Should we eat shrimp?

SOURCE: Russ Pascatore (
SUBHEAD: The majority are from farms using antibiotics, disinfectants, pesticides, and herbicides.

By Tamar Adler on 23 June 2016 for Vogue -

Image above: Photograph of shrimp trap by Eric Boman. From original article.

A simple dinner-party question—should one eat shrimp?—sets Tamar Adler off on an ethical and gastronomic journey.

“Should I eat shrimp?”

I was being asked a serious question—as one sometimes is, even at balmy dinners alfresco. It came from a friend of a friend, who had, incidentally, been a bit of a bore all evening. “I want to be told,” he said. “I love shrimp, but should I be eating it?”

How reductive! I thought. How self-involved! I rattled off a recommended reading list on marine topics—Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, seafood writer Paul Greenberg’s excellent American Catch and Four Fish—urged him to think with more subtlety about seafood ethics, and turned the conversation to amusing names for boats.

It was only late that night, when my rosy cloud of self-congratulation cleared, that I discovered that I didn’t actually know: Should he eat shrimp? Should I . . . I mean: Should we?

Yes, the news surrounding shrimp is mostly bad. I have read exposés of slave and child labor at two stages of Thai and Indonesian shrimp production—which implicates the shrimp available at major supermarket chains. The carbon cost of shrimp raised in mangroves, among the Earth’s most important and fragile ecosystems, is leviathan. But does that amount to a simple no?

I decided to do some detecting and immediately learned that whether or not we should eat shrimp, we do—on average just over four pounds per person a year, making it the country’s most popular seafood.

Eighty to 90 percent is imported. Almost all is farmed, and Old MacDonald did not have a shrimp farm. Shrimp farms in Thailand, Ecuador, Indonesia, China, Mexico, Vietnam, and Malaysia (our leading import sources in order) are man-made ponds brimming with so many shrimp that they pollute nearby water sources, are infected with disease and parasites—and are treated with a toxic fleet of antibiotics, disinfectants, pesticides, and herbicides.

In April the FDA declared that one third of shrimp imports from Malaysia contained substances such as chloramphenicol (a last-resort typhoid-fever and meningitis drug) and/or nitrofurans (an antibiotic the FDA considers carcinogenic). Wonderful! you might say. The FDA is ferreting out tainted shrimp. I would advise tempering your excitement.

I telephoned the FDA, where I had a lengthy conversation with a spokeswoman most comfortable speaking off the record. She directed me to an FDA employment report where I was able to see that the agency does not have nearly enough employees to screen more than a fraction of imports. She also explained that the FDA uses an algorithm to determine which imported shrimp to inspect, and, in the end, inspects only about 2 percent of imported seafood. It is, basically, a producer’s responsibility to ensure that U.S. standards are upheld. We import shrimp based on the honor system.

The imported farmed shrimp I’ve had at anonymous Italian restaurants, in risotto with shrimp and peas, etc., have tasted like . . . nothing, like iodine, or like gasoline. Those are surely not the flavors Athenaeus had in mind when he wrote, circa 300 a.d.: “But of all fish the daintiest / Is a young shrimp in fig leaves.” Or that we used to look for decades ago in our shrimp cocktails. We used to eat wild shrimp—where was that shrimp now?

I flew to McIntosh County in coastal Georgia, determined to talk my way onto a shrimp boat. It seemed, however, a prudent first step to throw a local-shrimp dinner party. If the shrimp weren’t as Athenaean as I’d been told, I could spare myself a day amid what Shakespeare called “a very ancient and fishlike smell.”

So I called chef Whitney Otawka and her husband, Ben Wheatley, who run the kitchen of Cumberland Island’s Greyfield Inn, the former Carnegie-family retreat best known as the site of JFK Jr.’s marriage to Carolyn Bessette. We agreed to meet the following day at a nearby restored sorghum farm, Canewater, where my fête de shrimp was to be hosted.

