 2006). At this time, the middle class was able to indulge in the what was once a luxury. However, the link between shrimp and wealth was still very present.
Just a little Corruption
We haven’t quite touched on the work that goes into producing that nicely sealed package you so easily purchase at the store. I will not be discussing the actual steps of preparing shrimp; instead, we will be taking a look into the corruptness of the manufacturing process. Slave labor has been a common theme in the history of our species. For some reason, people don’t think that we still have issues like this but sadly that is just not reality. In 2015, a story broke through regarding the enslavement of undocumented migrants in Thailand.
“Pervasive human trafficking has helped turn Thailand into one of the world’s biggest shrimp providers” (Mason et. al). In order to help keep production costs low, Thailand and other countries enslave humans and force them to peel shrimp. Thousands of hidden “sheds” can be found throughout Thailand. The government and businesses promise to address this major obstruction of human rights but changes have not been made. There has been an ongoing investigation by Associated Press to unearth the depth of this modern-day slavery which is found Asia, Europe, and the US (Mason et. al). Some operations are as small a hundred slaves while others contain thousands of people.
Slave labor is not an easy issue to fix. Political, social, and economic factors are all contributing factors and serious changes need to be made. Labor laws and enforcement would be helpful in shutting down sheds. However, the majority of people living in those sheds are undocumented immigrants. If they were seized by the police things could actually become worse.
As consumers, we need to be aware of what we support when we purchase a product. There is no real way of knowing where that finely packaged shrimp really came from. Did it come from a small farm that follows proper regulations and pays its workers adequately? Or was it from a shed with people packed in like sardines working ridiculous hours? We have the power to demand to know where our products come from. If we stop buying from corrupt industries change will happen. Money is powerful driving force!
When a human baby is born, generally the parent(s) will create a safe place for the child. In most cases this safe place is known as a nursery or a crib. For shrimp, a mangrove forest acts as the perfect nursery. These coastal forests consist of about 31 different tree species and each one of these play an important role in the lives of many species, including baby shrimp.
The roots of the trees are completely submerged in water, which provide the perfect hiding spots from potential predators. At the same time, these forests are furnished with all the essentials required for survival. Algae and plankton are abundant in the waters of these forests, so food is not a problem for the hungry larvae. Once the larvae reach the adult stage, they begin their journey out of the nursery and into the ocean. While out at sea, shrimp mate and when it is time to spawn, females return to the same mangrove forests to release their eggs. Thus, the cycle continues.
Now, back in the day, if a person wanted shrimp they would either go the ocean or mangrove forest for harvesting. However, mangroves are extremely dense and difficult to maneuver through. This is where the shrimp farms come into play. In order to increase the rate of shrimp harvest and production people, like Dr. Fujinaga and Pearson created supplementary shrimp farms. Unfortunately, these farms were created by removing mangrove forests. With this system, farmers could either harvest wild shrimp or harvest from their farms. However, the deforestation of these ecosystems has had some unforeseen impacts.
Farmers noticed the wild shrimp populations were decreasing. As a result, the shrimp farming industry expanded in an attempt to compensate for the losses. Expansion only made the issue worse because farmers failed to recognize that the wild species were decreasing due to habitat loss. As I mentioned earlier, having these shrimp in close quarters lowers the overall health of the species and increased the spread of disease. It seems like this cycle is going to continue until there are no more mangrove forests
You may be thinking, are there any other reasons we should be interested in mangrove forests other than to benefit wild shrimp survival? Yes, these forests act as a natural barrier during storms and tsunamis. Coastal areas that experience severe weather such as Florida greatly benefit from these barriers. An article on mangrove losses in Florida, by the Department of Environmental Projection states, "Over the past 100 years, Tampa Bay has lost over 44 percent of its coastal wetlands acreage; this includes both mangroves and salt marshes" (Florida’s Mangroves).These trees also help purify water and the atmosphere by absorbing large amounts of salts, toxins, and carbon. According to Dr. Silori, coordinator of the Center For People and Forests, "These coastal vegetation’s sequester carbon far more effectively (up to 100 times faster) and more permanently than terrestrial forests" (Lelystad 2013). Global warming due to an increased amount of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide is a major current issue. Mangrove forests are very efficient purifiers and the perfect homes for marine and terrestrial wildlife.
