THE DRESDEN FILES Reading Challenge

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Monday, February 1, 2010


It’s funny, but I’m like a lot of other folks. While we all know how horrific the food factory farms are in terms of beef, chickens, sheep and other large mammals are, and how the terrible conditions there affect ourselves in terms of E-coli infections and other diseases that the antibiotic meats are stuffed with, I hadn’t given just a whole lot of thought to the fish farming industries. Specifically, I didn’t think about the environmental damages that can get past me (AND everybody else) because fish farming isn’t something that anybody really pays any attention to.

Well, that mindset – for me, at least – is going to be a thing of the past from now on out. I just read a book by Taras Grescoe entitled BOTTOMFEEDER: HOW TO EAT ETHICALLY IN A WORLD OF VANISHING SEAFOOD, and, oh, BOY, is it an eye-opener. He details an absolutely repulsive picture of how shrimp are farmed in one region of India. The shrimp pond preparation begins with urea, superphosphate, and diesel, then progresses to the use of piscicides (fish-killing chemicals like chlorine and rotenone), pesticides and antibiotics (including some that are banned in the U.S.), and ends by treating the shrimp with sodium tripolyphosphate (a suspected neurotoxicant), Borax, and occasionally caustic soda. When the shrimp arrive in the U.S. very few, if any at all, are inspected by the FDA, and when researchers have examined imported ready-to-eat shrimp, they found 162 separate species of bacteria with resistance to 10 different antibiotics.

YUCK. Resistant strains of bacteria are not a good thing to read about, particularly when you see the damage that resistant strains of bacterias do to people. We eat a lot of antibiotic resistant beef and chicken these days, and nobody seems to be particularly upset about it – that is, until you or somebody you love gets sick from a bacterial disease.

Overall, the shrimp-farming industry represents a dismantling of the marine ecosystem, piece by piece. Farming methods range from those described above to some that are more benign. This doesn’t even begin to cover the secondary ecological disasters that shrimp farming is causing in other ecosystems, either. Problems with irresponsible methods of farming don't end at the "yuck," factor since shrimp farming is credited with destroying 38 percent of the world's mangroves, some of the most diverse and productive ecosystems on earth. Mangroves sequester vast amounts of carbon and serve as valuable buffers against hurricanes and tsunamis. Some compare shrimp farming methods that demolish mangroves to slash-and-burn agriculture. A shrimp farmer will clear a section of mangroves and close it off to ensure that the shrimp cannot escape.

After that’s been done, the farmer relies on the tides to refresh the water, carrying shrimp excrement and various other diseases out to sea – spreading more poison into yet another fragile ecosystem. The shrimp framer destroys the entire mangrove ecosystem and it’s turned into a small dead zone for short-term gain. Even after the shrimp farm leaves, the mangroves do not come back. Get that – they do NOT grow back. Period. So, what can be done to either ameliorate or stop this ecosystem-wrecking practice?

Well, there are a few alternatives. Not many, and not great solutions, but at least more responsible. SORT of. Building and using closed, inland ponds that use their wastewater for agricultural irrigation instead of allowing it to pollute oceans or other waterways are about the only good alternative. When a farm has good disease management protocols, it does not need to use so many antibiotics or other chemicals, but that isn’t really the end of the potential problems, either. An estimated average of 1.4 pounds of wild fish is used to produce every pound of farmed shrimp. Sometimes the wild fish used is bycatch, which are fish that would be dumped into the ocean to rot if they weren't fed to shrimp. Unfortunately, at most other times, farmed shrimp are fed on species like anchovies, herring, sardines and menhaden. These fish are important foods for seabirds, big commercial fish and whales, so removing them from the ecosystem to feed farmed shrimp is problematic at best and disastrous for other species that live off them too.