The next morning, to get into the mood, I made a pilgrimage to a local hardware store, passing a billboard reading “God bless our shrimpers,” where I bought white shrimping boots—without which I decided I would look out of place on a shrimp boat—and local nautical maps.

I had already secured ten pounds of fresh white shrimp from Mitchell Smith’s Valona Shrimp Company, but I bought another three pounds, which I’d found prettily arrayed in deep chest freezers in the hardware store’s back room, shrimp being one of the few sea things that freeze well.

In an airy kitchen I assessed my shrimp. Each was the size of a very large thumb, and startlingly beautiful. Their tails were edged with dark pink and storm shadows of iridescent yellow and green, and faint pretty speckling covered their rose-gray shells. I peeled—I have seen peeled shrimp for sale in stores; these are a travesty and should be ignored—and poached five pounds in an herbal court bouillon, and felt the whole time that I was dealing with a delicacy.

I pickled half and served the other half with an intriguing cocktail sauce from Julia Turshen’s forthcoming book, Small Victories (ketchup, mayonnaise, bottled horseradish, Old Bay Seasoning, and red-wine vinegar in a combination that sounds nauseous and turns out alchemical). Whitney filled two cast-iron pans with butter, chiles, lime, shrimp, and a few spoonfuls of grilled tomato, then drizzled them with mezcal.

I tasted our dishes as the sun set over the wide gray marsh. The shrimp—not the vinegary pickle or piquant sauce, nor the mezcal—were what I noticed: sweet and clean, delicately perfumed with mellow grassiness and all the mineral flavors of flowing tides and spartina grass.

I badly wanted to fish for shrimp like these to learn what I could about why they were so good, and to confront a rather more serious concern: Some environmentalists condemn the process—trawling—by which the shrimp are caught. At issue is the health of the ocean floor once a net has been dragged over it, and what is known as bycatch—other species snared in the net.

Getting a shrimper to accept a passenger would take some arranging, so I spent a day on the Cumberland Island beach studying the life cycle of a shrimp; relevant vocabulary (shrimping shipmates are “strikers”; a boat’s rabbit ears are “outriggers”); and a pithy aphorism I imagined could come in handy if we stalled for conversation: “All’s fish that comes to the net,” for which I already envisioned several useful circumstances.

I dutifully rose at three in the morning to meet the Miss Paisley, captained by David Poppell, a fisherman of few words, and staffed (striked? stricken?) by Shawn Hewitt, an ageless, handsome man, and Lamar McIntosh, a gentle creature from another era, whose Scottish forefathers founded the county.
Approaching 5.4 knots, we headed into Doboy Sound, toward federal waters three miles from any estuary or tidal marsh—keeping the estuaries free of commercial fishing for half the year is one of the regulatory measures protecting the South Atlantic shrimp fishery. The sky was black and starry, the deck of the boat pearl white, with grease-black cables and winches nestled with machine intensity near the cabin. The outriggers dropped. The sun rose.

I must have looked happy, enjoying the rising light and fresh air, because Lamar sat down beside me and asked, “You like the salt life, don’t you?” And I replied, from Longfellow: “Ah! what pleasant visions haunt me/As I gaze upon the sea!/All the old romantic legends,/All my dreams, come back to me.” (No, of course I didn’t. But it came to mind . . . )

Shrimping, it should be said, has as much in common, sensually speaking, with lobstering—the other crustacean fishing I’ve done—as barbecue does with oyster crackers. In fourteen ascetic hours several summers ago aboard a lobster boat, I was the only crew member who ate, drank, or sat down.

Today I’d brought saltines and iced tea for sustenance, but when I offered them around as a sunrise treat, I was told we’d be eating breakfast momentarily. And so we did, the instant it was determined that we were “in the shrimp.”

On a little four-burner stove, Lamar fried eggs and sausages, toasted bread, and stirred grits. We ate at a leisurely pace. (I learned the local habit of serving grits on top of fried eggs, then mashing the two, like butter and potatoes, which looked childish and tasted delectable.) We drank Sprites (also delectable).

