When is it right to stock up on shrimps?

June 25, 2012 by
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Mangroves are one of the world’s most necessary habitats; supporting local subsistence economies, protect the coastline from erosion, floods and hurricanes, and provide breeding grounds for fish and crustacean. Yet, mangroves swamps are under threat from developers, climate change and – not least – shrimp farming. According to figures from the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), where mangroves have been destroyed, up to 38 per cent of the damage is very often due to shrimp farm development. And often with the ironic result that local wild fish and shrimp supplies are dwindling fast.

Swamped: mangroves are a necessary habitat

It seems in our efforts to bring shrimp and prawns more easily to the dining table, we are allowing whole ecosystems to be destroyed, with long term implications for biodiversity, conservation and even food security for locals. This destructive type of farming for shrimps is one of the most worrying aspects of the way we produce seafood for consumption, but it is far from the only one. Our passion for lobsters, crab, langoustines and all forms of molluscs and crustacean can have a very devastating effect on other forms of marine life. Meanwhile, some wild seafood is threatened in turn through the wider aspects of climate change which may force us further into the growing field of aquaculture – which is as yet not thoroughly regulated. Choosing prawn cocktail from the menu has never been more confusing.

One of the most contentious issues is sustainability; at what point are we simply fishing whole species into oblivion? According to figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO), 52 per cent of all fish (including shellfish) are ‘fully exploited’ – or fished to their maximum capacity; 24 per cent are ‘over-fished’; and just 21 per cent are ‘moderately exploited’. This means nearly three-quarters of all fish are fished to virtually their maximum. And as so much of the world depends on fishing for a living – the industry is worth $83 billion a year globally – it’s clear that the protection and continuation of this livelihood is vital.

In 1992, after the collapse of the Canadian Grand Banks, when overfishing destroyed not just the historic abundance of native cod but also the delicate Newfoundland ecosystem, the World Wildlife Fund got together with Unilever to set up the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a now-independent body, which was charged with developing ways to make fishing sustainable. The MSC now assesses fisheries with a view to granting them the right to carry its eco label of approval. So far, eight per cent of the world’s fisheries are under assessment or certified.

Burry Inlet Cockle Fishery in Wales carries the MSC standard; to ensure cockles are not over fished, it sticks to strict rules – only traditional methods of hand raking and sieving are allowed, a limited number of annual licences granted (about 55), a catch quota of 300 kg – 600 kg per person per day (but not Sundays or at night) is fixed, and cockles must meet a minimum size to allow the survival of spawning stock. As an example of best practice, it’s hard to beat.

However, Burry Inlet doesn’t have to worry about one of the MSC’s greatest concerns: whether a fishery is taking enough care over preventing bycatch – the incidental fish or other wildlife that are caught by accident. These are often killed and thrown away needlessly, or die before they can be rescued, and range from albatross to turtles or dolphins.

Debbie Winton, research officer at environmental organisation Earthwatch Europe, explains that in all fishing methods there are bycatch incidents, but, she adds: ‘Shrimp trawl fisheries are known to have higher by-catch/catch ratios in weight than any other gear type and account for over one third of the global total bycatch.

‘It ranges from Magellanic penguins killed as a result of bycatch and entanglement in Patagonia, Argentina to cardinalfish, sea catfish, deepsea lizardfish, dragonets, conger eels, porcupinefish, wrasses, jawfish, eeltail catfish, lizardfish and pufferfish off northern Australia, and sea turtles. Incidental capture of sea turtles in shrimp trawls is the most important human cause of sea turtle mortality in the northwesternGulf of Mexico.’

Campaigning organisations such as seaturtle.org are encouraging fisheries to fit nets with turtle excluder devices or TEDs (wide bars across the top of nets that allow shrimp in but not turtles), but in some regions such as Indonesia, according to Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter, fishermen deliberately avoid fitting TEDs as they are permitted to treat any bycatch as a fishing bonus to be sold or eaten. The value of this bonus can exceed their monthly wages. So while that may not include turtles – which are generally thrown back into the water, it does mean they still have an exceptionally high rate of bycatch, and any legislation to avoid this, will need to take into account the fishermen’s own needs.

As an example of fighting back against bycatch, the Dutch fleet of the brown shrimp fishery of the Wadden Sea and the North Sea has applied to be assessed for MSC certification partly based around the way it has tried to tackle its usual 10 per cent bycatch of plaice. James Simpson, spokesman for MSC, explains ‘By changing its nets, the fishery has found a way to return unwanted plaice to the sea, dramatically reducing its bycatch.’ The Dutch fleet is responsible for landing more than 30,000 tonnes of brown shrimp a year.

This sensibility can reap benefits for a fishery, too. James Simpson of MSC says: ‘It is great to see more fisheries coming forward for assessment and certification; they need to show consumers they are committed to sustainability. But sustainability is good for the industry too – and an MSC standard confers real market benefits adding a premium of 10-45 per cent to the price.’

