At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice

Friday, August 31, 2012

An Inconvenient Shrimp

By Pamela Flash
NAMA Volunteer
Long Island, NY

I have to be honest, my love of shrimp is deeply rooted as my 'go to food' when back in the day I wanted something low calorie and low fat to eat. Of course, this was in the days before we worried about our cholesterol levels. Salad and shrimp cocktail were not going to pack on the pounds.

Back then, I had no idea where my shrimp came from but my guess is that it was wild and lived in the ocean. Now, it's still a challenge to figure out my shrimp's origins and on top of that I find my food choices have become more complicated.

So, it's summer and the perfect time to eat outside, and to eat lots of shellfish. I decided I would try to get a sense of where the shrimp that I order in a restaurant comes from.

Why should you ask where the shrimp (or any animal protein for that matter) is sourced?

Here's why.

The shrimp we order at a restaurant is most likely farm raised. They are fed antibiotics, GMO feed or some other unnerving food source. According to Food and Water Watch, "Fish-lovers would be horrified to learn that huge quantities of fish and shrimp are now being grown in giant nets, cages, and ponds where antibiotics, hormones and pesticides mingle with disease and waste. These industrialized aquaculture facilities are rapidly replacing natural methods of fishing that have been used to catch fresh, wild seafood for millennia."

Not sounding good to me.
A 30-million-square-meter shrimp farm in Indonesia
Another thing to think about is that shrimp are often farm-raised in foreign countries like Indonesia, where the workers rights are questionable and the effects of shrimp farms can be devastating to their ecosystems. And, let us not forget the increased carbon footprint created when shrimp travels hundreds if not thousands of miles to make it to our dinner plate.

In one high-end restaurant I visited recently, I asked, "Can you tell me where the shrimp is from and if it is wild or farm-raised?" The waiter came back with the answer that the shrimp were wild and from Guatemala.

Seriously? I applaud the wild but why couldn't they find a source from the United States?

Since I have been doing my own personal survey in the NYC area, I realized it was not enough to ask where the shrimp is from. I needed to go further. For instance, what about the people who helped harvest and deliver the shrimp? 

Migrant workers work at a shrimp factory in Tailand
Credit: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom
So if the shrimp have travelled the world to get to my plate in New York, was everyone involved in the process paid a fair price? I have talked to many people who know fishermen who will sell their catch for a $1.00 per pound or less, and for it then to be sold in a supermarket for $15 to $20 per pound. With a smaller portion of the profits going to the fishermen it forces them into high volume fisheries, which we know isn't good for the ecosystem overall.

It just seems to be way more complicated than popping some tiny or jumbo shrimp in my mouth to satisfy my dietary desires. For me, I know enough about the food supply to question where my food comes from, so it is harder not to make an ethical choice.

But there is good news!

The good news is that many chefs in the New York City and Long Island area are offering their customers wild or sustainable shrimp. In my sampling of 20 or so restaurants since I started this quest to know where my shrimp comes from, I found a reasonable number of restaurants offered wild shrimp. One restaurant interestingly had both; they had wild shrimp from the Gulf for the shrimp cocktail and farm-raised from Indonesia for the shrimp skewer dinner.

Obviously, price is an issue for both the restaurateur and the consumer. The wild gulf shrimp cocktail was $17 for three. The dinner with the shrimp was $26 but it was a whole meal not an appetizer. Many consumers, including me, wouldn't want to spend that much for shrimp cocktail.

Shrimping in Port Clyde, ME
Source: PCFC website
And what about the challenges of restaurants, many who are now looking for shrimp that is affordable, local, ethical... where do they turn?

Well, I learned there are fisherman cooperative groups like Port Clyde Fresh Catch who harvest their shrimp seasonally between November and April, ensuring that a fair price goes to the fishers who are also helping to conserve the resource. And as it turns out, there is a fairly abundant and healthy supply of wild shrimp in our New England waters which many fishermen in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine depend on.

I know it can be uncomfortable to ask the wait staff where the shrimp is from because you don't want to annoy them. However, most wait staff answered my inquiry graciously. If we as consumers create demand for wild, local (as local as possible), or sustainable shrimp more restaurants will hopefully make an effort to put it on the menu. Remember, it wasn't long ago that you couldn't find organic chicken on a menu, but the public has spoken and many restaurants now offer it, including some chain restaurants that serve naturally raised chicken and beef.

Consumer demand for wild or sustainable shrimp can also help save our ecosystem from additional damage. Besides, do we really want to be eating shrimp that is pumped up on antibiotics, fed GMO's, and has a large carbon footprint? If we order our food responsibly in restaurants, we can start to make a difference and stop this trend of farmed raised shrimp as the norm.

Currently many menus list salmon as wild, chicken as organic, and beef as grass-fed. I would like to see the day when its commonplace for menus to list shrimp as wild.

So next time you're in a restaurant, ask the question and let's bring awareness to the topic.

