Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the U.S. and the demand for it has been growing rapidly in the last twenty years. Americans currently consume more than one billion pounds of shrimp every year, and about 90 percent of that is imported from overseas. The primary producers of shrimp—namely China, Thailand, Vietnam, Brazil, and Ecuador—provide mostly farm-raised shrimp. American shrimp, on the other hand, is almost always caught wild offshore. Until recently, most wild North American fisheries were based in the Gulf of Mexico, though the region continues to suffer from severe impacts of the BP oil spill. Other common varieties include “Pink Shrimp” which comes from Oregon and “Spot Prawn,” which is fished in British Columbia.
Shrimp are swimming decapod (literally meaning ten-footed) crustaceans found all over the world in both fresh and salt water. They typically live in schools and can rapidly swim backwards. Shrimp are also an important food source for larger animals from fish to whales.
Unfortunately neither fishing nor farming is a truly sustainable way to harvest shrimp. Farming is responsible for habitat destruction and is often done cheaply, while trawling for wild shrimp is harmful to the oceanic environment and its inhabitants. The most important factor when choosing sustainable shrimp is its country of origin. American shrimp fisheries (and farms) are the most regulated in the world and often produce the best-tasting shrimp, though bycatch continues to be a problem for wild-caught. Pink shrimp from Oregon is the best option and is ‘green list’ ranked. Fresh or frozen Maine shrimp is also a good options with higher quality, lower bycatch and less pollution (though fresh wild-shrimp unquestionably has the best flavor), alongside wild-caught shrimp from the Carolinas and Florida.
Independent certification programs, such as the Marine Stewardship Council’s, make it easy to identify responsible seafood producers when you’re shopping or eating out. The New England-based seafood distributor Ecofish is a leading example of an MSC-certified alternative to industrial shrimp producers.
The key information you should know about shrimp:
Toxicity: Least Mercury (Among four categories: least mercury, moderate mercury, high mercury, and highest mercury. See NRDC Smarter Living’s Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish)
Omega-3: 300 mg for U.S. farmed shrimp, 400 mg for U.S. wild-caught shrimp (Measured in milligrams per 3-ounce serving. The American Medical Association recommends approximately 250 mg of omega-3 every day. Thanks to the Blue Ocean Institute’s Seafood Decision Guide.)
Ocean-friendly: Green List ‘Best Choice’ for Pink Shrimp from Oregon, Yellow List ‘Good Alternatives’ for shrimp from U.S./Canada (According to Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch)
Level in the food chain: Herbivore