All You Can Eat

Photo: Jamie Goldenberg
Photo: Jamie Goldenberg

The green dumpster behind Red Lobster was nearly empty when I lifted the lid. Through the effluvium of yesterday’s supper, way down, sat a couple of pretty blue boxes. I hitched myself over the rim, leaned in, and took one.

I am not a regular dumpster diver. I was driven by a hunger for knowledge. Inside the restaurant, where the décor, ambience, soundtrack — all but the smell — reeked of the sea, I asked the server who laid before me the first plate of Red Lobster’s “endless shrimp” where they came from.

“Farms,” she said.

“Where are these farms?” I asked.

“Different places.” She gave a shrug. “Do you want another beer?”

I ate only eight grilled shrimp from Red Lobster’s “endless” supply. Something was stuck in my craw. An hour before, I had been in a community hall in Brownsville, Texas, with forty-three angry, tearful American shrimpers. In a country awash in shrimp, they were going bankrupt. They had gathered to hear more bad news: severe new rules limiting what they could catch.

“What about Red Lobster?” I asked the group.

“Red Lobster!” one man shouted. “They’re our enemy. They haven’t bought a shrimp since the 1980s.”

The restaurant walls were covered with shrimp boats — striking photos of trawlers at docks, at sea, in sunset silhouettes. The Gulf of Mexico was a mile away. Yet, while I sat eating, real shrimp boats sat rusting, their outriggers raised as if surrendering.

The box from the dumpster gave me a clue: “Product of Ecuador. Farm Raised.”

I am farm raised. I nurse a nostalgia for what those words used to mean. Holding that fetid box, I began to question my own clueless consumption. From a springboard both pure and naïve, I dove into all-you-can-eat shrimp.

SHRIMP, IN MY YOUTH in upstate New York, were rare and pricey. I remember a 1960s shrimp cocktail at the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center. I don’t remember my date’s face but I do recall a scent of privilege. Thirty years would pass before another shrimp scene would be as sharply etched on my mind. It was late October in the Carolinas. I had tied my sailboat to an old wood dock in front of a village on the Intracoastal Waterway. Around me marsh grass tinted gold by the sunset was slowly emerging from ebbing waters. Barely a month into living aboard, I’d opened a beer to toast my good fortune when a man from the village walked onto the dock with a bucket and ball of netting.

With a practiced arabesque he threw the net. It blossomed into a ten-foot parachute that dappled a circle and sank. In a few seconds, he pulled the line and wet flopping creatures spilled onto the dock. He sorted through them, discarded several, and repeated the motion. Half a dozen throws later the bucket held two handfuls of shrimp.

“Supper,” he said, and walked off.

The scene was magical, almost biblical: its grace and bounty, its sense of proportion — one man, one meal — evoked a sustaining ocean. As I sailed farther south I began to see shrimp everywhere. Shrimp boats seining night and day. Roadside stands selling shrimp from coolers. All-you-can-eat shrimp buffets for a few dollars. These waters, a federal survey reported in 1884, contained “immense schools” of shrimp, so many a man could catch bushels on a “pleasant evening.” It appeared that nothing had changed. In fact, everything had changed during a century in which shrimp had gone from lowly regional fare, caught by hand, to America’s favorite seafood.

In 1913, one hundred miles down the coast from where I had watched the man cast his net, Billy Corkum, a Massachusetts fishing captain, introduced the otter trawl to Amelia Island, Florida. An ungainly contraption of ropes, cables, wooden doors and nets, the trawl was dragged through the water just above the ocean floor, its mouth open like a whale’s. Modified with a drooping chain to “tickle” mud-dwelling shrimp into jumping into the maw, diesel-pulled trawls scooped shrimp by the billions.

“We never had so darned many shrimp,” old-timer Anthony Taranto told the Southern Foodways Alliance, a University of Mississippi institute that studies southern food culture. “You couldn’t hardly sell them and couldn’t hardly do nothing with them.”

Shrimp are a perfect protein delivery system, built with a head and carapace that twist off easily, revealing a muscle that can be cooked in three minutes. The Chinese and Greeks loved them. Apicius included shrimp in his Roman cookbook. But it took decades for shrimp to whet appetites outside the American South. Packed in barrels of ice and shipped by rail, shrimp were served in tulip glasses as “cocktails” in upstate New York in 1914. As cookbooks added Low Country recipes, canning and, in 1943, a shrimp-peeling machine — invented by teenager J.M. Lapeyre in Houma, Louisiana, who noticed how easily shrimp meat could be squished out of its shell by his rubber boot — made shrimp available nationwide.

Trawls soon emptied the shallows of southern waters and moved deeper. For seventy years growing fleets of bigger boats galloped from one gold strike to another as veins of shrimp were discovered off Louisiana (white, 1933), Mexico (brown, 1940), Dry Tortugas (pink, 1949), and Key West, where in 1957 huge, royal red shrimp were discovered a thousand feet down.

“Greater riches are being brought up than all the gold ever sunk off the Spanish Main,” gushed National Geographic in 1957. Many shrimpers became millionaires.

