In his new book, “Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood,” Taras Grescoe points out that “shortly after the turn of the century, shrimp surpassed canned tuna as the most popular seafood in the United States.”
Canned tuna versus shrimp? No contest.
Unlike most finfish, shrimp has a distinctive snap in texture and a relatively mild sweet taste. No wonder, as the National Restaurant Association reports, that with shrimp “the overwhelming favorite,” Americans are eating more seafood than ever.
Sadly the oceans can’t keep up. According to the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank, more than half of the world’s fish stocks — including shellfish — are “fully exploited.” So even though demand is increasing, any increase in harvest would threaten their ability to recover their numbers. Worse, about 24 percent of fish stocks are “over-exploited,” that is, depleted below healthy levels or attempting to recover from depletion.
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So it was quite heartening to learn that Oregon pink shrimp (Pandalus jordani) are doing well enough to be formally certified as “sustainably harvested” from the Marine Stewardship Council. Headquartered in London with regional offices in Australia and Seattle, the council has certified 26 fisheries to date, with more than 1,000 eco-labeled seafood products sold in 35 countries, but Oregon pink shrimp is the first shrimp fishery in the world to be certified.
Most of the small shrimp sold in the Northwest are Oregon pink shrimp.
The council’s Americas regional director, Brad Ack in Seattle, filled me in on what it took for the Oregon Trawl Commission to win certification for these shrimp.
Polluted ponds, mangled mangroves
In terms of sustainability, farmed shrimp present one kind of challenge and shrimp harvested from the wild present another.
About 90 percent of shrimp eaten in this country are farm-raised, most from countries where environmental standards are slacker than ours. The marine council for now limits its scope to wild-caught seafood, but other seafood monitoring groups like Blue Ocean Institute and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” warn against purchasing imported farm-raised shrimp because of environmental hazards associated with the farming practices.
“About 3.7 million acres of tropical coastal mangroves have been converted to shrimp farms,” reports Seafood Watch. “So much waste builds up in the farm ponds that the farmers have to move on, leaving the water polluted and mangrove forests destroyed.” Shrimp farmed in the U.S. are “a good alternative” to imported farm-raised shrimp.
Sea turtles and sustainability
Some wild shrimp, though, are not a good alternative. Harvesting techniques employed by many shrimp fisheries unintentionally but routinely lead to capture and killing of other sea creatures, including sea turtles.
That’s where the marine council comes in. Originally a joint venture between major seafood buyer Unilever and the World Wildlife Fund, the now-independent council sets standards for fisheries to earn its eco-label.
In the case of Oregon pink shrimp, the State of Oregon, which manages the fishery, already limited shrimp permits, closed the season during the stock’s reproductive period, and required by-catch reduction devices. The marine council added requirements for annual audits to gauge sustainability of the fishery.
Widely available in stores
Any Oregon pink shrimp product now is eligible for the council’s eco-label, but not all stores have signed up to display the logo (which requires a cost to the store), says Brad Pettinger, director of the Oregon Trawl Commission. Whole Foods is one chain that will carry the blue eco-label. Elsewhere, if you don’t see either the logo or clear labeling of the shrimp as Oregon pink, Pettinger advises asking your fishmonger where the shrimp were caught.
These small shrimp, sometimes referred to as bay or salad shrimp, are typically sold individually quick frozen, so they’re available year round (and fresh between April and October), but I think they’re at their best in salads for spring. At my house, we like to toss them with a little tarragon-flavored aioli and tuck them inside a steamed artichoke.
Greg Atkinson is an instructor at the Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at email@example.com.