Searching for sustainable shrimp
As the story goes, shrimp has been one of my favorites since I was around 8 months old and my dad snuck me a piece. I cried until he'd surrendered every last one on his plate. Served every way, from boiled peel-and-eats to scampi to barbecued and grilled, I love it. But I'm also a voracious consumer of information, and the health and environmental concerns about the scrumptious little crustaceans are terrifying. It's time to write some new fish stories. So let's start small ... very small. The number one most consumed seafood product in the world is shrimp. Little things can have a big impact.
Austin is uniquely positioned as a food-conscious city with world-class chefs. And we boast sustainable options for just about any food – from beef to broccoli to bugs – but our public awareness of the seafood market, although moving forward, is still lagging. "Austin is a landlocked city, but we're very close to the coast," said supplier Louis LeSassier. "A very fruitful coast. Our bays and estuaries are some of the most prolific in the nation in terms of seafood and fish hatcheries." LeSassier, and his "co-shrimper in crime," Laine Martin, sells wild-caught shrimp through his family-owned, small-scale business, the Shrimp Connection. Fourth-generation shrimpers, the guys run operations while uncles and cousins work the fleet of eight boats in the Gulf of Mexico. Every week they bring the catch up from the coast, to sell at two weekend farmers' markets – Barton Creek and Bluebonnet Flea.
LeSassier is critical of many of the industry norms. "You'd be horrified by the stuff they put in some shrimp," says LeSassier of many overseas purveyors and shrimp farmers. "It's laced, riddled with chemicals and diseases, and it's funky. They're selling funky shrimp." Shrimp has some unique health benefits and is purported to fight cancer, weight issues, and type 2 diabetes, but that's assuming they aren't raised in a toxic environment or dipped in a chemical cocktail. While the Shrimp Connection uses EverFresh, an all-natural preservative made of plum seed extract, on the boats, that's an unusual practice in the industry. And LeSassier's sustainable practices aside, it can still be difficult to know whether wild-caught is any better than farmed shellfish.
In May, the nonprofit Texas Shrimp Association (TSA) hosted its 65th annual convention. The attendees are deeply passionate about all aspects of shrimp – not just chef Andre Natera's stunning spread of white and brown wild-caught beauties on the buffet. Dr. Benny Gallaway exemplifies that passion. A Texas A&M Ph.D. marine biologist, he has also been the president of LGL Ecological Research Associates since 1974. The private firm works extensively with fishery management and spends a great deal of time handling bycatch, especially sea turtles and finfish such as red snapper. They work with entities from governments to conservation organizations to private sector companies.
I asked Dr. Gallaway to give it to me straight: Is wild-caught better than farmed? "Give me wild-caught every time," he replied. "Frankly, I'm afraid of farm-raised products." There are a slew of reasons. Gallaway and LeSassier both mentioned the high doses of antibiotics and chemicals added to conventional commercial fish farms. The problems are similar to land factory farms: Excessive numbers of organisms (multimillions, in the case of shrimp) in a small contained area are prone to disease. To counteract that, additives many believe are not safe for human consumption are added. It's not just a health issue; taste changes too. Muscle structure doesn't grow properly in cramped quarters, changing the natural texture and flavor of the shrimp. In contrast, Gallaway says of wild-caught shrimp, "It's a mighty big ocean out there. It's hard to overcrowd the ocean because it has a large carrying capacity."
Ocean pollutants are also a public concern, but for Gallaway, it's a matter of comparison. He says, "If you look at pollution and if you look at concentrations in the water column, and you look at the concentrations wild-caught seafood is exposed to, there is far less concern than with farm-raised fish. You've got them in a quarter-acre pond pumping chemicals in, and that's compared to even a small body of water like the Gulf of Mexico. Dilution is not the solution, but you have to consider dilution and the size of the body of water. I mean, of course, consuming any raw seafood, you're taking a chance."