“We were outlaws,” Wallace Beaudreaux, of Brownsville, Texas, eighty-one, told me, describing raids into Mexican waters. It was not unusual for boats to gross $10,000 to $25,000 on a single trip.

I felt rich, in 1998, buying a pound of shrimp for a mere three dollars right off the boats near where I anchored in Key West. I had only one question: with thousands of boats endlessly trawling and millions like me endlessly gobbling, how could there be any shrimp left in the sea?

“Shrimp are a crop, like wheat,” shrimpers replied. “You can’t overfish them.”

I was asking the wrong question. I should have wondered where all these shrimp were coming from, and how they could cost three dollars a pound. I happened to sail into the Deep South in time to witness the crash of a culture bound to, and blinded by, endless shrimp dreams.

SHRIMP HAVE BEEN AROUND since Gondwana. Their tracks are found alongside dinosaurs’, which explains their astounding diversity — more than two thousand species in every body of water in the world. They are a major food source for Salt Lake gulls, ocean whales, Gulf red snapper — virtually every marine critter, which makes them ideal bait.

But the shrimp’s life cycle was understood only in the 1960s. Shrimp didn’t ascend rivers to spawn, as once thought, but reversed the process in a complicated and delicate cycle. Adult shrimp mate in deep water, holding each other feet-to-feet. He inserts a capsule of sperm and she spews half a million microscopic eggs that resemble milk spilled in water. These babies molt through a dozen tiny, spiderlike creatures, finally emerging shrimplike in a month.

With mysterious instinct they move up and down in the water column, catching waves, currents, and winds that sweep them into shallow bays. In the Gulf this cycle coincides with a shift from northerly to southerly winds, a warming of bay waters, and an increase in freshwater runoff from rivers, which reduces salinity. In these brackish, rich estuaries, protected by reeds and organic muck, they begin devouring one-celled algae called diatoms and growing at the rate of one inch a month. In two or three months, triggered apparently by increased salinity, they begin to walk — literally — and flick their tails back to the sea, traveling as far as two hundred miles. Left alone, a shrimp grows to a length of six to eight inches, developing a tail as big around as a man’s thumb. At this stage they are in deep water, ready to spawn before dying or being eaten by a predator.

I learned all this aboard Leslie Hartman’s runabout one May day in Mobile Bay. She was out there, as she is every week of the year, her long brown ponytail swinging like a pendulum as she heaved a miniature trawl off the stern. As Alabama’s shrimp biologist, Hartman’s job is to constantly sample the size of shrimp returning to the sea, and determine when they are large enough to open the state’s shrimp season.

After fifteen minutes, she stopped the boat, hauled in the net, and dumped the catch into a white bucket. She knelt and fingered through glistening life. Little rays, horned blowfish, baby snapper, and a bunch of crabs were thrown back. Left in the bottom were a set of creatures that ranged from transparent globules half an inch long to juvenile shrimp up to two inches. She counted, measured, and logged the sample and sped off for another drag elsewhere.

The threshold for legal shrimp in Alabama is 68 shrimp per pound. A “68” shrimp is pretty small, often canned, tossed into macaroni salad, or breaded and fried as “popcorn” shrimp. Shrimp cocktails use a minimum size of 40 to 50 per pound. When I look at shrimp in a grocer’s case I usually choose “20–25,” the size of my little finger. Hartman’s task was to calculate when the average of her samples reached 68. She was always anxious to reach that point, for she considered herself a friend of the industry.

“We want our great-grandchildren to be shrimpers a hundred and fifty years from now,” she said.

“GO,” SHOUTED JOE SKINNER, releasing brakes that governed two winches. Squeals, grinds, the sounds of cable and rope under stress on the throbbing bed of a major diesel smothered the splash of green nets on the water. As cables let out, the nets disappeared behind the boat. At 6 a.m. at the start of the 2005 Alabama shrimp season, the A.S. Skinner was trawling.

We were in Mobile Bay. A rising sun, barely burning through haze, added a band of pink to a formless horizon. Around us a circus of boats — trawls, skiffs, outboards — were out for opening day. “It’s a madhouse,” said Mike Skinner, Joe’s brother, at the helm. A black radar screen set at one-mile resolution was dotted with forty or fifty green moving spots. “I’ll be glad when this day is over.”

A.S. Skinner, for whom the boat was named, had been a jeweler, as was his son. But grandson Gary left gold in the showcase to seek his fortune with shrimp. Great-grandsons Mike and Joe joined him at age five. By high school, the last formal education they sought, they were taking boats out by themselves. “When I came out of high school, we done good,” said Mike, tall and angular, dressed in blue-jean shorts and a white t-shirt. The first year they grossed $200,000. “We didn’t work that hard. Dad had two good years and then it started dropping.”

The Skinners, aged thirty-two and thirty, each with a one-year-old son, reminded me of cowboys I’d known out West, still pining for pastures before barbed wire. Their dreams of a commons, free to exploit, had once been our dream, so woven into our national DNA that we, like they, mourned its passing. Each spring they rode out after a myth, only to find the world had changed.

