Nov 17, 2019
|The time is now!
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Tiny crustacean, big transformation: Part 1
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to make the global shrimp supply chain more environmentally sustainable, from family farms in Southeast Asia to customers’ plates in the United States. In this first installment of a four-part series, we examine the growing American appetite for shrimp—and how it’s created a booming industry across the Pacific.
Every night, in kitchens across America, hundreds of thousands of people prepare the same dinner. Recently it was cavatelli pasta with zucchini, garlic and cherry tomatoes, sautéed in butter with mascarpone cheese and tender shrimp.
Shrimp cavatelli dish from meal-kit company Blue Apron. Photo courtesy Blue Apron
The portioned ingredients—down to the optional bottle of Viognier white wine—are delivered to customers’ doorsteps from Blue Apron, a national meal kit company that makes this sophisticated meal easy to prepare. The shrimp is also sustainable: As a partner of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, Blue Apron avoids seafood that’s produced in ways that harm other marine life or the environment.
Carrie Conley of Fort Irwin, California, says she chose Blue Apron because of its partnership with Seafood Watch. Sustainable seafood has been important to her since she started visiting the Aquarium, where she learned about the environmental impacts of fishing and aquaculture.
“If I’m actively trying to find organic chicken,” she reasoned, “why not make better choices across the board?”
Blue Apron makes it easy for customers like Carrie to access sustainably harvested shrimp. But producing that shrimp, and getting it into meal-kit boxes from faraway places like Southeast Asia, is anything but simple.
This is the story of how a broad network—including global seafood businesses, government agencies, Vietnamese shrimp farmers, U.S. chefs and the Monterey Bay Aquarium—are working together to make it happen.
Thousands of shrimp species live in salt marshes around the world, from the bayous of Louisiana to the estuaries of Ecuador and the mangroves of Vietnam.
Long and muscular, with slender legs built for swimming, shrimp molt throughout their lives, producing successively bigger shells as they grow. These shells are generated from a dense collagen layer, which gives shrimp a meatier texture than other seafood—and helps explain why so many species find them delectable. Shrimp are critical links in the marine food web, eaten by everything from sea urchins and sea stars to seabirds, sharks and whales.
Of course people eat shrimp too, in staggering quantities. The United States alone imported 1.5 billion pounds of it in 2017, three-quarters of that from South and East Asia.
Chef Sammy Monsour is a vocal advocate for sustainable seafood.
Chef Sammy Monsour has gone through enough shrimp—in gumbo and grits, po’ boys and Creole Bloody Marys—to know the product as well as Forrest Gump’s buddy Bubba. He gets why it’s one of the top three most-consumed seafood products in the world.
“Shrimp are delicious; that’s it,” he says. “So many amazing dishes from around the world feature shrimp.”
For years, Sammy has been on a mission to source ocean-friendly shrimp for his celebrated Los Angeles restaurants, Preux & Proper and South City Fried Chicken. He knew that much of the world’s shrimp supply is unsustainable. As a member of the Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force, a group of about 60 culinary pros, he helps promote seafood that’s caught or farmed in ways that are gentle on the ocean.
For more than 20 years, Seafood Watch has been generating public support for sustainable seafood. Our popular consumer guide helps shoppers identify which seafood products are Best Choices (green), Good Alternatives (yellow) or products to Avoid (red), and encourages sustainable choices.
“I trust Seafood Watch,” Sammy says. “I know they are constantly doing their research, staying up with industry technology and traveling the globe, while staying transparent and honest.”
That diligence is needed to keep up with the American demand for shrimp—an appetite that’s grown, like a molting shrimp, too big for the structures that once contained it.
An acquired taste
To understand why people are farming shrimp in Southeast Asia for consumption in the United States, we can first look at the history of U.S. shrimp production—and how it moved abroad on a massive scale.
According to Paul Greenberg’s book American Catch, U.S. shrimp production started in the mid-19th century, when Chinese laborers who had immigrated for the California Gold Rush began catching shrimp in San Francisco Bay. Most of their harvest was dried and exported to China.
In this undated photo, fishermen in the San Francisco Bay Area process shrimp, likely for export to China. Photo courtesy China Camp State Park via CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
Over the decades, development decimated the San Francisco salt marshes, and pioneering Chinese American shrimpers moved to the bayous of southern Louisiana. There, shrimp became a signature ingredient in Cajun cuisine, creating regional demand in the American South.
But by the 1960s and ’70s, shrimp started popping up on menus all around the United States—a trend made possible by advances in processing technology, refrigeration and transportation. American companies started marketing shrimp as more than a southern delicacy: Restaurant chains like Long John Silver’s, Red Lobster and Beefsteak Charlie’s targeted consumers coast to coast, advertising plates piled high with the tasty crustaceans. The all-you-can-eat shrimp buffet was born.
