How one Canadian company is making seafood more sustainable
Shrimp farming in choppy water aptly describes David Barnes’ recent history. The president of Planet Shrimp is anxiously awaiting the first harvest after a virus struck nearly three years ago at his indoor shrimp farm in Aylmer, Ontario, located half an hour southeast of London. It was a bug brought in via shrimp post-larvae—baby crustaceans about the size of an eyelash—imported from the US in late 2019 to start a new crop in Aylmer. Much like it would be with humans and another destructive virus just a few months later, the world as it was at Planet Shrimp, a rising star in sustainable seafood production, came to a grinding halt. “That was a very torturous process,” Barnes says. “We were kind of stagnant throughout the whole period.”
But things are poised to go swimmingly again at a facility that has the ability to sustainably raise 300,000 lbs (136,000 kg) a year of Pacific white shrimp and globally market the technology used to do it to disrupt the way the world’s most widely consumed seafood gets to our dinner tables.
At Planet Shrimp, sustainably raised means growing colonies of crustaceans to a target weight of just over 1 oz (30 to 35 g) every four months, without the antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, and chemicals commonplace at the Southeast Asian and Central American shrimp farms that produce more than half the world’s shrimp.
The 10 million gallons of water used in pools housing shrimp at different life stages is purified and recycled in house, avoiding strain on municipal resources and infrastructure. Waste is filtered out, dried, and used by local farmers as fertilizer.
“I truly am blown away with the potential to roll out this technology internationally and really change the way we eat; change the way we treat the environment; and change the way we think about food safety, food traceability, and health and wellness,” Barnes says.
There’s no question our oceans need Planet Shrimp and others like it.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020, global fish production, trade, and consumption reached an all-time high of about 179 million tonnes in 2018. That number is expected to rise to 204 million tonnes by 2030.
That doesn’t mean our oceans are teeming with enough fish to sate our growing appetite. Fish stocks within biologically sustainable levels dropped to 65.8 per cent in 2017 from 90 percent in 1974, underscoring the dire need for better ways to source our seafood.
Shrimp, specifically, have mammoth issues surrounding their production. One kilogram of wild-caught shrimp, for example, can result in 5 to 20 kg of bycatch, according to the World Wildlife Fund’s Fish Forward Project. That includes sea turtles, birds, and other animals. The heavy use of trawling by the industry scrapes and damages ocean floors.
Meanwhile, shrimp farms are often installed in—and destroy—ecologically sensitive areas, including mangrove forests, and are linked to human trafficking, physical abuse, and child labour.
To overcome their own issues, Barnes and Planet Shrimp, including shareholders, invested in building a shrimp post-larvae hatchery—the first of its kind in Canada—20 minutes up the road. The first generation of made-in-Canada shrimp post-larvae is set to become someone’s dinner any day now, with others to follow.
“Imagine if, five years from now, we could have facilities on multiple continents … and impact in a very positive way, the health of the protein-consuming public? And help in some small way, saving the oceans and saving some of these ecologies in Southeast Asia specifically, where a lot of the shrimp is produced?” Barnes says.
“If we can impact the economic incentive to build more farms, and not damage more mangroves and more coastlines, then that makes us feel like we’re impacting the world in a positive way.”
Fewer than half of the major fish stocks in Canada are considered healthy. Still, there are other Canadian options for sustainable seafood that consider the three Ps of sustainability: people, planet, and profit.
Skipper Otto is a BC-based community-supported fishery that started in 2008 to help founder Shaun Strobel’s fisherman father, Otto, get a fair price for his seafood. Skipper Otto sells annual memberships to consumers throughout Canada who pay upfront for a share of seasonal seafood purchased directly from small, independent BC fishers. That short supply chain makes products easily traceable. There’s even a picture of the fisher who caught your dinner on every package.
Fisherfolk in Toronto works directly with fishers throughout Canada to ensure sustainable fishing practices respecting ecosystems of lakes and oceans. Products are wild caught or farmed, and sold with a nose-to-tailfin approach, using as much of the fish as possible.
First Fish is a Toronto-based social enterprise specializing in sourcing wild Arctic char and turbot from Indigenous fishers on Baffin Island. Fish is caught using local, traditional, and sustainable methods, with minimal environmental disturbance. Catches are based on quotas set by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the knowledge of community elders. Profits are reinvested to improve quality of life on Baffin Island by carefully growing the fishery and providing sustainable, culturally relevant employment.
If joining a community-supported fishery or buying from small fishers isn’t possible, look for sustainable seafood in your grocery store.
Two of the most common sustainable seafood product markers belong to Ocean Wise and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
Ocean Wise is a recommendation program that determines the sustainability of individual seafood species sold at the retail level with help from governmental and non-governmental organizations, academic research, and their own in-house researchers.
Marine Stewardship Council is a global certification program with specific standards that need to be met for seafood to bear its label. Certified fisheries must be assessed by an independent, third-party auditor to prove they are fishing healthy and sustainable stocks, have minimal environmental impact, and have effective fisheries management in place to react and adapt to new information and changing conditions. The MSC has come under scrutiny recently but is undergoing a review of its certification standards.