The sea stopped giving in the 1980s. Catches flattened worldwide. There were, in fact, only so many shrimp in the sea. And because of overfishing for half a century, the average shrimp size caught in the Gulf had shrunk from “50” to “75.”

There was also growing dismay that shrimpers wasted more than they caught. Down below, in the channel made famous by Union Admiral Farragut’s cry, “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead,” was a kind of “fishing” that was nothing short of marine clearcutting.

In the gold-rush days, before Joe and Mike were born, shrimpers killed ten pounds of sea life for every pound of harvested shrimp — waste that reached one billion pounds a year in the Gulf. Once called “trash,” now called “by-catch,” this sea life included sea turtles driven to the brink of extinction, and juvenile red snapper, a good eating fish. Under environmental regulations requiring escape hatches in nets, the by-catch-to-shrimp ratio has been reduced to four-to-one, still a startling sight when the Skinners dumped their twin nets on deck. Using grain shovels, they transferred this squirming pile into a large wooden box of seawater mixed with Cargil Boat and Boil salt. The shrimp sank to the bottom, and the by-catch, mostly dead, floated to the surface. This they skimmed and threw overboard.

Gulf shrimpers, the last cowboys of the sea, were corralled in 2006 when the U.S. government, trying to balance the Gulf’s ecosystem with a sustainable supply of shrimp for a viable commercial fishery, capped the federal-waters shrimp fleet at twenty-seven hundred boats, down from a gold-rush high of seventy-five hundred, and ordered federal clerks to be randomly stationed aboard to record by-catch. The goal was a “maximum sustainable yield,” roughly 110 million pounds a year, which left 22 billion shrimp to reproduce, according to modeling by Dr. Jim Nance, head of the NOAA Fisheries Service Galveston Laboratory. This figure was half the natural shrimp population before the arrival of the trawl, estimated Bill Hogarth, the former head of the agency.

The Skinners grossed $1,000 on opening day — not a bad haul, I thought, until I learned that it was half the price they got when they were teenagers. They made a living but not a killing selling their shrimp to their father, who ran a roadside stand on Dauphin Island. “The last few years, we’re just paying for fuel,” said Joe, sitting below their federal license framed on the Masonite wall of their boat’s dinette. “If it weren’t for the shop . . .” His voice trailed off.

What really ended the Skinners’ dreams, what really brought shrimpers to their knees and tears in Mobile Bay, Brownsville, New Orleans, Biloxi, and Bayou la Batre — all along the Gulf Coast — was not regulation or lack of shrimp but good old global supply and demand. “Because of imported, farmed shrimp from the Far East,” said Joe Skinner, “wholesale shrimp prices in the U.S. are the same as when Dad started thirty years ago.”

THE STORY OF FARMED SHRIMP begins with a Japanese dish called “dancing shrimp,” a casserole that arrives at your table with the unmistakable sound of something inside striking the cover. Jumping about on a bed of hot rice are Kuruma prawns — live. The object is to grab one between chopsticks and pop it wiggling into your mouth. Kuruma, large, meaty shrimp found in limited quantities in the Sea of Japan, sell for a hundred dollars a pound. Seventy-five years ago this rarity prompted an ichthyology student at Tokyo University to try growing Kuruma in captivity.

Until 1933, when Motosaku Fujinaga first spawned and hatched shrimp in a lab, aquaculture had been an ancient artisanal practice. Tides swept fish and shrimp into estuaries, and weirs were built to prevent their escape. The shrimp grew to eating size in naturally replenished waters.

Out of their element, though, shrimp proved to be finicky eaters, fragile and prone to diseases. It took Fujinaga twenty-five years of trying, interrupted by World War II, to be able to grow ten kilograms of shrimp to adulthood. In 1967, when he spoke to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s first world conference on shrimp culture in Mexico City, Fujinaga envisioned a world where capitalism and altruism could coexist in the “vast and boundless marshes, swamps, or jungles in the tropics.” Shrimp farms, he predicted, “will greatly contribute toward the increased supply of animal protein to the human race.”

It was a lovely thought. A Blue Revolution. But his success fueled a global grab in which protein and profits flowed one way — north toward the moneyed. One year after his speech, a group of Japanese businessmen bought Fujinaga’s technology, won a U.S. patent, and approached DuPont for money. DuPont declined, but two officials who heard the pitch, Paul Bente and John Rutledge Cheshire, were so excited they quit their jobs, put up $200,000 of Cheshire’s family money, and opened Marifarms in a bay near Panama City, Florida.

Aided by research at the U.S. lab in Galveston, Marifarms harvested a disappointing six thousand pounds in 1970, according to Cheshire’s book,Memoir of a Shrimp Farmer. The same year, another venture, Sea Farms, was digging canals in a Florida key to grow shrimp.

Because of environmental issues — Marifarms scooped up pregnant white shrimp and confined them in a public bay, while Sea Farms flew in nonindigenous shrimp from Central America, a practice Florida soon prohibited — shrimp farming moved south. Supported by USAID, World Bank loans, and willing developing-world officials, corporate giants United Fruit, Armour, Conagra, and Ralston Purina launched shrimp farms in Honduras, Brazil, Panama, and Ecuador, according to oral histories collected by Bob Rosenberry of Shrimp News International. Learning as they went, the farmed-shrimp industry laid waste to mangroves, fishing communities, and ecosystems. The word “plundering” comes to mind.