NOTE FROM NAMA: Thanks Pamela! Please keep your eyes out for more of Pamela's upcoming blogs. Also, folks can check out our 'Who Fishes Matters' seafood card below and download here. And if you haven't already, sign our petition - Fight the Big Box Boats; Save Family Fishermen and the Fish

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


by Boyce Thorne Miller
NAMA's Science Coordinator

A few weeks ago I represented NAMA and joined a group of individuals and organizations who are part of a coalition for chemical safety at a meeting with White House staff (primarily from the office of the Council on Environmental Quality or CEQ) to promote the need for safer alternatives to toxic chemicals. We delivered an electronic petition with 60,000 signatures supporting safer chemical alternatives, and a copy of a petition signed by 100+ organizations (including NAMA) asking EPA to “exercise its authority under…the clean air act to prevent chemical facility disasters through the use of safer chemical processes.”   Greenpeace was the lead on the petitions and organization of this meeting. Representatives of a number of community organizations, labor unions, and health facilities were present to offer the perspectives of vulnerable workers, neighborhoods and first responders (EMTs, ER doctors and nurses, and field nurses).
Copyright All rights reserved by Greenpeace USA 2012
The environmental message was human health and safety for communities, but the main purpose of this meeting was to stress the national security relevance, which legally trumps all others. I was the only voice for fishermen and fishing communities, and it was a way of demonstrating our support for all efforts to slow and stop the flow of toxic substances into the marine environment that nurtures wild fish populations. Furthermore, many fishing communities have chemical plants or storage facilities, and are close to ports and rail yards that may be the port of call for dangerous chemical cargo and may offer storage for such cargo. My participation served as an introduction to the importance of this issue to fishing communities. The organizer had this take on the threat to fishermen:  big chemical businesses hurting small fishing businesses. How, for instance, would the presidential candidates protect those small businesses from being damaged or wiped out, by a toxic chemical accident caused by big industry?
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier Campaign
I learned a lot from these community representatives who have been working on this issue for some time. Some are focused on environmental justice in poor communities with citizens and plant workers vulnerable to frequent accidents (the average person outside these plants would be shocked, as I was, to find out how frequently fires and small accidents may occur – statistics are given in numbers of occurrences per week!). Others working in health care institutions expected to take care of victims of chemical accidents made it clear they could never adequately respond to a major accident. 

Storage tanks at factories, water treatment plants, and ports and rail cars pose threats of leaks, spills, and explosions. If they’re close to the shore or even to fresh water flowing into the ocean, they threaten fisheries, fishing boats, and fishing communities. And most of the port located chemical facilities are exempt from the federal chemical security rules and only deal with Coast Guard rules relating to their port entrance and perimeter rather than hazardous chemicals on site.
The vulnerability of fishermen to toxic accidents has been clearly illustrated in living color TV images from the BP blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico. Fishermen and fishing communities are vulnerable to volatile toxins and fish are vulnerable to toxins in the water. Coastal communities with ports and railroads are vulnerable when toxic chemicals are transported in and out or are stored, sometimes in very large volumes. And like any community, coastal communities with industrial facilities and water treatment plants that use volatile toxic chemicals are susceptible to accidental releases and serious accidents.

Copyright All rights reserved by Greenpeace USA 2012
Fishermen may be out on their boats in large numbers in near-shore waters—often a single fisherman to a boat—and well within the range of a volatile chemical plume which may extend some 15 miles or so. And imagine such chemicals mixing with fog; and ultimately they will dissolve into surface waters carrying the threat to the fish as well as the fishermen. Or at the marinas and piers where fishermen are working on their boats or landing catch, and at shoreline seafood markets and boat supply or repair facilities, all are vulnerable to a chemical accident occurring at a nearby port. The Coast Guard gets added to the emergency response list in those circumstances, and hopefully they are duly concerned, as they could be called upon to rescue many boats and fishermen in a short time.

There are some ironies in these scenarios:
1) Responsible fishermen are intensely attentive to safety details when it comes to their boats going out to sea, yet here they are needlessly threatened by careless policies that make them vulnerable to toxic releases and accidents.

2) Not only are fishermen in harm's way, but so are the fish stocks that the government, fisheries managers, and fishermen are trying so diligently to rebuild. What good is a rebuilding program tainted by toxic substances in the waters where young fish are trying to survive? It’s time that sources of toxic pollution are considered and addressed in fisheries management and stock rebuilding plans.

3) Many of the goals of the National Ocean Policy, which is being championed by CEQ, are jeopardized by the existence of significant volumes of toxic chemicals being transported, stored and sometimes manufactured in ports and other waterfront areas and transported by sea.

We know that our friends who are fishermen or live in fishing communities in the Gulf of Mexico region are severely threatened by toxic chemical leaks and accidents at multitudes of chemical production and storage sites (see Greenpeace’s map of high risk chemical plants). We should all keep that in mind when oil and gas exploration and transport is proposed for our coastal waters.  But there are also hot spots along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. In the Northwest Atlantic region between the Canadian border and Cape Hatteras, where NAMA’s work is primarily focused, the Greenpeace map shows less intense concentration of major dangerous chemical plants, except in New Jersey. In New England there are few identified, such as GAC Chemical Corporation in Searsport, ME; JCI Jones Chemicals, Inc. in Merrimack, NH;  Univar USA, Inc. and Tanner Industries, Inc. in Providence. But in this region the port storage facilities may be a more common threat, and numerous sources of chemical pollution have been identified in a comprehensive study in the New York Times. If you want to explore facilities around your area with EPA emissions violations and you have access to the NY Times, click here to view Massachusetts or to find your state.

There are a number of opportunities to join with other organizations fighting toxic pollution – which invariably ends up in the ocean. This chemical security coalition is but one approach, but it seems to have direct relevance to coastal fishing communities and their health.