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Carbon Footprint of Shrimp Higher Than That of Beef

shutterstock_86225284These days, more than 90% of the shrimp we consume here in the U.S. comes from overseas – totaling over 1.23 billion pounds per year, according to SeafoodSource.com. The majority of these imports come from various locations in Asia – places like Thailand, China, Vietnam, India, and Malaysia. While these countries might be able to supply lots of shrimp at cheap prices to the U.S. and other countries where demand is high, it was found that these shrimp farms are not nearly as eco-friendly or sustainable as one would hope.

In his 2008 book, Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, author Taras Grescoe examined the Asian operations that supply our shrimp. He claims, “The simple fact is, if you’re eating cheap shrimp today, it almost certainly comes from a turbid, pesticide- and antibiotic-filled, virus-laden pond in the tropical climes of one of the world’s poorest nations.”

In a 2011 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office regarding imported seafood, it is said, “About half of the seafood imported into the U.S. comes from farmed fish (aquaculture). Fish grown in confined aquacultured areas can have bacterial infections, which may require farmers to use drugs like antibiotics. The residues of some drugs can cause cancer and antibiotic resistance.”

Not only are health standards in some of these countries a concern, but in order to create a shrimp farm, sometimes native mangroves need to be cleared and privatized – which displaces locals, removes their access to fishing areas, and of course, is terrible for the environment. A new study from J. Boone Kauffman, a University of Oregon researcher, points out that mangroves are important carbon sinks, meaning they store carbon from the atmosphere in their flora and water. By destroying these habitats, the carbon that would be contained is then released into the atmosphere – clearly a problem when it comes to global warming. That is not to mention the native wildlife that is also affected from the clearing of these areas.

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In his study, Kauffman estimated that 50% to 60% of shrimp farms are built on cleared mangrove areas, and the resulting shrimp produced from these farms have a carbon footprint 10 times higher than beef from cows raised on cleared Amazon rainforest, when taking all the of impacts into consideration. What Kauffman further revealed was that the shrimp farms are only useful for about 5 years before sludge and acidic soil buildup makes them unfit for production.

I bet you are thinking, “So what can I eat??” Well, it’s not that you can’t or shouldn’t eat any shrimp, but definitely try to be more aware of where your shrimp is coming from. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a great program in place for people to find out about which type of seafood is sustainable – or at least, more environmentally responsible – called Seafood Watch. You can check out shrimp specific guidelines here. It might not be so easy to refer to these lists when eating out, particularly if the restaurant doesn’t know where their shrimp comes from. However, when making purchases at a grocery store, take a few extra moments to check these lists – there is even a Seafood Watch application that can be downloaded right to your smart phone!

Shrimp Image via Shutterstock

Mangrove Image via Shutterstock

by Sara Stefanski

  • Melissa Cushman
    Feb 24th, 2012 at 14:11 | #1

    Who knew? I knew fish farms were bad but hasn’t really thought about shrimp farms or the comparison to beef. Interesting, something too consider at the store.

  • DC Book Angel
    Feb 27th, 2012 at 13:00 | #2

    Can you please include the climate impact of FLYING the shrimp from those distant mangroves to our plates? It gets much higher than 10 times when you consider how far it has to travel, maintaining its temperature and so on. Stick to land-based aquaculture with its ability to clean water before the shrimp grow in it and filter the waste before the water goes out again– they’re growing shrimp near Las Vegas!

  • Sara Stefanski
    Feb 29th, 2012 at 12:50 | #3

    Good point. Transporting the shrimp does add to the environmental impact. The research did not mention if that part of it was taken into consideration.

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