A shrimp farm is a saltwater feedlot. There can be as many as 170,000 shrimp larvae in a 1-acre pond that is 1 to 2 meters deep. So-called intensive ponds can yield 6,000 to 18,000 pounds of shrimp in that acre in 3 to 6 months. (A good wheat yield is 3,600 pounds per acre.) Because of this density, the waste they swim in, and their susceptibility to disease, most farmed shrimp are treated with antibiotics, only some of them legal in the U.S. A wide array of poisons is used to kill unwanted sea life and cleanse ponds for reuse, creating what Public Citizen calls a “chemical cocktail.” In random sampling of imported shrimp, health officials in the U.S., Japan, and the European Union have found chloramphenicol, a dangerous antibiotic banned in food.

The industry acknowledges that 5 percent of the world’s mangroves, hundreds of thousands of acres, have been destroyed creating shrimp ponds. In some estuaries 80 percent of the mangroves are gone. A commons was privatized, ruining artisanal fishing and driving indigenous fishermen to work raising shrimp. By removing the thick coastal barrier of trees, shrimp farms have undoubtedly aggravated damage from hurricanes and tsunamis. And salt intrusion has sterilized once-fertile estuaries.

Even in the best-run farms, two to four pounds of sea life is caught and ground up as feed for every pound of shrimp raised. Mortality rates of 30 percent are common. The dead shrimp, shrimp excrement, and chemical additives are often flushed into coastal waters.

By the mid 1970s, farmed shrimp from South and Central America, at less than half the cost of Gulf shrimp, began arriving at Red Lobster restaurants — and everywhere else. All-you-can-eat shrimp dinners became a standard, filling both waistlines and Red Lobster’s coffers. That box of shrimp I retrieved from the dumpster cost $2.50 a pound, and sold, in my case, for $25 a pound, a markup that bettered the beer’s.

Quietly, farmed shrimp took over the market, its source hidden behind the motif of a picturesque but actually sinking shrimp fleet. By 1980, half of America’s shrimp consumption came from foreign farms. By 2001, shrimp passed canned tuna as America’s favorite seafood. Today, 90 percent of our shrimp — more than 1 billion pounds a year — come from foreign farms. Virtually any restaurant chain, from Captain D’s to Red Lobster, serves farmed shrimp. Foreign farmed shrimp was peddled for years by vendors at the National Shrimp Festival in Alabama — until they were caught — and at happy hour for the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, in March 2005, where government officials finalized a ten-year freeze on twenty-seven hundred shrimp boat licenses. The sight of government biologists slurping Vietnamese shrimp after reining in American shrimpers was an irony sharper than cocktail sauce. Even in New Orleans, where a handful of high-end chefs brag about their Louisiana shrimp, imported shrimp are the norm in most restaurants. A new Louisiana law requires restaurateurs to tell the truth — if asked.

TO GET A SENSE of the pink tsunami on U.S. shores, I flew to Long Beach, California, the single largest shrimp port, where among the five million containers arriving each year are several thousand filled with shrimp, 265 million pounds of it in a year.

On the day I visited, 5 ships were docking with 9 containers — 412,000 pounds — of shrimp from Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, and China. One container, a semitractor load, holds an astounding amount. Laid out in a customs warehouse, boxes holding 30,000 pounds of shrimp covered a 12-by-100-foot area chest high. Based on our average consumption, this one container held a year’s supply of shrimp for 12,000 Americans.

The container in question had been seized and opened because of suspicions that the beautiful bags of store-ready “26/30″ frozen raw shrimp, labeled “farm raised in Indonesia,” may, in fact, have come from China and been relabeled in Singapore, a common cat-and-mouse game that customs officials calls “transshipment.” A bag was dispatched to a government lab in Savannah, Georgia, to try a new sniffing tool that might determine its source. Transshipping is used to evade special import taxes or restrictions, such as one imposed on Chinese shrimp and four other species in 2007 after malachite green, gentian violet, and other carcinogens were found in farmed fish.

“It’s very, very difficult to prove a transshipment issue,” said Jeff DeHaven, the deputy director of fines, penalties, and forfeitures. So great is their volume of business that importers just walk away from seized containers, he said. Moreover, U.S. customs is concerned primarily with duty issues, not food safety. “We don’t look at that much shrimp,” admitted an enforcement chief.

The Food and Drug Administration, responsible for imported food safety, samples less than 1 percent of the 1 billion pounds, a “sorry” record, according to U.S. Representative John Dingell, who in 2007 chaired food safety hearings before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Mindful of consumer fears fanned by poisoned seafood arriving from China, the Global Aquaculture Alliance — an industry group underwritten by Wal-Mart, Red Lobster, and multinational seafood importers — has written standards that, if enforced, could produce clean, safe shrimp without damaging people or the environment. But that will take years, admitted GAA president George Chamberlain. Only 45 shrimp farms are certified by the alliance — out of more than 100,000 worldwide.

