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Cheap Shrimp

We’re paying a high price

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Cheap Shrimp

All-you-can-eat-shrimp bars may sound like a great deal, but there is a disturbing, dangerous catch; one that might affect your health. So, is your shrimp safe?

Once considered a luxury food, shrimp has become more widely available at low prices. All-you-can-eat-shrimp bars may sound like a great deal, but there is a disturbing, dangerous catch: with each bite you’re also swallowing a smorgasbord of antibiotics, antifungals, pesticides, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria not intended for human consumption.

Much of the shrimp sold in North America is imported from Asian and South American shrimp farms where health and environmental regulations are incredibly lax. Many antibiotics and pesticides banned to varying degrees in Canada, the US, and the EU are used frequently and with a heavy hand in these shrimp farms.

By the time shrimp from these facilities reach our plates, they’ve been contaminated with dangerous drugs, bacteria, and chemicals that are damaging to our health, the environment, and the livelihood of coastal people.

The blue revolution

Shrimp farming took off in the 1970s as part of the “blue revolution.” Like the “green revolution” that preceded it, the blue revolution, was seen as a way of increasing global food production to feed the world’s hungry.

While the green revolution was agricultural (allowing dramatic increases in crop production), the blue revolution focused on the farming of affordable protein—in the form of seafood—while reducing reliance on the ocean’s resources.

Instead, shrimp farming has led to greater availability of cheap shrimp to first-world consumers, all the while causing significant damage to the health, environment, and way of life of the very people the blue revolution was meant to help.

Shrimp with a side of health problems

As with many aquaculture facilities, shrimp on farms are crowded together in ponds, contributing to unsanitary conditions where diseases flourish. In order to keep the shrimp healthy enough to bring to market, antibiotics are used heavily, and often at concentrations greater than needed due to lack of information about use as well as lack of regulation.

The excess drugs persist on the flesh of the shrimp and in the environment, leading to severe health concerns for both consumers of the shrimp as well as those working at or living near the shrimp farms. The heavy use of antibiotics results in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, making it increasingly difficult to fight illnesses such as typhoid and cholera.

Pesticides and fungicides are also used heavily, to kill fungi, insects, molluscs, fish, and crustaceans. Residues from these chemicals can lead to severe allergic reactions and cancer, and may contribute to many illnesses of the respiratory, endocrine, or central nervous system.

Mangroves: fragile ecosystems and tsunami protection

The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami resulted in the deaths of more than 230,000 people; the greatest damage of property and loss of life occurred in areas where coastal mangrove forests had been decimated.

Coastal mangrove forests are unique, highly productive, but fragile ecosystems that provide nursery grounds, food, and shelter for nearly 75 percent of commercial aquatic fish species. Sadly, mangroves are often cut down to make way for shrimp ponds or are decimated by pollution caused by shrimp farming methods.

Intact mangroves are able to absorb the impact of tsunami surges and prevent people from being washed out to sea—the major cause of deaths on Boxing Day in 2004.

The construction of shrimp ponds is considered the major cause of mangrove loss. The decline of these forests also results in lost habitat for many aquatic species that coastal people rely on for their food and livelihood.

The dark side of pink gold

Due to high global demand, shrimp aquaculture has become a very lucrative venture. Shrimp are even known as “pink gold,” but despite this designation and the intention of the blue revolution, shrimp farming has contributed to hardship for coastal people.

Poverty levels have increased, as has food insecurity and pollution of drinking water. The establishment of shrimp farms has blocked traditional access to coastal resources, and exposure to chemicals and drugs used in these farms has contributed to severe health problems.

Vigilance, not abstinence

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspects only 5 percent of all shrimp imports, which means 95 percent have not been checked for chemicals and drugs that are banned or restricted in Canada for their serious health implications.

This leaves it up to consumers to inform themselves and make sound choices when purchasing shrimp and seafood. You do not need to abstain from eating pad Thai, cioppino, and seafood chowder. There are ways to ensure the shrimp you eat was raised in a way that caused minimal harm to the environment and human health.

Choosing domestically farmed or caught shrimp is generally a good bet. Although domestic shrimp farms may not be without their problems, use of chemicals and drugs at these facilities is regulated.

As well, most Canadian and American shrimp farms are closed-system operations, meaning the environmental impact of these farms is far less than the traditional open-system operations where water and land near the shrimp ponds become heavily polluted by toxic accumulation of drugs and chemicals.

Wild Canadian shrimp populations are generally considered healthy and sustainably managed. However, ensure the wild shrimp are trap-caught and not captured using trawl nets, which result in a high level of bycatch such as endangered sea turtles, crustaceans, and sea horses. According to SeaChoice, for each pound of shrimp caught by trawling, 15 pounds of unwanted bycatch is caught and discarded (most of it no longer alive).

With a healthy dose of vigilance we can all enjoy the delicious taste of shrimp without concern.


What else is on your plate?

Here are some of the drugs and toxins you may be consuming with your imported shrimp.

ToxinWhat is it?
chloramphenicolantibiotic banned in Canada for use in food animals but approved for use in humans as a last-resort drug to treat severe, life-threatening infections such as bacterial meningitis; known carcinogen that can cause aplastic anemia, an often irreversible and fatal disease where bone marrow stops producing red and white blood cells
endosulfaninsecticide that is toxic to endocrine, neurological, and respiratory systems; its use is currently being phased out in Canada and is expected to be discontinued by 2016
fluoroquinolonesantimicrobial used in treatment of various human illnesses, including pneumonia, tuberculosis, bronchitis, bone and joint infections, urinary tract infections, and some STIs; overuse is contributing to bacterial resistance
formalina diluted form of formaldehyde used as a pesticide; a potential carcinogen; approved for use in some North American fish farms
malachite greenantifungal used to kill fungus on shrimp eggs; a potential mutagen and carcinogen; damaging to respiratory system; persists on shrimp flesh for a long time after use
nitrofuransantibiotic used to treat infections in animals; potentially carcinogenic and banned from usage in food animals in Canada, US, and EU
organotin compoundsused to kill molluscs before stocking shrimp ponds; an endocrine disruptor that may be linked to decreased fertility; may be linked to obesity
organophosphatesinsecticide with severe neurological side effects; causes serotonin disturbances in the central nervous system; linked to depression and increased suicide rates in agricultural communities where organophosphates are used
oxytetracyclinea broad-spectrum antibiotic used heavily in aquaculture; is believed to persist in the environment for long periods of time depending on conditions; contributes to antibiotic resistance
penicillin-like antibioticscontribute to antibiotic resistance; can cause serious allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock
sulphonamidespotentially allergenic antibiotic; contribute to antibiotic resistance

Safe shrimp guidelines

You can have your shrimp, and eat it too, by following these general guidelines.

Read package labels
Any fish or fish products imported into Canada require clear labelling to identify the country of origin (look for the wording “Product of …”). Avoid shrimp sourced from Mexico or Asian and South American countries.

Choose cold-water over warm-water species
Check the type of shrimp for their origin: cold-water species include northern, salad, pink; warm-water species include jumbo, rock, tiger, white.

Buy certified sustainable
Look for shrimp and seafood that has been certified as sustainably caught or raised.

Ask your server
When dining out ask your server where the restaurant’s shrimp is sourced. If they don’t know, or if you don’t like the answer, order a nonshrimp option.

Vote with your dollar
With every purchase you make of sustainably caught, domestically sourced shrimp, you are sending a clear message of support for healthy, sustainable fisheries practices.


Helpful resources

For more information on how to choose sustainable shrimp and seafood that pose minimal risk to human, social, economic, and environmental health, visit the following websites.

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