What’s even worse is the use of trawling to wild-catch shrimp, which in and of itself is a highly destructive fishing method. Football field-sized nets are dragged along the ocean floor, scooping up and killing several pounds of marine life for every pound of shrimp they catch and demolishing the ocean floor ecosystem as they go. Where they don't clear-cut coral reefs or other rich ocean floor habitats, they drag their nets through the mud, leaving plumes of sediment so large they are visible from outer space. So, there’s even more ecological damage in this particular method, plus the denuding of fishing areas as well. After trawling destroys an ocean floor, the ecosystem often cannot recover for decades at least – if not longer. So, why is this significant? 98 percent of ocean life lives on or around the seabed. Depending on the fishery, the amount of bycatch (the term used for unwanted species scooped up and killed by trawlers) ranges from five to 20 pounds per pound of shrimp. These include sharks, rays, starfish, juvenile red snapper, sea turtles and more. While shrimp trawl fisheries only represent 2 percent of the global fish catch, they are responsible for over one-third of the world's bycatch.

So, that means that there are a lot of OTHER species that eat the bycatch that are starving or dying. Trawling is comparable to bulldozing an entire section of rainforest in order to catch one species of bird. So, given all of this, how can an American know how to find responsibly farmed or fished shrimp? Well, right this instant, it's damn near impossible. Only 15 percent of our total shrimp consumption comes from the U.S. (both farmed and wild sources). The U.S. has good regulations on shrimp farming, so purchasing shrimp farmed in the U.S. is not a bad way to go.

Wild shrimp, with a very few, VERY notable few exceptions, is typically obtained via trawling and should be avoided. The notable exceptions are spot prawns from British Columbia, which are caught in traps like those that are used for catching lobster, and the small salad shrimp like the Northern shrimp from the East Coast, or the pink shrimp from Oregon, both of which are certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. Unfortunately, neither are true substitutes for the large white and tiger shrimp American consumers are used to. “Bigger is better”, right?

Roughly 1/3 of the shrimp that the U.S. imports comes from Thailand, and over 80 percent of those shrimp are farmed. The next biggest sources of U.S. shrimp are Ecuador, Indonesia, China, Mexico, Vietnam, Malaysia and India. Together, those countries provide nearly 90 percent of America's imported shrimp. Interestingly enough, Ecuador's shrimp industry exists almost entirely to supply U.S. demand, with over 93 percent of its shrimp coming up north to the U.S. The vast majority of those shrimp (almost 90 percent) are farmed. Saddest and most sickeningly, shrimp production is responsible for the destruction of 70 percent of Ecuador's mangroves. Farming practices in other countries range from decent to awful, but there's currently no real way for a consumer to tell whether shrimp from any particular country was farmed sustainably or not. At least, not while we’re depending on the toothless, powerless and completely ineffective FDA to inspect the product.

Geoff Shester, senior science manager of Monterey Bay's Seafood Watch, says that ethical shrimp consumption is a chicken and egg problem. On one hand, the solution is for consumers to show demand for responsibly farmed and wild shrimp by eating it but on the other hand, ethical shrimp choices are not yet widely available. Seafood Watch is working with some of the largest seafood buyers in the U.S. to help them buy better shrimp, but it's currently a major challenge. The first – and the biggest - challenge is that labeling and certification programs do not yet exist to identify which farmed shrimp meet sustainable production standards. The second challenge is that even when such programs are in place, the U.S. demand will likely greatly exceed their supply.

Shester's advice to consumers right now is simple: "only buy shrimp that you know comes from a sustainable source. If you can't tell for sure, try something else from the Seafood Watch’s yellow or green lists." Knowing that many will be unwilling to give up America's favorite seafood, he advocates simply eating less of it and keeping an eye on future updates to the Seafood Watch guide to eating sustainable seafood.

Here’s the link to Seafood Watch:

If nothing else, check the packaging and SEE where the shrimp came from. If they’re not certified as a sustainable crop, don’t buy them. Otherwise, once again, we’re going to have the same problems with seafood that we’ve had in the past, with diseases that are not normally species-specific jumping species, and causing all sorts of problems.

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