The True Cost of Cheap Shrimp – May 1, 2016

A bright light has been shone on the plague of seafood slavery in Asia as the Associated Press led by Martha Mendoza was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Journalism for their expose of the Thai seafood industry. It is a massive problem.

Thailand is the world’s third-largest seafood exporter, and the United States consumes more of that seafood than any other country. Shrimp farms there have devastated mangrove nurseries and are often operated together with pig farms, necessitating massive antibiotic use. Not a pretty picture.

“It’s almost impossible to separate what effectively are slave-caught fish from fish that are caught through more legitimate means…. It is in fact part of the business model. One of the reasons why your shrimp cocktail doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg, is because the labour cost is so low,” says Paul Dillion from the International Organization for Migration. Over 90% of all seafood consumed in the US comes from outside the US. Due to its long and opaque supply chain, it is virtually impossible to trace most imported seafood. There is no way around the fact that by not knowing where your shrimp came from, you are supporting seafood slavery, and likely serving your guests antibiotic-infused shrimp.


Kyaw Naing, a slave fisherman from Myanmar, talks to a security guard through the bars of a cell at the compound of a fishing company in Benjina, Indonesia.  (AP/Dita Alangkara, File)

Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing is rampant in Asia (Photo: Al Jazeera)

Amazingly there is a simple answer:
Enjoy Wild American Shrimp, supporting traditional fishing communities on the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida. Gulf shrimp are abundant, shrimpers there have made tremendous progress in reducing by-catch with improved harvest methods, and have invested in modern processing and freezing operations. The result is not only the right thing to do, but wild shrimp are incomparably delicious.


Crisfield Jim with a big Black Drum


F/V Instigator, Captain and crew


Last week Sea to Table’s Sean Dimin and Lindsay Haas visited our friends the Reese family in Crisfield, MD, located on Tangier Sound near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. The Annemessex, a branch of the local Pocomoke Indian tribe, inhabited the area when Benjamin Summers arrived from England in 1663. An 1854 survey of the Chesapeake Bay revealed the area a lucrative fishing location, with extensive oyster beds around Summers Cove, and in 1866 John Crisfield was instrumental in bringing the railroad to this fertile fishing village. Legend has it that the town is built on oyster shells.

Today Grandpa Pat, Patrick Reese, and Pat Jr. land various finfish and oysters, but the prize are soft shelled blue crabs. They run shedding tanks where crabs molt from their shells as shedders are packed live in special boxes. Crisfield is a remote rural southern fishing town, but within one day ground delivery range of the Acela corridor allowing the lowest cost, lowest carbon footprint way to market. By arriving next day from the dock these super fresh soft shell crabs may even still be alive in your kitchen.

The Reese family also lands boats on the ocean side, as Sean and Lindsay were there to unload Summer Flounder from the F/V Instigator with Captain Bob Vanaman, and two of his crew, brothers Steve and Levi Brockman. Steve was kind enough to share this video displaying his additional talent and happy feet.

Now that May has arrived, chefs everywhere await the opening of Alaska’s salmon season. Some just can’t wait.

All the best,

from the Dimin Family and the Sea to Table team

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