Whether you're mingling at a holiday cocktail party, indulging in a southern Bayou-style barbeque, or dining at your favorite seafood restaurant, shrimp are likely on the menu. In fact, Americans eat more shrimp than any other type of seafood by weight. There's just one problem with that: "Shrimp is one of the most -- if not the most -- damaging fisheries around," says Andy Sharpless, CEO of Oceana, the world's largest conservation group focused solely on oceans.
In his new book, The Perfect Protein, Sharpless lays out a plan to create healthier oceans -- and people -- by just saying "no" to shrimp. These unappetizing incentives will help you rethink putting America's favorite shellfish on your plate. (Not all fish are healthy. Here are 12 Fish You Should Never, Ever Eat.)
Shrimp farms are breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses.
The U.S. imports more than 90% of the shrimp we eat -- 1.3 billion pounds in 2011 alone. Much of this shrimp comes from farms in Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Thailand, where shallow pools are often overloaded with shrimp, paving the way for nasty diseases that can destroy entire colonies. And get this: Only 2% of all imported seafood is tested by the Food and Drug Administration.
Better seafood selection: Farmed oysters. They're one of the most sustainable seafood choices out there, actually help clean oceans, and contain trace minerals like zinc that can bolster your immune system. Oysters are filter feeders, so they actually make cleaner water on their own -- even when they're farmed. (Learn the difference between farmed and wild shrimp, and the safest sources.)
Some shrimp is loaded with chemicals.
Shrimp Shocker: With shrimp densely packed in shallow ponds, overseas aquatic farmers often dose them with high levels of antibiotics and pesticides -- including ones currently banned for use in the United States. In fact, investigations have turned up carcinogenic antibiotics like nitrofuranzone in shrimp at levels nearly 30 times higher than those allowed in food by the FDA. (Did you know that sugar can rival the toxicity found in imported seafood? Learn where sneaky sugar hides, along with its surprising sugar side effects.)
And you can't count on the government to keep these toxic shrimp out of U.S. grocery stores: According to a 2011 Government Accountability Office report, the FDA tested just 0.1% of imported seafood for chemical residues.
Better seafood selection: Domestic farmed clams. Because they are relatively young when harvested, they tend to avoid accumulating high levels of contaminants like older fish do, Sharpless says. And U.S. aquaculture regulations are more stringent than those of common shrimp farming countries.
Shrimp farming contributes to global warming.
Shrimp Shocker: Over the past 50 years, anywhere from 5 to 80% of the mangrove forests in Thailand, Ecuador, Indonesia, China, Mexico, and Vietnam (the five leading shrimp-farming countries) have been destroyed to make room for more coastal shrimp farms. Scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have found that mangrove forests absorb and trap more climate-changing carbon dioxide than any other ecosystem on the planet, including rainforests. Mangroves also serve as nursery areas for other ocean creatures, and they help keep coasts secure by reducing flooding during storms.
Better seafood selection: Wild-caught Alaskan salmon. It's easier on the environment than farmed fish, low in contaminants, and loaded with brain- and heart-protecting omega-3 fatty acids. (Even if you think you're eating cruelty-free, you might not be. Explore how the food we eat really gets from farm to plate.)
Shrimp farms destroy local fishing economies.
Shrimp Shocker: After turning the tropical mangroves into polluted wasteland, shrimp farmers often abandon the industrial ponds and move on to cut down more mangrove forests for a fresh start. They leave behind pollution that not only degrades the environment, but also the prospects for artisanal fishermen.
Better seafood selection: Mussels. They're sustainably harvested, and are loaded with some of the highest naturally occurring levels of brain-protecting vitamin B12 on the planet. They also contain tract nutrients that help balance your mood, including zinc, iodine, and selenium.
Wild-caught shrimp harvesting is extremely wasteful.
Farmed shrimp have their problems, but wild-caught shrimp aren't always a much better alternative. Fisherman catch wild shrimp using fine-meshed trawl nets pulled through the water. Worldwide, for one pound of shrimp, there can be 5 pounds of bycatch -- other species that become trapped in the nets. Even here in the United States, Sharpless says 76% of marine life in the nets brought onboard during shrimp harvesting is not shrimp. "Most fish are damaged from being in the net, and many are discarded -- dead or dying -- overboard," he says. Nets routinely pull up 9,000 endangered or threatened sea turtles annually, in addition to sharks, red snappers, and other animals.
Better seafood selection: Sardines and anchovies. These small fish are generally caught without using destructive bottom trawling methods that can destroy centuries-old seafloor communities (and the livelihood of local fishing industries), Sharpless says.
If you must eat shrimp, buy shrimp harvested in the United States, since U.S. regulations tend to be stricter than those of common overseas shrimp farming countries. (Green up your life with these simple, painless ways to help out the environment. Bonus: you'll save money too.)
Additional reporting by Emily Main