(NaturalNews) Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the United States, with the average resident consuming 4.1 pounds per year. But this food comes at a serious cost for the planet and for human health, warns Jill Richardson, author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.
"Unfortunately much of the shrimp we eat are a cocktail of chemicals, harvested at the expense of one of the world's productive ecosystems," Richardson writes on Alternet.org. "Worse, guidelines for finding some kind of 'sustainable shrimp' are so far nonexistent."
Like all seafood, shrimp are wild animals, and many are still caught in the wild. Nearly all shrimp fishing in the world, however, is performed with the highly destructive technique known as trawling: Fishermen attach weighted nets the size of football fields to their boats, then drag them along the ocean floor scooping up all life in their path.
This method produces pounds of so-called "bycatch" for every pound of shrimp caught, killing non-commercial (and often endangered) species such as sharks, rays, sea turtles and juvenile red snapper in massive numbers. In fact, although only 2 percent of the world's fish catch is composed of shrimp, one-third of its bycatch comes from shrimp fishing.
Trawling also devastates marine habitats such as coral reefs and the ocean floor -- where 98 percent of all ocean life lives. The mud plumes stirred up by trawling are large enough to be visible from space.
"Trawling is comparable to bulldozing an entire section of rainforest in order to catch one species of bird," Richardson writes.
Even farmed shrimp are not bycatch free, since they are fed primarily from wild fish -- roughly 1.4 pounds per pound of farmed shrimp. Thus, even the most sustainably farmed shrimp from closed, inland pools still come with a hefty ecological cost.
Most farmed shrimp, of course, do not come from the above best case scenario. Shrimp farms are responsible for the destruction of 38 percent of the world's unique and crucial mangrove habitats. For example, fully 70 percent of all Ecuadorian mangroves have been destroyed for shrimp farming.
Ninety-three percent of Ecuadorian shrimp is exported to the United States.
Coastal mangroves are highly diverse ecosystems that play critical roles in carbon sequestration and protecting inland habitats and communities from storm and tsunami damage. Because of their productivity and location, mangroves make ideal shrimp farming territory. As a consequence, many shrimp farmers simply clear-cut a section of mangroves and close it off from the ocean with nets.
"In this scenario, the entire mangrove ecosystem is destroyed and turned into a small dead zone for short-term gain," Richardson writes. "Even after the shrimp farm leaves, the mangroves do not come back."
Shrimp consumers may also pay a more personal cost: Shrimp ponds are regularly treated with toxic chemicals such as with urea, superphosphate, and diesel, in addition to pesticides and piscicides such as chlorine and retenone. In many farms, the shrimp are treated before sale with Borax, caustic soda and the suspected neurotoxin sodium tripolyphosphate.
It's not just chemicals that consumers have to worry about. Widespread antibiotic use in fish farming produces, paradoxically, shrimp with high concentrations of bacteria. A recent test of imported ready-to-eat shrimp found it to be contaminated with 162 different species of bacteria that were collectively resistant to a total of 10 different antibiotics.
Richardson has few suggestions to make for those who wish to consume sustainably produced shrimp. Because of the prevalence of trawling, she suggests avoiding all wild-caught shrimp. Yet no certification process exists to ensure the sustainability of farmed shrimp.
"Given this disturbing picture, how can an American know how to find responsibly farmed or fished shrimp?" she asks.