TODAY, IF YOU LIVE more than a hundred miles from the Gulf Coast, the shrimp you eat most likely come from a foreign farm. You can tour these farms while standing at your supermarket seafood freezer and reading labels. The top ten importing countries are Thailand, Indonesia, Ecuador, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Mexico, India, Bangladesh, and Guyana. The wholesale value of their shrimp is $4 billion a year.

Despite that income, citizens in the developing world have protested shrimp farms — and been killed for doing so. The Blues of a Revolution, a book published in 2003 by a consortium of environmental and indigenous groups, described Honduran shrimp farms ringed by barbed wire and watchtowers and armed guards. Between 1992 and 1998, in the Bay of Fonseca near large shrimp farms, “11 fishermen have been found dead by shooting or by machete injuries . . . no one has been brought to justice.”

One story from the book I cannot shake involved Korunamoyee Sardar, a Bangladeshi woman who, on November 7, 1990, joined a protest against a new shrimp farm near Harin Khola. She was shot in the head, cut into pieces, and thrown into a Bangladesh river. A monument stands where she was murdered. It reads: “Life is struggle, struggle is life.”

Red Lobster, which buys 5 percent of the world’s shrimp, is Bangladesh’s biggest U.S. customer. The restaurant did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Author of nine books, award-winning journalist Jim Carrier has published in National Geographic and the New York Times. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.


  1. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from around the world are deeply concerned about the intentions of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to form the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). Strong opposition to this latest among many such recent certification initiatives is based upon years of our collective experience in working to counter the negative effects of the shrimp aquaculture industry and to spotlight the major flaws in current certification processes. We see the ASC as yet another attempt by a Big International NGO to formulate some ill-conceived plan to remedy the problems of unsustainable industrial shrimp farming. These kinds of remedies do not involve the local communities and grassroots movements in the process of defining steps to be taken, and therefore exclude those peoples most affected by the industry’s ongoing assaults as readily evidenced in such locations as Lampung, Indonesia or Muisne, Ecuador, in Khulna, Bangladesh or Choluteca, Honduras.

    Our concerns were delivered in person in both Guayaquil, Ecuador by the Latin American Network, RedManglar last October, and by ASIA, Red Manglar and MAP in Bangkok, Thailand last November during WWF’s so-called “Shrimp Aquaculture Dialogue.” Our stated concerns still apply, and the attempts by WWF and other intended certifiers of farmed shrimp are not supported by the global network of NGOs, local communities, academics and citizens who are still demanding a moratorium on further expansion of this socially disruptive and ecologically destructive industry.

  2. Thanks for that news, Alfredo. It’s work like yours, ASIA, and Red Manglar on the ground with local communities that has more potential for positive impact than big certifying schemes.

    Orion Grassroots Network

  3. Thanks to Orion for covering this and to Alfredo and MAP for their excellent work.

    Be sure to ask before you eat shrimp! And keep this important conversation going.

  4. I just got turned on to Orion, and yours was the first article I read. Being a Texan (Austin), I usually look for “Texas brown shrimp” in the local markets. What I haven’t been asking about is the source of the shrimp I eat in restaurants. Your article was very insightful, and will make me stop and think, and make more conscious choices. Thanks!

    Carol W. (Austin, Texas)

  5. I won’t eat any farm raised shrimp, or salmon either, and haven’t for years now for ecological reasons. So pretty much that means no shrimp for me. But living in Maine we’re in the midst of cold water shrimp season, small, sweet shrimp caught by local fishers and often sold by them from trucks along the side of the road. They are so good, totally different tasting than “regular” shrimp. And so tender. I just bought a couple of pounds to make scampi for my son and his family visiting from Vermont. They are in for a treat.

  6. I’ve enjoyed shrimp twice this last week, little knowing they’d be the last I’ll eat – after reading this article. Just not participating by not purchasing a particular item, such as shrimp, is a simple, easy starting point for making a difference. Every dollar we spend is a vote for something – whether it be recycled paper toilet paper, organic and/or locally grown food, sustainably harvested mussels, even “second hand” i.e., recycled clothes, cars, etc., etc.,….

  7. smlowry, I was going to ask about Maine shrimp. They are $4/pound right now in NYC and they look and taste so much better than imported shrimp. Why are they so cheap? Is it that they’re only sold with shells on and people can’t be bothered to deal with the shells? I can’t imagine any other reason why they wouldn’t cost more – a lot more! – than the other varieties, since otherwise they are more desirable in every way. (Personally I think the shells are desirable in their own right because it’s very easy to make stock with them).
    Also, for anyone interested in reading more on this issue, I recommend an article the Guardian did on shrimp farming in Vietnam back in September:

  8. When I was a child in the 50’s an individual in a small boat could get enough shrimp for his family for a year from the gulf bays. Then liscensing changed and small shrimpers were out. Also the many chemical plants arournd the gulf coast made it so toxic I havent eaten anything out of the bays in 30 yrs. so much for eating locally. wanda, south texas

  9. the story mentioned current by catch rates of 4 to 1. Is that bottom trawling?

