No More Shrimp Cocktail?

As I wrote yesterday, environmentalists have warned that we are on a fast track to wiping out our seafood supply if we're not careful. The writing has been on the wall, say experts, but we keep eating anyway. In fact, we're eating more. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service of the Department of Commerce (NMFS), US annual per capita consumption of seafood in 2004 was 16.6 pounds per person, up from 14.8 pounds in 2001.

Short of giving up seafood altogether, how do we do our part to help save the oceans?

Part of the problem is not how much fish we eat, but what kinds of fish we eat, according to one expert. When it comes to seafood, Americans are narrow minded. According to NMFS, we love shrimp, canned tuna and salmon, in that order.

Unfortunately, these national seafood faves also happen to be environmental troublemakers. "As they're currently delivered to us, shrimp, tuna and salmon have lots of problems," says Brian Halweil of Worldwatch Institute, and author of a recently published paper entitled, "Catch of the Day: Choosing Seafood for Healthier Oceans."

Halweil says that the problem with our beloved (and overfished) tuna and salmon is that they're large predators, meaning they consume other fish and have longer life spans during which to do so.

Based on this argument (smaller equals more eco-friendly), shrimp would seem like a good choice, right? Not exactly, according to Halweil.

"Even though they're little, shrimp are pretty high on the food chain," Halweil says. "Most of the shrimp we get in this country is farm raised and is fed a lot of shrimp to raise it, and it devastates coastal areas to put in a shrimp pond." Wild-caught shrimp "are fished dragging a fish net, a technique that yields the most by catch."

Halweil put the shrimp situation another way, which I'm still reeling from: "For every little shrimp cocktail, if you had to pile up all the other fish killed to fish it, it would take up the space of an entire dining table."

Rather than giving up fish altogether, he suggests expanding the menu instead. "In order for other parts of the food chain to recover, Americans need to develop more of taste for other types of seafood."

The "others" are species lower on the food chain, smaller fish that aren't big predators, such as sardines and anchovies (which also reproduce quickly) and herbivorous (non fish-eating) species, such as carp, mussels, oysters, clams, and in many cases, catfish and tilapia.

In addition to exploring other types of seafood, Halweil suggests other ways to help save the oceans:

1) Smaller servings. "Don't be afraid to eat smaller quantities of seafood. All studies about health impacts indicate that we're just talking about 6 ounces per week. That's a lot less seafood than many seafood eaters are currently eating. What's wrong with cutting that fish steak in half for lunch the next day?"

2) Ask questions about where fish comes from and how it's caught. "Just like with beef and milk, we need to ask questions about seafood. Avoid seafood caught using large-scale indiscriminate techniques, such as long-lines (tuna and swordfish) or bottom trawling (shrimp and cod)."

Organizations such as Monterey Bay Aquarium, Environmental Defense, Blue Ocean Institute and National Audubon Society [PDF] all offer online and wallet-sized seafood guides, which are regularly updated with the latest on environmental and health information on fish and shellfish.

What's your experience been at the seafood counter? Share your stories and lessons learned in comments area below.

Tomorrow: Contaminant Risks: To Heed or Not? Plus: Tuna math.

By Kim ODonnel |  November 29, 2006; 2:55 PM ET Food Politics , Seafood
Previous: Fishing for Clarity | Next: A Little Tuna With My Mercury


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Um, ban seafood buffets?

Posted by: Reduce Glutton | November 29, 2006 4:05 PM

This is another doom and gloom piece, go back a few years and you'll read very similar things. We should have run out of all sorts of fish by now. The comment about the shrimp dinner and fish covering the table is TOTALLY untrue. I've been shrimping for 30 years now, and according to many reports, there ought not to be anything left in the area I work. But year after year we catch shrimp, and some bycatch. Shrimp is one of the best examples of a renewable sustainable seafood resource.

Posted by: Steve Kerchner | November 29, 2006 5:54 PM

Re. the previous comment, I think the problem with shrimp, according to Kim, is the cheaper farmed shrimp from around the world that dominates what we eat here, and the volume of other fish it takes to feed it. If we were only eating the fresh-caught U.S. shrimp that I assume you catch instead of farmed, it'd be gone pretty quick.

Posted by: Reine de Saba | November 30, 2006 9:33 AM

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