“Lazy” Shoppers Guide to Sustainable Shrimp

ShrimpMy post, “Is There Such a Thing as Guilt-Free Shrimp?”, in which I confessed to feeling guilty about eating shrimp, prompted a lot of comments on the blog and Facebook.

Agrigirl Tammy, who’s based in Arizona and has a wonderful food blog, commented, “I have that farm raised = bad attitude and I love that you’re offering alternative opinions. As crazy as it sounds, we have a shrimp grower here in the desert.” And Jacquie from Dorchester wondered about buying shrimp from the local Asian markets in her neighborhood.

Hazel, who described herself as my “lazy cousin in Chicago,” but was energetic enough to write, said she hasn’t been buying much shrimp because they taste like iodine and asked for advice on where to buy it.  And Tibbs from Jamaica Plain said, “I’ve been ‘worrying’ and not doing anything, too,” and asked what questions I ask at the seafood counter and where I draw the line.

Figuring out how (and where) to buy good-tasting, healthy, sustainable shrimp is frustrating and time-consuming. While there’s tons of information about sustainable seafood out there–including downloadable wallet guides and free  smart phone apps–not everyone agrees on what’s sustainable and the information changes all the time! So while I encourage you to read up on this stuff, if you don’t have time to do it yourself, here’s my “lazy” shoppers guide to sustainable shrimp.

What to Ask/Find Out

The best way to buy shrimp is to ask questions and/or read the label to find  about what you’re getting.  Just the fact that you’re asking will let the store know that you care about getting sustainable seafood.   If you can’t get any information or don’t like the answer, consider buying something else (or finding another store). Here are a few questions to ask:

  1. What’s it called? (There may be more than one name for the same shrimp.)
  2. Where’s it from?
  3. Is it wild or farmed?
  4. How was it caught or farmed?

What to Buy

  1. Buy local shrimp whenever possible. There’s a lot more domestic shrimp than I realized. If you’re lucky enough to be able to get fresh local fish, support your local fishing community.
  2. Domestic, wild, trap-caught shrimp are considered a best choice. Most wild shrimp are caught using huge nets (trawls) that scoop up sea turtles, fish, and other marine life as well as the shrimp. They throw this “bycatch” overboard, but it’s generally dead by the time they dump it. While some shrimpers do use fishing gear that keep turtles and other species from getting caught or allow them to escape, it’s best to try to buy shrimp that are caught with traps, because they pick up less bycatch.
  3. Domestic farmed shrimp are usually a better option than imported farmed shrimp. Plus, most people say they prefer the taste of domestic shrimp. As the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch points out, however, it takes an average of two pounds of wild fish to grow one pound of farmed shrimp, so shrimp farming often uses more fish than it produces. Domestic shrimp farms (and some international ones) are improving their practices by using natural enclosed ecosystems but most haven’t solved the feed problem, so domestic wild shrimp are still usually a better choice than domestic farmed shrimp.
  4. Avoid farmed shrimp from Asia and South America. 90 percent of the shrimp in the US is imported from these regions. These environmentally-destructive farms are disease-prone, so they pump the shrimp with antibiotics and pesticides. According to Food and Water Watch, less than 2 percent of US seafood imports are inspected for contamination. While many seafood products have country of origin labels, wholesale markets and processed seafood products aren’t required to provide them. So if you don’t see a label or can’t ask your fishmonger where the shrimp are from, you should probably assume they’re selling imported farmed shrimp. While the fish stores in my friend Jacquie’s neighborhood are probably selling plenty of local fish, it’s unlikely that any of their shrimp are domestic. Personally, I’m going to try to draw the line at buying imported shrimp.
  5. Look for third-party certified products. A growing numbers of groups certify shrimp and other seafood products as sustainable. Unfortunately, there aren’t any federal or universally-agreed upon standards for what this means. Some certifiers have been criticized for “greenwashing” products that aren’t truly environmentally or socially sustainable.  Even if some of these certifiers are not as discerning as I’d like them to be, I still think you look for  any “eco-label” or sustainably certified shrimp at the stores where you usually shop and read their labels (or research them online at home).  At the very least, you’ll be able to get some information about what you’re buying.

Where to Buy It

  1. Your local seafood supplier or community supported fishery. If you’re lucky enough to have a local source for shrimp, like a fishmonger or a community-supported fishery, you’ll be able to get your questions answered and feel great about supporting the local economy. Your local food coop or natural food store may also be able to provide sustainable sources. Go for it if you can!
  2. Your Supermarket. Greenpeace USA profiles 20 seafood retailers in its excellent annual sustainable seafood report, Carting Away the Oceans. While none of the 20 retailers achieved a green “Good” ranking from the activist organization, the report noted that unsustainable seafoods like orange roughy and Chilean sea bass are sold in fewer places now and stores are getting more serious about supporting sustainability. In my experience, most of the large supermarkets sometimes or always carry wild shrimp, but it can be hard to find amid the cheap, imported, farmed-raised shrimp.
  3. Surprisingly, Target’s grocery division, SuperTarget, ranked first on Greenpeace’s list because it has eliminated farmed salmon from all of its stores. Wegmen’s, a snazzy family-owned chain with stores in a handful of states on the East Coast, ranked #2 and earned high praise; they sell farmed Belizean shrimp that sounds pretty sustainable.  I can’t wait until they open their first Boston store! Whole Foods Market, or “Whole Paycheck,” as we call them in our household, came in #3; in my experience, Whole Foods reliably offers many good choices–if you can afford them.