One of the environmental problems that may well hit crustaceans and indeed all fish soon are the effects of ocean acidification. According to Dr David Bailey, lecturer in marine biology at the University of Glasgow, this is the effect of the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. ‘It’s hard to predict the effect climate change will have on the temperature of the sea, and how much that matters more than normal cyclical changes, but everyone accepts there has been an increase in carbon dioxide.’

As water at the surface soaks up the extra carbon dioxide, this makes oceans more acidic, which makes it harder for marine life that builds shells and for the building of coral reefs. ‘People are starting to realise ocean acidification is a big deal,’ says Bailey. ‘Anywhere where there are reef-building corals will be affected. And if the acidification changes are significant, there may well be problems for crustaceans.’

Coral reefs are also threatened by the effects of shrimp farms, says Winton, in countries such as Thailand, the Philippines and Kenya. ‘Shrimp farming produces a high nutrient load in the surrounding waters both because of the type of food put into the water, and the excrement of the shrimp. If this is in a reef area, nutrients encourage algal growth which reduces the amount of light getting though to the coral and preventing photosynthesis taking place. This will lead to the coral degrading and dying.’

Aquaculture is now the fastest growing food production system in the world, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The charity is aware that the industry needs regulation urgently – just as the MSC has tried to set standards for ‘wild’ fishing – as it is not just a question of the habitats this type of farming destroys, but also that reliance on high protein, fishmeal-based feed for carnivorous species often requires many pounds of wild fish to produce one pound of edible aquaculture product. One third of all wild fish caught is turned into fish meal and oil, the bulk of which is used by farms. Farming also uses antibiotics widely which may cause antibiotic resistance, and encourages the over-use of non-salt water.

The charity is initiating Aquaculture Dialogues aimed at setting protocols which can address the many problems that fish farming creates. For molluscs, the initial focus is onNorth America, and will expand to other regions in 2008. Standards are expected to be finalized in 2008 for North American clams, oysters, scallops and mussels. For shrimp, principles adopted in 2006 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations are being used to create standards for shrimp farms in Central America/Mexico, East Africa andAsia. These standards will then be harmonized into one global set of standards. By working inAsia, the Dialogue will ensure that the standards will address the needs of small-scale producers. The first Dialogue meeting was held in Madagascar in April 2007 and the second will be in Belize in April 2008.

But one of the most worrying ethical problems is highlighted by Mark Huxham, a senior lecturer in environmental biology at Napier University. Huxham points out that many of the shrimp farms that are destroying mangroves are in areas where the tidal zone has traditionally belonged to the state. That means the often very poor locals could use it for wood gathering, while it acted as a nurturing environment for young fish that they would fish for in the sea.

‘Unfortunately,’ says Huxham, ‘ownership of this land is often disputed. InSri Lanka, for instance, powerful locals can co-opt the land for themselves.’ He points out that mangroves are now disappearing at a rate of 2 per cent a year; yet their economic value – when left intact – has been estimated at more than three times the value of its use as a fish farm. Yet that value is dispersed among many poor people as opposed to a concentrated value to one man or a small group. He believes that pressure needs to be brought on these countries to make it impossible for individuals to get hold of the land, so shrimp farms couldn’t be set up. He also points out there are some sustainable yields from mangroves such as the mangrove crab, something of a tourist destination delicacy, so farming doesn’t have to be abandoned altogether.

‘Consumers, meanwhile, have to ask – why are we buying tiger shrimps and prawns from South East Asia, or indeed from the North Atlantic with its huge bycatch issues,’ says Huxham. ‘It is one of the most disastrous foodstuffs in the world.’

Five to Try:

Waitrose Frozen Seafood Selection 400g £3.99. All of Waitrose own label fresh and frozen fish is sustainably sourced including this cooked selection of peeled prawns, mussels and squid rings.

Young’s Premium Wholetail Scampi 280g, £3.99. Young’s operates a pioneering traceability system that helps them pinpoint where and when all their fish is caught, helping them practice sustainable fishing. Available from Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s.

Martin’s Fowey Sea Farm Oysters, 2 dozen, £12.50 plus £4.99p&p. Martin’s Sea Fresh Fish Shop operates a mail-order service from Cornwall, offering fresh fish and seafood, sustainably farmed using traditional methods. St Columb Business Centre, Barn Lane, St Columb Major, Cornwall TR9 6BU; tel: 01637 806103 / 0800 027 2066.

FishWorks cockles, 800g, £6.60. FishWorks encourages consumers to shop seasonally to encourage responsible fishing – if consumers refuse to buy young fish out of season, they will have a chance to mature and reproduce.

Frozen Fish Direct Irish Mussels, £454g, £2.20. A family-run company that concentrates on sourcing its fish ethically, whether wild or farmed. More information: tel: 0208 8903169/ 0208 8904549

This article first appeared in summer 2007. Prices correct at that time.

About the Author

Victoria Lambert has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and specialises in health and medical matters. She writes for the Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Mail and the Mail on Sunday. She contributes to Saga, Geographical and First Eleven magazines – where she is the agony aunt.

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