Forget cheeseburgers and French fries—the new American meal of choice is shrimp. American shrimp consumption has increased by more than 300 percent since 1980 [PDF]. Jumbo-sized bags of the crustaceans fill supermarket freezers from New York City to Norfolk, Arkansas. Shrimp used to only appear on the menus of upscale restaurants. Now, chains like Red Lobster, Popeye’s, and Long John Silver’s offer up shrimp dishes for as little as $5.99.
It’s hard to say no to some scampi when crustaceans cost little more than pocket change. But hidden costs lurk in those discounted bags of shrimp—in the form of environmental destruction and human trafficking.
Most shrimp consumed in the U.S. doesn’t come from American waters. In fact, about 90 percent of it originates at farms in Thailand, Vietnam, South America, and China. Using aquaculture to mass-produce the crustaceans has dropped prices to all-time lows, but increasing evidence suggests that the savings to consumers are fueled by human rights abuses and environmental disasters at shrimp farms.
Take Phatthana Seafood. The Thai shrimp factory is one of several brands distributed by Rubicon, a major seafood supplier to corporations like Walmart. Phatthana was recently accused of human rights abuses disturbing enough to turn even the most die-hard shrimp eaters off their po’ boys: The company allegedly holds Cambodian workers against their will and pays them so little money they can’t even afford to buy food. According to the Bangkok Post, 20-year-old Sok Sorng came to Phatthana from his native Cambodia, signing a two-year contract with the shrimp supplier. Sorng says Phatthana promised him lodging, a food allowance, and paid transportation back to Cambodia after the two years had passed. But once Sorng arrived in Thailand, he was forced to work 26 days a month, and the company withheld half his pay to ensure he wouldn’t leave.
Sorng isn’t alone in his allegations against Phatthana: The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union says the company is engaging in “debt bondage,” a form of human trafficking in which an employer keeps a percentage of employees’ pay to cover expenses incurred by bringing migrant workers to other countries, and illegally confiscated passports from 2,000 migrant workers. Many employees, including Sorng, signed up to work at Phatthana under false pretenses, received only half the pay and wages they were promised, and were not provided with lodging or transportation. Phatthana requires its employees to pay a fee to be released from the factory, a cost many workers simply can’t afford under the unfair labor conditions. Workers are paid so little at Phatthana that an NGO recently donated food to 300 employees because they couldn’t afford to eat.
Sorng and UFCW have staged protests and strikes to make the international community aware of Phatthana’s abuses, and they’ve made some progress. But Phatthana is just one player in an industry that’s fiercely competitive and utterly lacking in transparency. If these kinds of practices are happening at that factory, it's a safe bet that similar situations are occurring elsewhere.
And human trafficking isn’t the only ugly truth hiding inside shrimp farms. The operations have contributed to destruction of one of the world’s most important ecosystems—mangrove forests. In many regions of the world, shrimp farmers cut down and remove mangroves in order to construct shrimp ponds. About 70 percent of the world’s mangrove forests have disappeared in the last 40 years, due in part to the rise of shrimp aquaculture.
Mangrove forests are the rainforests of the sea. The trees’ vast networks of roots act as nurseries for a variety of marine critters—including shrimp—protecting them from predators. Mangroves also provide food and habitat for land animals ranging from beetles to tigers. Plus, mangroves prevent soil erosion, protect tropical coastlines from storm surges, and are one of the most effective trappers of carbon dioxide, making them instrumental in the fight to curb climate change.
Shrimp farms take their toll on the world’s oceans, too. According to Kennedy Warne, author of the book Let Them Eat Shrimp: The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea, shrimp farmers regularly feed their crustaceans fish meal made from ground-up fish, a practice that depletes ocean ecosystems of fish stocks. It takes about three pounds of fish protein to make one pound of shrimp—a ratio that does not add up to a sustainable food source.
Farmed shrimp aren’t exactly a boon to consumer health, either. Many shrimp farms are quite similar to the notorious factory farms found in the U.S., regularly treating their product with antibiotics and other chemicals in order to prevent infections and disease. Those drug residues are passed on to shrimp cocktail eaters, a practice that’s contributed to the rise of drug-resistant “superbugs” like MRSA.
Some shrimp aquaculture operations are taking steps to go greener by cutting back on wild fish feed and using organic feed. And organizations like the UCFW are making strides toward exposing human rights abuses in the seafood industry. But make no mistake: Shrimp farming has a long way to go to become ethical and sustainable. Consumers can avoid unsustainable shrimp by purchasing the wild stuff, like shrimp that’s harvested from the Gulf of Mexico. Wild shrimp often comes with a higher price tag. But at least you know that your dinner didn’t come with a side of environmental destruction and human trafficking.