    Here in the Pacific Northwest there is still a spotted prawn recreational fishery. I well remember 15 years ago pulling my first pot from 300 feet down – quite a task hand over hand – and seeing a pile of these , fascinating creatures. Nowadays the fishery is so popular you can’t leave pots overnight, just a few hours.

  10. The ads for Red Lobster Rest. were so inviting. No longer do I want to eat there never have. I have a 40 foot power boat and catch my own crab and if lucky enough to be north enough my own shrimp. We have to each of us be informed and care enough to support our local businesses and look to having our grandchildren available to go out and catch their own.

  11. Thank you. Excellent article. I have certainly lost any appetite I might have had for imported shrimp.

  12. i live in vietnam. aquaculture is destroying vast areas of the south. farmers shifted to growing shrimp because it was easy and far more profitable than growing rice. the water tables have been affected. the waste water from the ponds is damaging the low-lying land in the south, which is vulnerable to flooding. it is a very serious problem and little has been done about it. there are periodic reports in the press about huge amounts of shrimp dying because of disease.

  13. I just can’t beleive that our own Government would allow these nasty uninspected so called shrimp to be dumped into this Great Country . Shame on Red Lobster and any other company that would buy these nasty things . I live on the Ms & La Gulf Coast and I see our Shrimping Fleet just sitting and rusting away at the Docks , These poor Fishermen have lost everything and what does our Government do ? Nothing ? They want to talk about Stimulus plans for this economy, then how about Banning all Shrimp Imports and giving our own U.S. Fishing fleets Stimulus Money to get their boats back in the water !! Mr. President Obama are you listening ?? We want this done!!

  14. I actually went to Red Lobster for a school project the morning before I ran into this article and was given a less than confident answer on where their shrimp was really coming from. It prompted me to look further into it and I am glad I did! This is a brilliant article and I really appreciate getting the chance to read and comment on it. I have a degree in aquaculture and I am currently working towards a degree in environmental studies and coastal management so these are issues I am truly passionate about. I just wanted to commend you on raising awarness on this particular matter because you touched on so many critical points that really needed to be addressed. I am pretty sure Iv’e tortured all my friends and family members with how much I have talked about it in the recent days, so again, thank you!

  15. Thanks, Christy, glad you asked the Red Lobster employees about the shrimp, hope you look into it some more – sounds like you’re in a great position to do so. When people hear what an atrocity most farmed shrimp is, it can change their mind about it. A good resource is Mangrove Action Project, Sign up for their enewsletter, it’s always got interesting world news about the aquaculture industry, in particular shrimp and how mangroves are effected.

    Erik, Orion Grassroots Network

  16. I applaud you on a very in dept article about our nations imports. I have no problem with farming for our nations food but when we have to resort to “polluted” dinners then we all have a problem. Regulations must be standardize to meet the quality of our wild catches in the US for all our imports. Just like oysters, I would like to know where it was caught as the taste differs from region to region and wild or raised. Could you feed your children vegetables grown with harmful pesticides, why start with CHEMICAL SHRIMP?

  17. Jim,

    Thank you for bringing this subject to the masses so artfully. One thing we in the domestic industry have been sorely lacking is getting our story out in a multitude of forums. I appreciate how you captured some of the romanticism that has been the draw for many into business. Much like those that prospered in the gold rush of the 1840-50’s in California, it was a unique individual that dropped everything they knew and headed for open water to develop an industry.

    Today, the business model has certainly changed, and those of us left in the industry are doing everything we can to rapidly adapt to it. I believe that “press” like this piece you have authored will go a long way in helping us developing the “niche markets” we need to be able to continue in the business and remain economically viable.

    Thank You for your help,

    Patrick Riley
    Western Seafood Co., Inc.
    Freeport, Texas

  18. I feel sick. I love shrimp, have eaten them often @ special events. As a rule, we generally don’t buy them for home consumption, that would be too “uppity” for folks in this house. Yeah, we like burgers and fries. But NOW, now that I know where those shrimp came from, I’m very very glad I didn’t buy any for home and I sure won’t be eating them elsewhere unless I know where they came from. YUCK!

  19. I’ve worked for Red Lobster for 33 years now. It was once a place I was proud to work for. That time has pasted. Too many things to mention, but I will tell you that by the mid 90’s to cut costs the entire kitchen staffs in the Chicago area were 95% illegal Mexicans. I have been the only American in the kichen 2001. But that no longer saves them enough money. So this year they started something new. All the shrimp is prepared in China. All the Shrimp Scampes, Fried & all the Grilled Shrimp. Although they do say they have a plant in Florida. I have “never” seen a case marked “Made in Florida”. (Note, these are just my observations. I’m sure the company sees things differently. 0

  20. I tell this story every day, I operate a nature/history sightseeing river cruises business in Fernandina Beach, fl. I was born in Gloucester, Ma. in 1951 and I moved to Fernandina Beach, Fl. in 1968. I married into the Bennett family one of the pioner families in the shrimp industry here on Amelia Island, fl. My great grandfarther was a shipmate of Capt. Billy Corkham the fisherman who introduced the otter trawl to the shrimp industry here in 1913. The Wild Caught shrimp industry is near and dear to my heart.I have tryed for years to share this story with the local community on Amelia Island with little success. Our little shrimping town has turned into a resort community and I am very much a part of the tourist industry here today. Most of the shrimp that are sold in our upscale restuarant are farm raised and no one has a clue. We host The Isle Of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival every May, some 125 thousand vistors come to our island to eat shrimp and enjoy the festivel and most of the shrimp that are served are farm raised.If this artical could be published in our local media perhaps it would open some eyes. I believe this town should be in the for front of supporting Wild Caught local Shrimp. Could I offer this story to some of our local media?