    Most of the other chains, including #5 Safeway (Carr’s, Dominick’s, Genuardi’s, Pavilions, Randall’s, Safeway, Tom Thumb, VONS), #6 Ahold (Stop & Shop, Giant, Martin’s Food Market, Ukrop’s), and Walmart (#9), are in the process of asking suppliers to provide sustainable products, but they’re still selling all or mostly all imported shrimp.

    I was happy to learn that after an intense Greenpeace campaign last year, Trader Joe’s (#10) announced that it will stop selling all unsustainable seafood products by December 31, 2012 and will be adding more information on its labels. When I go to Trader Joe’s, I almost always find wild seafood, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever see any sustainable shrimp there.

    Costco came in at #14 and rightly so. I don’t recall ever seeing wild shrimp there, and they’re not great as far as labeling. They are, however, selling sustainable seafood online (see below). Personally, I’ve never tried asking a staffer about their seafood; I think I’d be more inclined to email the corporate headquarters.

  4. Check Out Third-Party Certifiers. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international non-profit organization that certifies fisheries and is well regarded by Seafood Watch, although slammed by others.  Look for their seal on the packages, or check out their website for a list of shops and restaurants that carry the products.
  5. Order it online. If you can’t find a reliable source of sustainable shrimp locally and you really want shrimp, you may need to order it online.  I hesitate to even suggest this, because it tends to be expensive, and anyway, how sustainable can it be to have food products shipped to you? If I couldn’t find another source, I could see ordering in bulk once in a while as a treat.A growing number of companies are selling domestic wild-caught or farm-raised shrimp online. For example, Contessa® Just Harvested® Sustainably Raised Shrimp are raised in a natural mangrove ecosystem in Southeast Asia, eat available food–primarily phytoplankton and zooplankton—instead of fish feed, and are not given any antibiotics, pesticides, or other chemicals. This brand is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council and is the only imported farm-raised shrimp that Seafood Watch lists as a good alternative. The product is only available to consumers through the Costco website.Other places to order include I Love Blue Sea, which sells wild shrimp sustainably caught with turtle-free nets in the US and Mexico, and Marvesta Shrimp, which are farm-raised on Maryland’s Eastern Shore with no antiobiotics or preservatives and are shipped fresh.

Happy shopping, and please share your experiences finding sustainable shrimp!

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Anxiety at the Fish Counter: Wild or Farm-Raised Salmon?

Salmon photo by Ian Britton, courtesy of FreeFoto.com

I’ve developed a severe case of “fish anxiety.”  First, it was hearing about PCBs and mercury in farmed-raised salmon. Then it was the stories about overfishing cod. Now it’s worrying about whether Gulf Coast shrimp are still safe to eat.

Should I only buy wild fish?  Should I avoid certain species? Should I just buy fish when it’s caught locally?

Even though I belong to a community-supported fishery, it doesn’t offer  enough quantity or variety to meet all of my household’s fish-eating needs. As a conscientious consumer, who’s trying to support food that is healthy, is environmentally sound, pays producers a fair wage, supports local economies, and is sustainable over the long run, it’s really hard to figure out what fish and seafood I should buy.  While there is a variety of consumer seafood buying guides I plan to explore, my goal is to educate myself—and you—about what to buy.

Four Fish, by Paul Greenberg

Take salmon, for example.  I’ve been reading Paul Greenberg’s excellent book, Four Fish: the Future of the Last Wild Food. According to Greenberg, salmon grow best in free-flowing, oxygen-rich, fresh-water rivers that are protected by timber cover. Thanks to industrialization—dams, agriculture runoff, industrial waste—and overfishing, there are very few good salmon-fishing rivers left in the US. Today, the only Atlantic salmon available in supermarkets is farmed; most of the Pacific salmon you see at the supermarket is wild, but the supplies are dwindling.

I was fascinated to learn that the first effort to farm salmon began around 1400, although the vast development of farm-raised salmon didn’t happen until the ’70s. Thirty years ago, there was no salmon in Chile, and now Chile is the second largest salmon-producing country in the world. As producers became very efficient at farming salmon, the prices dropped, and producers started farming more and more salmon to make up for lost income.

Similar to industrial farming on the land, high-density salmon farms create pollution and waste and spread disease. Most farmed-fish are not well separated from wild populations, so diseases can spread to the wild fish, and the genetic populations get mixed. Both farmed and wild salmon feed on smaller fish, but wild salmon eat lower on the food chain, where there is less concentration of contaminants like PCBs.