At that time, Greenberg reports, 70 percent of shrimp consumed in the U.S. was wild-caught, and most of it came from the Gulf of Mexico. In the Mississippi Delta, ramped-up shrimp production was taking a heavy toll on estuary ecosystems. The biggest problem was bycatch: Untold numbers of marine animals like sea turtles were getting caught and killed in fishing gear meant for shrimp.
A loggerhead turtle escapes a fishing net equipped with a turtle excluder device, thanks to federal rules intended to minimize bycatch. Photo by NOAA
Since then, two federal laws have made the American wild shrimp harvest more sustainable. The 1973 Endangered Species Act requires resource managers to address the unintentional impacts of fishing on vulnerable species. Three decades later, the 2006 Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization set science-based catch limits and put other measures in place to minimize bycatch and protect habitats.
Today, most U.S. shrimp is wild-caught in the Gulf of Mexico or South Atlantic and, thanks to strong federal oversight, has a Seafood Watch yellow or green rating. But there’s not enough of it to satisfy American demand, which now amounts to 4.4 pounds per person per year—more than the next two most popular seafood products, tuna and salmon, combined.
In the decades it took the U.S. to improve the sustainability of our domestic shrimp fisheries, the seafood market became global. Today, Americans import more than 90 percent of the shrimp we eat. Most of it is farmed in Southeast Asia, and almost all of that is rated red.
Most American shrimp is on the Seafood Watch green or yellow list, but there isn’t enough of it to meet U.S. demand.
A market opportunity
Seafood Watch and other seafood rating organizations have inspired more than 85 percent of North America’s seafood retailers and top foodservice companies to commit to sourcing sustainable seafood.
That means businesses like Compass Group, Blue Apron and Whole Foods need reliable shrimp sources that meet both Seafood Watch standards and their customers’ demands.
Shrimp producers in Southeast Asia, and the governments that regulate them, have invited the Aquarium and our collaborators to help them meet this new bar in shrimp sustainability. The challenge has led us on a transoceanic trek that crosses continents, cultures and kitchens.
– By Kera Abraham Panni, Mark C. Anderson and Magdaline Southard
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to make the global shrimp supply chain more environmentally sustainable, from family farms in Southeast Asia to customers’ plates in the United States. In this second installment of a four-part series, we take a peek at life on the shrimp pond—as Seafood Watch wades into the business of small-scale aquaculture in Southeast Asia. (Continued from Part 1.)
Pokkrong Kirdsook, Taylor Voorhees and Tyler Isaac walk single-file onto a thin wooden plank. The boards bow with each step, sagging closer to the pond four feet below. Pokkrong pulls up a spindly rope, lifting a cylindrical mesh cage from the water.
It looks like they could be panning for gold, but the riches in this cage are more lively. Exposed to the warm air on this humid afternoon in southern Thailand, whiteleg shrimp wriggle and jump on the mesh.
Left to right: Seafood Watch experts Tyler Isaac and Taylor Voorhees; shrimp farmer Pokkrong Kirdsook. Photo by Mark C. Anderson
Taylor and Tyler, both Seafood Watch senior aquaculture scientists, admire the results. Shrimp farmers need to navigate a number of risks to produce shrimp this healthy. Even the variation within a lunar cycle can impact the development of their protective exoskeletons.
The tiny pier on Pokkrong’s farm is 8,300 miles from the Seafood Watch office in Monterey, California, but Taylor and Tyler feel at home. Both worked in aquaculture production before joining the Aquarium; they even built a small aquaponic rig in Tyler’s backyard.
They’re visiting shrimp operations in the Thai province of Krabi to talk with farmers about everything from local government regulations to wastewater management and natural remedies for shrimp ailments.
Across the Pacific, a powerful network of North American retailers—including Seafood Watch partners Blue Apron, Red Lobster and Whole Foods—are interested in what they find out.
Low lands, high hurdles
Since 2016, the Seafood Watch team has been working with Southeast Asian shrimp farmers who want to shift toward more environmentally friendly practices. But running a sustainable shrimp farm isn’t easy.
Giant tiger prawn. Sakulta Kirdsook hopes other countries can benefit from the improvements she and other Thai shrimp farmers are making: “At the same time, we can learn from them,” she says.
One of the biggest challenges is disease, which can crop up anytime lots of shrimp are cultivated in close quarters. Farmers often respond by using pharmaceuticals, sometimes improperly. When they discharge pond water into the surrounding environment, the chemicals can impact the health of nearby waterways and their wildlife.