  21. Wow, very eye-opening. It’s relatively disturbing to be exposed to how the world truly operates.

  22. We used to be able to buy clean food without worry, but now with profit oriented growers coupled with environmental problems that are ignored, we consumers must take responsibility for what we buy and eat. Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and many other states have freshwater shrimp farms and other aquaculture ventures. These are not difficult to start and are very profitable. This is a niche business that is taking off and we need more growers to fill the demand from quality conscious consumers.

  23. The term yellow journalism comes to mind here. You have seriously distorted a number of facts and conveniently latched onto others that really do not tell the truth. Farming anything has always exacted some environmental cost and as you have pointed out so does hunting (fishing). Choosing worst case examples and making it appear that these are the norm serves no useful purpose. Clearly you have an agenda.

  24. Around the same time I saw how awful wild shrimp fishing is as portrayed in the Blue Planet documentary, I purchased a bag of designated farmed shrimp that tasted more clean and healthy than any shrimp I had ever eaten. While I am now assuming that this was an anomaly and not all farmed shrimp is this clean, my experiences with farmed salmon have been the opposite–farmed salmon tastes nasty and dirty–always–. I became curious as to how shrimp is farmed and set about researching it a bit and read this article.

    My experience with good quality farmed shrimp–from China by the way–leads me to believe that if it is done properly, shrimp farming could conceivably be a healthy renewable resource. Whether we are politically capable of bringing this about in a sane environmentally healthy way remains to be seen.

    Wild shrimp fishers are still going to be unhappy about losing their lively-hood.

    Gentian Violet, one of the substances listed as a problem in Chinese shrimp is actually a healing herb in both eastern and western traditional medicine.

  25. The majority of farmed shrimp is not healthy, either for the consumer, or the affected communities in the shrimp producer nations. Though the taste of this shrimp may appear “healthy,” tastes are deceiving, and “cleanliness” must be viewed as something relevant to actual content. Much of the farmed variety of shrimp is raised in an overcrowded and often polluted pond where antibiotics and pesticides are used to combat the many diseases and pond invaders that threaten the shrimp harvest. The vast majority of these farmed shrimp imports are not inspected for dangerous levels of contaminants (In the US, only 1% of seafood imports are actually FDA inspected, and only 25% of this 1% is actually lab tested for contaminants! This is not reassuring!)

    As for health for the affected local communities, loss of coastal resources, including the mangrove forest wetlands, leads to immense problems of shoreline erosion, endangerment by storms and wave surges, noticeable declines in wild fisheries and loss of customary resource tenure rights, forcing many poor communities to face hunger and deprivation so that we in the more wealthy nations can eat our “clean” shrimp. Looked at in this light, I must ask what can be so healthy about your imported, farmed shrimp. Eat local wild caught or US farmed, but avoid those dirty-imported variety, for you really do not know what you are biting into!

    Please check out our website: and view information ion our Question Your Shrimp blog.

    Alfredo Quarto
    Mangrove Action Project

  26. Dear Readers,

    I am submitting this in behalf of Jorge Varela of CODFDEFFAGOLF in Honduras:

    On which place are situated your ponds? They are in former mangrove, salt flat/lagoon or peat lands?
    Any of your farms had been in troubles getting your Environmental License?
    Any of your farms had been in troubles with fishermen or Ngo’s in a)establishment b) illegal expansion on protected areas?
    Does your company practice social responsibilities; which one for example?
    Do you use oxidation Pond in your farms?
    Do you use oxidation ponds in your packing plant?
    Do you use oxidation ponds in your nursery or, if you buy it the larvae, the waste water have any treatment?

    We wait for true responses and we have the capacity of confirm your answer in Honduras.

    (Sorry for grammatical mistakes)
    Jorge Varela,


  27. I have looked high and low for U.S raw shrimp. I want to support my country’s fishermen, and it is healthier than imported, farm raised shrimp, according to experts.

    I did find some, and I cleaned and cooked them and they were excellent. I even got my brother-in-law interested because he said they tasted so much better, and had a better texture.

    The problem is, I cannot always find them, and when I do, they are so much more expensive. I am willing to pay more, but not three and four times more.

    Also, the last bag I purchased was not very good and I had to throw most of the shrimp away. I think they stayed on the shelf too long, as people are not willing to pay the price and some are not aware of how good they really are.

    U.S. shrimp are not available in ready to thaw and eat packages. They are raw and many people don’t have the time or don’t want to have to clean and cook the product.

