Shrimp is a flavorful, low-calorie, high-nutrient food that cooks quickly and works well in a huge variety of dishes (as well as served plain, a la shrimp cocktail). So naturally it's more popular than ever, as everyone from healthy eating advocates to amateur chefs look for ways to introduce new flavors and recipes into weeknight dinner planning. And like much of American food culture, eating shrimp and seafood isn't just limited to the populations who live close to the oceans or the Gulf and traditionally eat crustaceans; prepared and flash-frozen versions now travel to the furthest inland reaches of the continent. 

Unfortunately, for all of shrimp's upsides, it has a significant downside: "Shrimp is one of the most — if not the most — damaging fisheries around,” Andy Sharpless, CEO of Oceana, told Prevention magazine

Shrimp that's wild-caught is usually harvested using giant nets, which, because we aren't the only animals that like to eat shrimp (fish will school around them), tend to pull in all sorts of other 'bycatch' along with the shrimp. So for every pound of shrimp caught, it's estimated that up to five pounds of other fish are hauled out of the ocean, putting the already stressed fish populations in even more jeopardy. "Most fish are damaged from being in the net, and many are discarded — dead or dying — overboard," Sharpless said. Besides fish, sharks and endangered sea turtles are commonly pulled up in nets and discarded as bycatch. 

And shrimp that's farmed may be even worse, for both the health of the people eating it, and the health of the environment where it's grown. About 90 percent of American shrimp is imported from places like Vietnam, Thailand and Bangladesh, and it's often kept in overfilled pools that are breeding grounds for disease.

As Jill Richardson details on Alternet, "The shrimp pond preparation begins with urea, superphosphate, and diesel, then progresses to the use of piscicides (fish-killing chemicals like chlorine and rotenone), pesticides and antibiotics (including some that are banned in the U.S.), and ends by treating the shrimp with sodium tripolyphosphate (a suspected neurotoxicant), Borax, and occasionally caustic soda. Upon arrival in the U.S., few if any, are inspected by the FDA, and when researchers have examined imported ready-to-eat shrimp, they found 162 separate species of bacteria with resistance to 10 different antibiotics."

On top of those shrimp farms being packed with chemicals and pollutants, oftentimes mangrove forests (which naturally clean waterways, protect coastlines from storms, and store carbon dioxide) are destroyed to build them — and never grow back. And like "slash and burn" agriculture to raise cows on rain forest land, the shrimp ponds are only used for a short time before the farmer moves on, leaving a decimated area behind him. So that toxic shrimp is also contributing to global warming by removing a significant carbon sink — not to mention the CO2 contributed in shipping the shrimp from Asia to the U.S.

Consider other types of seafood next time you are thinking about shrimp. Some great choices that include both high levels of omegas, low levels of mercury and which are sustainably harvested, include (this list comes from this article by Kimi Harris): 

  • Albacore tuna (troll- or pole-caught, from the U.S. or British Columbia
  • Freshwater Coho salmon (farmed in tank systems, from the U.S.)
  • Oysters (farmed)
  • Pacific sardines (wild-caught)
  • Rainbow trout (farmed)
  • Salmon (wild-caught, from Alaska)
 Other healthy choices:
  • Arctic char (farmed)
  • Barramundi (farmed, from the U.S.)
  • Dungeness crab (wild-caught, from California, Oregon or Washington)
  • Longfin squid (wild-caught, from the U.S. Atlantic)
  • Mussels (farmed)

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Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Should we stop eating shrimp?
Shrimp harvesting may be even more environmentally problematic than beef.