There are a few main concerns with any wild fishery. The first is the health of its stocks and its reproduction capacity. Warm-water shrimp lay up to a million eggs, sometimes more than once a season, and live only up to a year or two, whether they’re fished or not, which, combined with regulations on where they can be caught, is why they’re considered a healthy fishery.

The second, bycatch, is what I was really there to see. And I did, in our first nets of shrimp, which also contained sea stars and hermit crabs, sardines and squids, jellyfish, lionfish, blowfish, the odd mackerel, and once, a single sweet-faced ray, whose endearing, downturned eyes made me catch my breath in sympathy.

By purists’ accounting, any bycatch could be considered too much. But warm-water shrimp can’t be efficiently caught by trap. The issue for federal regulators is whether the species that come up in trawl nets are endangered. Turtles, including terrapins and loggerheads, were, until the 1980s, making frequent appearances in shrimp trawls. Luckily, Sinkey Boone, a McIntosh County native whose son, Howell, is a shrimp-boat captain, invented an early form of gear that is now mandatory in federal shrimp waters—a Turtle Excluder Device, or TED. This is a simple set of metal bars positioned halfway up a net through which shrimp can swim but a turtle can’t. The turtle, stopped by the bars, gets evicted through a separate chute to continue his old deliberate life in peace.

Much of what came up in our bycatch was crustaceous—which can survive on deck until it is pushed overboard (by me, with what looked like an extra-large cricket bat)—and the rest comes from generally healthy populations. Bycatch is as much an inefficiency for shrimpers as it is an injury to the ocean—we sifted through every net by hand; it took time, was messy, and we risked the possibility of being bitten, snapped, or stung. Experienced fishermen learn over decades  to read wind and water to limit bycatch. The average ratio of bycatch to shrimp is four to five pounds to one, but the writer Paul Greenberg told me a shrimper in Louisiana claims to have gotten his down to two to one. “I don’t think you lie about something like that,” added Paul.

I wished there was appreciation in Georgia, as there is in New York, for the lovely little squid and sardines and mackerel we netted, none of which survived (all of which were happily eaten by our friendly pelicans and dolphins). They’re not popular in the South. We caught a fair number of spiky, striped lionfish, a species that New York chef Ryan Chadwick is now serving in Montauk—because it is cheap, a by-product of fishing, and invasive. I grew up on fried blowfish tails at Lunch on the drive out to Gurney’s on Montauk. I asked Lamar if he’d tried them. He had and found them inedible. But I’ve reason to be hopeful. According to Pat Geer at the Department of Natural Resources, jellyfish is among the top three species caught in Georgia because enterprising businessmen like Howell Boone, son of the TED inventor, have found an Asian market for them.

Every food writer shares a fantasy of fishing or hunting or stalking wild asparagus, then being cooked the meal that traditionally accompanies the pursuit. In my experience, desire for this experience awakens a cruel law of opposites: The worse I want it, the better the chances I’m taken to McDonald’s.

But Neptune smiled on me that day. Lamar filleted and peeled shrimp we had just pulled from the depths, then quickly fried them into a great crisp mountain, while simultaneously cooking a pot of rice and making purloo—a combination of okra, corn, rice, and tomato—the same meal shrimpers had eaten a century ago on these same waters. And with good reason: It was perfect, the shrimp sugar-sweet, the rice and vegetables somehow equatorial and luxurious.

I left McIntosh County knowing we should eat wild Georgia shrimp. As Bryan Fluech, associate director of the University of Georgia’s Marine Extension and Sea Grant program, remarked, “We have such a need for wild seafood in our country. But for all the talk about ‘conservation,’ we’re losing fishermen every year.” In the 1970s and early 1980s there were more than 1,000 trawling licenses issued in Georgia. In 2015, there were 253. “Fuel costs, competition from imports, loss of infrastructure—what used to be fish-processing houses are now condominiums—all conspire against them,” Bryan explained. “The irony is that as badly as we need local seafood, we aren’t supporting it.”