Historically, large areas of mangrove forests were cleared to make space for development, including shrimp ponds. Mangrove forests provide habitat for a diverse array of marine organisms, protect the coast against storms and improve water quality by acting as a living filter. In many Southeast Asian nations, coastal communities depend heavily on these services. The impacts of mangrove loss can be devastating.
Issues of habitat destruction, chemical overuse, liquid-waste pollution and under-regulation have put much of the shrimp farmed in South and Southeast Asia on the Seafood Watch red list.
Shrimp farms stretch into the horizon in this aerial view from Vietnam.
Regions with the highest shrimp production are among the least regulated, at least in practice. Even where there are strong laws in place, government agencies often lack the resources to provide on-the-ground education or enforcement. That leaves many Southeast Asian shrimp farmers without a clear set of rules to operate by. And it leaves Seafood Watch experts with a shortage of reliable data with which to assess the environmental impacts of these farms.
The Aquarium team realized it needed to engage a broader set of private-sector players.
Sustainability as common ground
Between stops at the Kirdsook farm, Taylor whizzes through some light reading: a study titled “White Feces Syndrome of Shrimp Arises from Transformation, Sloughing and Aggregation of Hepatopancreatic Microvilli into Vermiform Bodies Superficially Resembling Gregarines.”
Then he pores over aerial shots of the farm’s shrimp ponds, captured by a drone at 1,600 feet. “It’s all meaningful information,” he says, not lifting his gaze.
At this particular farm there’s a lot to learn, especially from co-owner Sakulta Kirdsook. She grew up in the shrimp farming business after her father, Pokkrong, started a half-acre tiger prawn farm three decades ago.
Shrimp farmer co-owners Sakulta Kirdsook, right, and her husband Cristiano Angeletti. Photo by Mark C. Anderson
“In his time there were less farms, less disease and more chances for economic success [given] high demand,” Sakulta says. “Farmers were not aware of the environmental damage and future problems. But now, more dangerous diseases and more farms in competition mean it’s harder to achieve success.
“Dad came into [the business] when the environment was 100 percent. I came into it when it was destroyed,” she adds. “Only sustainability can be the solution.”
Sakulta’s team, including her father and her husband, have built recirculating pipes for their shrimp ponds. The system recycles pond water rather than discharging it into surrounding waterways. The goal is to protect their shrimp from disease—which can strike hard and very fast—and to protect fragile coastal ecosystems from contaminated discharge.
The Seafood Watch team listens intently as Sakulta describes the challenges her team navigates. “It’s hard being a shrimp farmer,” Tyler says later. “Not only are those folks making it work; they’re trying new things. They’re curious and they’re innovative.”
Setting a new standard
Three-quarters of the shrimp consumed in the United States is imported from South and East Asia. Sustainability improvements in the region can be a model around the world.
If farms like Sakulta’s are successful in getting their product off the Seafood Watch red list and into the yellow, they could inspire their competitors to make environmental improvements, too.
Many other countries, including in South Asia and South America, are rapidly expanding their own shrimp production. If they want access to the lucrative North American market, where more and more major seafood retailers are committing to sourcing sustainable products, they’ll look for case studies in doing it right.
The Aquarium team feels up to the challenge. It helps to have friends in high places—including a former U.S. Secretary of State.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to make the global shrimp supply chain more environmentally sustainable, from family farms in Southeast Asia to customers’ plates in the United States. In this third installment of a four-part series, we explore how an innovative partnership is driving an ambitious vision for sustainable shrimp production. (Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.)
“Sustainability is very important for human beings and other species sharing our common home,” says Aquarium consultant Cu Thi Le Thuy. Photo by Mark C. Anderson
Friday rush hour traffic rumbles by the Hanoi coffee shop where Cu Thi Le Thuy sips a cup of hot tea. Mopeds zip between cars, pedestrians weave through the currents and sirens amplify the tumult.
But for Thuy, this is a rare moment of stillness. She gazes past the traffic at Hoàn Kiếm Lake and its Temple of the Jade Mountain, which appears to float on the water. Thuy has a gift for focusing on what’s most important when others might be overwhelmed by the surrounding noise.
The Aquarium hired Thuy as a regional expert who knows her native Vietnam and its neighboring nations inside out. She works as a translator in the broadest sense—helping bridge linguistic, cultural and knowledge gaps between Aquarium experts and the region’s seafood industry representatives. And she’s helping deploy a new tool that aims to share the power, and responsibility, of verification throughout the supply chain.
The Aquarium’s collaboration with Thuy, and regional experts like her, gets to the heart of a common question: Why are we working to influence seafood production an ocean away from our California headquarters?
Put simply: Market power.
Into the blue
Governments of coastal nations, including in Southeast Asia, are working to develop what’s known as the blue economy. The World Bank defines the blue economy as “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, while preserving the health of ocean ecosystems.”