    Organizations that support our fishermen have to get more information out there that will motivate people to stop buying the cheap imports. Maybe if people knew how good the U.S. shrimp tasted and how much healthier they are, they might try them.

  28. Shrimp is a luxury that we humans can’t afford, no matter where it comes from. Back in the 60’s, Jacques Cousteau said we humans are destroying the oceans. The future of humanity is more important than a luxury food item. It sounds cold hearted to those who make their living from the shrimp industry, but we humans have created the mess we are in and we need to take responsibility for our destructive actions.

  29. That’s a masterful article, really enlightening. Now, I can’t find the book mentioned in those last few paragraphs: “The Blues of a Revolution.” Published by a consortium in Honduras. Anyone have any more publication information on that? Maybe the subtitle?

  30. Please – before you give up on eating shrimp entirely – go to a farmers market and see if you have a local grower selling freshwater shrimp. These are tasty, firm, very large, excellent quality and not hugely expensive. If you live in the midwest USA, you will find more and more freshwater shrimp farming going on as a way for farmers to diversify their income. Find them and support them. Learn more at

  31. I do not like the Idea that we that live in Louisiana have to eat trash Shrimp it makes me very angry.

  32. I’m not in favor of farmed anything, but Gulf shrimp is now full of the carcinogenic Corexit, courtesy of the BP oil spill.

  33. Dear Friends,

    Please view our new video for our Question Your Shrimp Consumer/Markets Campaign! It is now on our website under the Question Your Shrimp section heading.

    Also, please help us gather more signatures on our Avaaz petition that supports the QYS campaign!

    Take the Pledge and Sign Our Question Your Shrimp Petition1 (Note, I am rerunning this Pledge, as there was a technical problem with the first attempt, forcing me to withdraw the petition from the Avaaz site. But I was advised to run this again, so please do help again by signing our new petition.

    Will you join us in furthering this campaign by passing this message on to your contacts?
    Click here to find out more and sign:

  34. Nice article but I have been aware for over 45 years that shrimp in the North East were almost always frozen and brought in from Mexico(white),South America(B&G whites).These were considered high end. No one bothered with Gulf shrimp because of the small size. Farmed shrimp from Ecuador was
    considered high end since it was a step above Indian imports and you could be assured of a quality product and larger sizes like 16-20’s and up.
    I think the thought of wild shrimp filling the huge demand is long over. I have Chinese friends who buy live bait shrimp in Florida and ship it up to NY for sale in China Town. This is similar to Maine Rock shrimp which is predominantly purchased by Asians for their markets. They appreciate the good flavor of wild shrimp even if they are small size. The onslaught of farmed tiger prawns
    which prefer brackish water was due to the fast growth rates an larger size range in the growing season. I would not blame red lobster for importing shrimp because you would not want an all you can eat popcorn shrimp they are too small. The American consumer
    wanting only large end shrimp and the American fishermen who’s mentality is take it before the next guy gets it have only them self’s to blame.

  35. As I have already pointed out the problems created by the shrimp farm industry un the Global South, I again must sincerely ask, “Knowing all of the ecological and social problems associated with imported shrimp to the US, when you consider the “all you can eat” slogan on your Red Lobster pr Skippers’ menu, I must ask, “how much can you stomach?”

    We can greatly reduce consumption and thus demand if we choose, and this will in turn reduce loss of mangroves, loss of vital wildlife habitat and reduction in food insecurity and human rights abuses now engendered by the shrimp farm industry.

    Please check out our website and short (two minute) video:

  36. I worked at Marifarms, from year two through year four of their unsuccessful operation. As a teenaged laborer, then a slightly older aid to the biologists, I saw the terrible impact upon the rich bays and estuaries leased from the State of Florida. I was relieved when he State turned away from the experiment.

    Local shrimpers blamed the Asian immigrants for ratcheting up the shrimp harvest to damaging levels in the years that followed. I believe that over harvesting was inevitable, and controls are a necessary route to recovery of the fishery.

    I don’t eat farm raised shrimp or farm raised catfish, another item on many Southern restaurant menus. Southern rivers should be clean enough and healthy enough to support commercial fishing, though most are not. Farm raised catfish can be raised in ponds built in fields that have been saturated with herbicides and pesticides for decades. No good choices left, except environmental policies and practices that protect consumers.
    The catfish farm lobby has presented their product as superior to river fish, undermining any concern for commercial fisherman who used to work those waters, so the managers of inland waterways don’t show much concern.

  37. Just a short response to Robert’s comment: We need to find a way to increase US Consumer awareness about the serious consequences of their appetite for cheap, imported shrimp. Awareness does not mean merely being informed, but somehow being effectively informed where real motivation brings about needed change in our consumer demands.

    This seems obvious, yet the numerous shrimp certification programs being bandied about as “green solutions” will not address the real need to motivate people to be more self-conscious and fair in their food choices, knowing that perhaps “your future is what you eat.”

  38. Great piece. Found from your link on the 8/5/14 article on Going Wild for American Shrimp. So many challenges that the shrimpers face. Sad. We’re afraid it’s almost over here in SC.

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