Georgia doesn’t produce enough shrimp to supply even its own state. Paul Greenberg has calculated that there’s enough seafood in America to never have to import again. But his calculus depends on Americans’ agreeing to eat whatever fish is available at whatever time.

Here, one enters the philosophical territory of whether we must be able to have what we want when we want it—whether that is a valid measure of living well. The number of shrimp Americans eat, even in the face of the harrowing exposés and other domestic seafood options, suggests that millions of people believe the answer to be yes.

There is, I discovered, a solution to this problem—of wanting shrimp when you want it. A company called CleanFish, run by Tim O’Shea, a Buckminster Fuller type who spent his 20s in a futurist think tank, travels to artisanal-scale family fish farms and cooperatives around the world and, once CleanFish’s standards of organic production, community development, and environmental and animal welfare have been met, imports them. I’ve eaten CleanFish’s Laughing Bird Shrimp at Franny’s in Brooklyn and the Monkey Bar in Manhattan, and seen them on menus in Chicago; Portland, Maine; and San Francisco. The shrimp are lovely—a smaller, deeper pink, more delicate and crablike animal than the wild shrimp of McIntosh, but worthy.

Another solution came to me months ago via Vogue photographer Eric Boman. Apparently there was an inland shrimp farm in the industrial town of Newburgh, New York, an hour from my house, where a Brazilian named Jean Claude Frajmund was raising shrimp to sell at the Union Square Greenmarket.
On one of the rainiest days I can remember, I drove to Newburgh, and parked in front of a warm, clean warehouse that might—but for the sign outside reading eco shrimp garden—produce T-shirts or kitchen mops. Inside, Jean Claude raises Pacific white shrimp in dozens of tanks filled with ocean salt and Newburgh municipal water at a concentration of 4,000 bright, jumping shrimp per tank. Jean Claude uses an ingenious biofloc technology in which thousands of species of bacteria live symbiotically with shrimp and convert their waste in successive stages into compounds that the next species of bacteria requires to survive. Every day the water is tested multiple times by an affable former U.S. Mint worker named Raymond, who adjusts bacteria levels as needed. The shrimp eat fish food made of 35 percent fish protein and fish oil, which, Jean Claude says, comes not from whole fish but from the trim of domestically caught fish processed in Philadelphia.

It was all clean, modern, sensible, and environmentally smart. Jean Claude cheerfully suggested that we “go fishing,” which involved dipping a long-handled strainer several times into one of the tanks and pulling up ten of the most deeply scarlet, energetic shrimp I’ve ever seen. He quickly assisted their expiration by submerging them in ice water, then vacuum-packed them for me and laid them, with more ice, in a logoed Eco Shrimp Garden insulated lunch box.

And our fishing trip was done. I missed the romance of the open sea, the dolphins and the pelicans. But I also remembered something the less romantic Paul Greenberg had said: “With enough investment we could set up inland shrimp farms and never import another shrimp. Which would be great. Why not turn the Rust Belt into the Shrimp Belt?”

My Eco Shrimp went into a midday pan of green garlic, butter, and olive oil, with a sprinkle of rosé and parsley to finish. They tasted fresh and snappy with life. I couldn’t shake the slightly disconcerting feeling I also get eating a hydroponic tomato or head of lettuce—that some ineffable, invisible je ne sais quoi is missing. But there was no question that I was eating an intelligent and appealing alternative.

I think I will most likely wait until I’m back in McIntosh, land of God Bless Our Shrimpers and ubiquitous white shrimp boots, to eat my next four pounds of shrimp. They’re the best shrimp our ocean offers. And if I do ever find wild South Atlantic shrimp here in New York, I will buy them. Whatever they cost will be worth it, and what they preserve is priceless.


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