Now you may wondering, If mangroves forests are so important, why are we allowing them to be destroyed? My first response goes back to the social construction and the drive for shrimp. Wild shrimp harvesting can only be done during certain times of the year. Consumers of this product support the farming aspects because it allows for shrimp all year round. This leads me to my second response, lack of awareness. Most industries prefer to do things in the cheapest, easiest way possible regardless of the impacts. They don’t want the general public to know about the negative environmental impacts that their products are causing because this could potentially lead to stricter regulations. In addition, if the public is not informed then they have nothing to feel guilty about when they purchase the product. In other words, Ignorance is Bliss.
Earlier, I mentioned that immense disease outbreak led to more regulations. This is true, however there is so much more to be done. The fact that we are actively destroying such an important ecosystem just so we can generate high densities of shrimp needs to stop. If we want to live in a world where there is only farmed shrimp instead of naturally occurring individuals then we should continue on this path.
Fortunately, there have been some groups that want to lessen the environmental impact. These organizations include the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Both the MSC and ASC offer a sustainable seafood certification. This certification is granted by a third party that oversees the procedures and regulations that the shrimp farming industry is supposed to follow. Certification has to be applied for and it guarantees that the goods produced by the company are upholding the appropriate standards. WWF is invested many different environmental issues. Currently they are working with the shrimp farmers and the general public in Asia. WWF strongly encourages farmers to get certification and educates them on the importance of sustainable farming. When it comes to public education, WWF encourages consumers to only buy from companies that are certified and how to identify the differences (Farmed Shrimp). Overall, these three groups are committed to ensuring shrimp is produced responsibly.
Again, as consumers we can further encourage sustainable farming by only buying from certified groups. In addition, massive restoration programs need to be made a priority in order to return some of the forests that have been lost. With each year the this industry gets larger but do we really need that much shrimp? As a people let’s take a step back and think about how are actions are influencing the world around us. It doesn’t take an expert to get out there and plants some trees. Lets leave a legacy of bringing about balance and sustainability instead of destruction and exploitation.
As you have learned, the shrimp industry is full of deep rooted issues. It’s rank in our society started off as a luxury but with the technological revolution it quickly became a common commodity. Corruption of the trade was soon to follow, as the demand for cheap accessible shrimp increased. Along with corruption, there came the destruction of an extremely important natural storm barrier and air purifier. Major changes need to be made within our society as a whole in order to combat the present issues in this industry. Sustainable thinking, strict labor laws, and major restoration efforts are just a few ways to prevent these issues from continuing at their current rate.
In our world today, there are many industries that people regularly rely on for their favorite products. Whether it’s palm oil filled ice cream, gasoline, or the computer screen you are reading this on, we as a people continuously choose to support companies that destroy our environment. With every purchase we make, we actively agree with the process in which a product was made. We can’t claim innocence for the impact our consumption is making because we are uneducated in the full cycle of each product. It is our duty as responsible citizens to be educated consumers.
Margie Mason, Robin McDowell and Esther Htusan in Samut Sakhon and Martha Mendoza in Washington. “Shrimp Sold by Global Supermarkets Is Peeled by Slave Labourers in Thailand.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 14 Dec. 2015, www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/dec/14/shrimp-sold-by-global-supermarkets-is-peeled-by-slave-labourers-in-thailand
Chamberlain, George. “The History of Shrimp Farming.” Shrimp News , Shrimp News International, www.shrimpnews.com/FreeReportsFolder/HistoryFolder/HistoryWorldShrimpFarming/ChamberlainsHistoryOfShrimpFarming.html.
“Farmed Shrimp.” WWF, World Wildlife Fund, www.worldwildlife.org/industries/farmed-shrimp
“Florida's Mangroves.” Florida Department of Environmental Protection, 3 Nov. 2017, www.floridadep.gov/fco/fco/content/floridas-mangroves
Koerner, Brendan. “Why Americans Love Shrimp.” Slate Magazine, 13 Jan. 2006, www.slate.com/articles/arts/number_1/2006/01/the_shrimp_factor.html
Leite, David. “100 Years of American Food: 1900 to 1999.” Leite's Culinaria, 27 July 2017, www.leitesculinaria.com/10348/writings-100-years-american-food.html
Lelystad. “Mangroves More Carbon Rich and Important for Climate Change.” RECOFTC, 24 Jan. 2013, www.recoftc.org/project/grassroots-capacity-building-redd/news-and-features/mangroves-more-carbon-rich-and-important-climate-change
Stickney, Robert R and Granvil Treece D. “The History of Shrimp Farming.” ShrimpNews, Shrimp News International, Aug. 2012.
Overview of the U.S. Seafood Supply.” Seafood Health Facts, Sea Grant Delaware , 2017, www.seafoodhealthfacts.org/seafood-choices/overview-us-seafood-supply.