Shrimp farm in Krabi Province, southern Thailand. Photo by Mark C. Anderson
If anywhere can be a global model of a sustainable blue economy, it’s Southeast Asia, one of the world’s leading producers of wild-caught and farmed seafood. Some of that fish and shellfish are consumed within the region; some is exported to wealthier parts of the world, including the United States, at a higher selling price.
But making the industry more sustainable is a complex task. Small-scale fisheries and aquaculture operations make up the majority of Southeast Asia’s seafood production; the environmental, social and governance challenges they face are too big for any family seafood business to tackle alone.
That’s where the Aquarium and our partner, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, come in. Our Southeast Asia Fisheries and Aquaculture Initiative brings together seafood producers, scholars, government officials and expert advisers to map a path to long-term sustainable development in the seafood sector. The multi-year initiative focuses on Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and the Philippines.
The stakeholders in this new initiative hope to accelerate sustainable seafood development in alignment with the United Nations’ global goals. They’re experimenting with new business models and public-private partnerships that can boost the regional economy while preserving ocean resources for future generations.
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is an international voice for sustainable seafood production.
Standing before an audience of world leaders on the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry busted an old myth. “Sustainable fishing is good for jobs [and] good for the environment at the same time,” he said. “It’s not a competition between the two.”
You may remember Kerry as the former U.S. Senator from Massachusetts who was the Democratic nominee in the 2004 presidential race prior to serving as Secretary of State. In his post-political life, Kerry is taking on global environmental challenges. On his list: how to farm seafood in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.
Kerry has longstanding diplomatic ties, as well as a deep understanding of economic and environmental issues, in Southeast Asia. He also has a connection to the Aquarium’s Chief Conservation and Science Officer, Margaret Spring, who worked with him back in the early 2000s, when she was a lawyer in the U.S. Senate and he was a senator.
Now a Distinguished Visiting Statesman for the Carnegie Endowment, Kerry helped spearhead the Southeast Asia Fisheries and Aquaculture Initiative with the Aquarium, announcing it to the world at the 2017 Our Ocean Conference in Malta.
Onstage, Kerry spoke about how human industry is threatening the ocean that sustains us. “We have to do more, faster,” he said, motioning to the massive image of an ocean horizon on the screen behind him. “We have a responsibility…to make sure that more citizens in all of our countries join us in this endeavor.”
Picking up the tablet
A worker pulls live shrimp out of an aquaculture pond in Southern Thailand. Photo by Mark C. Anderson
The vision for sustainable shrimp production in Southeast Asia is ambitious—but it also poses a practical question: How can we measure improvements on tens of thousands of small fish farms? The process may be relatively simple for a single operation, but what about thousands?
The answer: by empowering people on the water to do some of the technical work themselves. So the Aquarium and our collaborators, including NGOs and major seafood business players, helped develop a scalable approach called the Partnership Assurance Model.
Instead of requiring a third-party auditor to verify progress on each small farm—a process that would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming—the model allows for a more cooperative, regional approach.
Aquarium consultant Cu Thi Le Thuy, in green, teaches inspectors and Minh Phu staff how to use verification software on digital tablets. Photo by Taylor Voorhees
Here’s how it works: An inspector answers questions about shrimp farm operations on a digital tablet, using software the Aquarium and our partners developed. This lets the inspector verify a farm in a couple of hours instead of a matter of days. Farmers can track their progress and identify which changes they still need to make.
Thuy helped develop the platform and is now teaching inspectors how to use it to assess shrimp farms on the ground. After a full day in the classroom—coaching the future inspectors on what information to gather, how to input it on the tablet, and how to apply different interviewing techniques—she practices it herself.
A shared vision
In the early-morning light, Thuy and her team travel by boat to visit a shrimp farm. On arrival, they leave their shoes at the door and sit with the farming family, making a tight circle on the floor. The farm’s “office” is the family’s tidy living room; the aromas of fresh herbs and a soup stock waft in from the kitchen.
A translator from Minh Phu Seafood Corporation discusses sustainability improvements with a Vietnamese shrimp farmer. Photo by Taylor Voorhees
Thuy chats with the farmer in Vietnamese as her team eases into the process of data collection. Her students follow along, diligently tapping on their own tablets, as Thuy simultaneously interviews the farmer and instructs her team on how to interpret the data.
The Aquarium and our collaborators developed this model with more than Southeast Asia in mind. By bringing together farmers, processors, nonprofits, government agencies, financial institutions, technology companies and others, it has the potential to transform large segments of the aquaculture industry to better protect ocean health.
But it’ll only be successful if everyone involved makes sustainability a shared responsibility.