Farmed Shrimp Labels
Then there are the certifications meant to indicate better environmental practices. For farmed fish, the most common are the Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP), created by the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). Unlike the USDA organic certification, these are private companies without government oversight. On paper, the standards do ensure farms with the certification are using some improved practices, like avoiding prohibited antibiotics, but some industry experts question how reliable the certifications are. “The thing that concerns me about farmed fish labels, in particular BAP and ASC, is that they’re pay-to-play,” said Cufone, “in a way that makes it hard not to provide the label once a company has paid for it.” GAA communications manager Steven Hedlund said that “Seafood processing plants, farms, hatcheries and feed mills pay what we call a “program fee,” only if certified.”
The companies are also run by individuals who have a monetary interest in making farmed seafood look more sustainable. GAA’s board includes executives from Red Lobster, Sam’s Club, and Thai Union, one of the shrimp companies found by the Associated Press to have slave labor in its supply chain. (The company claimed it was appalled by the revelation and that it made changes to its supply since then.) Hedlund said GAA board members are not involved in the BAP standards development process and that they are instead reviewed by an independent committee comprised of people from the environmental/conservation community, academia, and industry. “I’d also like to add that it’s critical that GAA/BAP and other NGOs engage with these big retail and foodservice companies, because they have so much influence,” he said. In Consumer Reports’ testing, four of the antibiotic-contaminated samples had BAP certification. “Ultimately it ends up being industry labeling industry, which is not that meaningful,” Cufone said.
Wild Shrimp Labels
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is the main certifier of sustainable wild fisheries, and 36 shrimp fisheries currently carry the blue fish label. “There’s an independent assessment team of scientific experts that are convened by the certifier to assess the fishery against the MSC fishery standards,” Averill said, explaining that the label’s credibility is in checks and balances built into the system, the fact that the standards are continuously updated, and transparency. Reports on fisheries that are being assessed are released for public review and public comment, and fisheries that end up certified have pages of documents posted in MSC’s “track a fishery” database.
Still, Cufone said that MSC often certifies fisheries that are subpar on some of the stated goals, like a recent menhaden fishery in the Gulf of Mexico that was certified despite the lack of a catch limit. And environmental groups have spoken out recently about MSC certifying fisheries despite problems with bycatch, the main environmental issue with shrimp.
The trickiest aspect of MSC’s sustainability certification, though, is that it works on a point system you don’t see on the label. Fisheries that “pass” are scored between 60 and 100, 60 being the minimum requirements for certification and 100 being a perfectly sustainable operation. A score between 60 to 79 is considered a “conditional pass,” and MSC provides the fisheries with a list of improvements it must make. However, that fishery is allowed to use the “certified sustainable” label while it’s making (or possibly not making) those improvements, with a follow-up check in five years later.
Finally, there’s Whole Foods. Its standards rely heavily on MSC for wild shrimp, and it maintains its own farmed shrimp standards, which ban antibiotics and preservatives and “prohibit conversion of sensitive ecosystems such as mangrove forests into shrimp farms, and we track the shrimp from pond to store to ensure the standards are met.” Many consider its standards to be the best in the industry, but, again, the company creates and maintains its own standards, so there is little outside oversight compared to a third-party verification system.
How to Buy (or not Buy) Shrimp
When it comes to buying shrimp, almost everyone in the industry says Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch ranking system is the most reliable tool available, and many people recommend MSC for wild shrimp, despite its limitations. Cufone, Bigelow, and Greenberg also all said they’d eat wild Gulf shrimp over anything imported.
At Greenpoint Fish and Lobster, a restaurant and fish market known for better seafood sourcing in Brooklyn, New York, chef Orion Russell almost exclusively buys wild Gulf shrimp. For him, another benefit over buying farmed shrimp from Asia is the taste. “The flavor is so amazing,” he said. “My mind was blown the first time I had a Gulf shrimp.” However, bycatch is still a major concern that can’t be ignored.
One definite path is to supporting sustainable recirculating shrimp farms as they emerge and struggle to compete. Eco Shrimp Garden, a farm based in Newburgh, NY that sells at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, is a great example. (It’s worth noting that the farmed shrimp company that recently got a shoutout in the New York Times has been plagued with development delays, and the trailblazing Maryland farm Marvesta is no longer in production.)
At the end of the day, “Most of the world’s production is still something we would recommend you not eat,” Bigelow said.
“It’s like we can’t get over the fact that we like it so much,” Greenberg added.
But maybe it’s time. Instead of shrimp, you could look at what kinds of sustainable seafood are available in your region. Buying directly from local fishermen based on what is most plentiful nearby is the best idea. So is buying locally farmed oysters and clams and mussels, which can have a positive impact on ocean ecosystems. “I would always turn to a sea scallop from Maine, Massachusetts, or Montauk. With East Coast clams and mussels, there’s not too much concern there,” Russell said. All of those kinds of shellfish also contain more omega-3 fatty acids — which are beneficial for heart and brain health — compared to shrimp.