That's especially true if you consider that the majority of the United States' seafood comes from overseas – a staggering 86% by some estimates, with half or more coming from aquafarms. Much of the shrimp (and fish) sold at grocery stores and restaurants are the lowest quality, because it's exchanged at a lower price. International regulations are thin, and the mandates in place are loosely enforced (if at all). In some countries, such as Thailand and Vietnam, the ecological implications of shrimping are brutal. LeSassier said, "They raise in mangrove estuary areas which is really bad environmentally ... because it creates oxygen-depleted zones in the water, as well as [being] a very, very heavy pollutant." These countries also fail to enforce regulations on shrimp diet. In nature, they eat zooplankton, but in the unmonitored farms, shrimp are reportedly fed just about anything, including pig and chicken excrement. Sanitary conditions, including personnel practices and ice for packing, are also cited as problematic.
Treaties and import inspections exist, but are largely overlooked. Less than 10% of imported food products are inspected by the FDA. For perspective, Gallaway says most "European countries won't even take the shrimp that we routinely import. We routinely get these products dumped on the U.S. that aren't acceptable to most civilized countries."
Despite no real sustainable fishery management practices in place globally, the United States' shrimp industry has made enormous strides, but there's still a ways to go. Differences exist between federal and state jurisdiction (distance from shore), and the measurements of fish populations determine how many of which kinds of seafood may be caught and sold. "It's a tricky business trying to decide what the balance is," says Gallaway. "Shrimp are kind of like mosquitoes. Their life cycle is about a year, and one female can produce all the young necessary for a huge population. They're literally more like insects than fish. It's hard to overfish them, so the shrimp fishery is never managed based on shrimp yield. It's based on bycatch."
Bycatch used to be a huge environmental problem, and though still a concern, the numbers have improved dramatically. In the Seventies, the haul of unwanted fish was around 10 pounds per 1 pound of shrimp caught. Currently, it's measured around 2.5 pounds to 1. Progress includes ongoing efforts to minimize fuel consumption, improve trolling nets to minimize seafloor damage, and enforce federally mandated turtle excluder devices (TEDs) and other bycatch reduction devices (BRDs), for species such as red snapper. TSA (Texas Shrimp Association) reports a 97% compliance with TEDs, and Gallaway explained that the red snapper population is at higher levels than seen in decades. Some activists have been slow to accept that fact, resulting in continued public misinformation.
In a February 2015 article for National Geographic, Megan Westmeyer, fishery analyst for Sustainable Fisheries Partnership wrote, "Fishery improvement projects (FIPs) are based on the premise that the seafood industry itself is the strongest force for driving improvements in fisheries, and a group of shrimp suppliers from the Gulf of Mexico has shown us how it's done." LGL research is referenced: "The overall conclusion of the study was that none of these bycatch species exhibited trends that would warrant concern. While further studies, especially full-fledged stock assessments, would be helpful, we believe this study indicates that the shrimp fishery does not pose a risk of serious or irreversible harm to the main bycatch species."
So, shrimping is now safer for the sea, but what's the best choice for sourcing? Local is still the key. For wild-caught shrimp, that means the Gulf of Mexico, or at least U.S. shores. Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch does provide an app to identify best seafood buying practices, but the shrimp part is somewhat confusing. Texas is never listed specifically, but rather lumped into the Gulf options, which, depending on trawling method, are listed as "good alternatives" (Alaska tops the list). Knowing your source is absolutely essential, and around Austin, you've got wholesalers like the Shrimp Connection, K&S Seafood, Quality Seafood, and San Miguel Seafood (available to the public at Mongers Market + Kitchen). If H-E-B or Central Market is more convenient, check labels for country of origin. For dining out, try restaurants that source responsibly and ask questions. Responsible North American and European aquaculture is a viable option according to some sources, but taste can be a useful gauge of a shrimp's overall health. Consumer education is essential to sustainability, and I can guarantee I'll put my money where my mouth is – one plateful of wild-caught Gulf shrimp at a time.
"Sea Change" is the first in a series of features focused on finding ethical and sustainable seafood in Texas. Next up: Aquaculture.
Sign up for the Chronicle Cooking newsletter
If you want to submit a recipe, send it to email@example.com