Kwik'Pak Fisheries is a community fishery run by the Kupik people.

It would be wonderful if we could all eat wild salmon, but there simply isn’t enough wild salmon on the planet to satisfy the demand. Greenberg believes that we need to develop food policies that incorporate both wild and farm-raised salmon.  His book describes some promising ways that salmon can be farmed in a more environmentally sound way that protects wild salmon.

Greenberg points out that if we seek to feed people efficiently by growing the most salmon using the least amount of feed, it would be logical to support the genetically altered salmon produced by AquaBounty Technologies in Waltham, Massachusetts now seeking FDA approval.  AquaBounty says its salmon grows to maturity in half the time of other farmed salmon, and because it is reproductively sterile, it eliminates the threat of interbreeding.

While Greenberg may be right, I’m not quite ready to embrace genetically altered salmon.  Until farm-raised salmon produced by better standards is available, I’ll buy less salmon, purchase wild salmon when I can, and be prepared to pay more for it.  And I’m going to look into one of Greenberg’s other suggestions: wild Yukon River salmon from the Kwik’Pak Fisheries.  Kwik’Pak is a community business run by the Yupik people.  It was certified by the Fair Trade Federation in 2005, although I can’t find any current information about their membership on the FTF web site. Nonetheless, they seem worthy of support. Their fish is available on the Internet, but I’m going to look for it at restaurants and grocery stores. Hopefully, it’ll be coming soon to a supermarket near you and me.

And I’m going to keep trying to educate myself on what to buy at the fish counter, so I can overcome my fish anxiety.

Cooking Up a CSF Feast with a Jody Adams Bluefish Recipe

Grilling the bluefish

Grilled Bluefish with Pomegranite Glaze

Michelle and I spent six woman-hours last night cooking a delicious dinner featuring the bluefish from our final Community Supported Fishery (CSF) delivery for the August 2010 season. The six hours doesn’t include the time I spent trolling the aisles of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods looking for pomegranate molasses (couldn’t find it so we made our own from pomegranate juice), chicory (must not be in season, so I bought other greens), and whole coriander seeds (not in stock, had to make do with ground coriander).

Cooking molasses

Cooking down the pomegranate juice into molasses

The pomegranate glaze features the aforementioned pomegranate molasses, garlic, red onion, mint, coriander seeds and orange zest, and it’s a delicious complement to bluefish, which I always think of as a very “fishy” fish because it’s so dark and intense. Although the molasses has sugar in it, there’s only a hint of sweetness in the sauce.  The rich flavor is a perfect foil for the oiliness of the bluefish.

The reason the dinner took so long to make—besides making the molasses from scratch—was that it was actually five dishes. In addition to the bluefish, the recipe called for “Dukkah,” garlic yogurt sauce, farro, and “Fiery Greens.”  While the entire recipe is not online, there’s a link for the fish and a similar yogurt sauce at starchefs.com.

Farro with carrots, celery and onions

Farro, which I’ve never made at home before, is a delicious healthy grain that reminded me of barley, although the grains are larger and toothier.  Adams adds the farro to a sauté of onion, celery, carrots and garlic and cooks it with chicken stock—we used veggie stock—and bay leaves.

Cooking the greens

Fiery Garlic Greens featuring broccoli rabe and arugula

The greens are blanched and then sautéed with lots of olive oil, garlic, and hot pepper flakes. The Dukkah is an Egyptian seed, nut and spice mix of blanched almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and coconut, all of which have to be separately toasted and then ground together.

The Six Hour Recipe

Dinner was worth the wait!

The mixture of all these tastes on the plate—sweet, spicy, fishy, oily, salty, bitter—was what made it worth the effort.

Besides the recipe, the other star of the evening was the bluefish from our CSF, Cape Ann Fresh Catch. I was delighted to open my email on Tuesday and find that the fish of the day was a gorgeous two-pound bluefish fillet. I picked up my share at Community Servings, cut it in half, carefully wrapped the pieces in plastic wrap and freezer bags and froze them. When we opened one of the packages, we defrosted it and it was still beautiful and as good as fresh.

Our CSF bluefish

Beautiful fresh bluefish from Cape Ann Fresh Catch CSF

This is the first time that I’ve belonged to a CSF, and it’s been a wonderful opportunity to support local, sustainable fishing and learn a little about the ups and downs of the industry. Each week, we get an email telling us what they’ve caught, the boat that caught it, a little information about the fish, a recipe, and a blog post.  Over the six weeks, we’ve enjoyed a variety of fish, including hake, fish dabs and bluefish.

The catch—no pun intended—is sometimes there is no catch.  Deliveries have been cancelled due to quality issues and weather. While as a CSF member, you share the risk with the fisher folk, Cape Ann has made an extraordinary effort to provide us with the best possible fish each week.

If you’re lucky enough to live in their delivery area, I encourage you to sign up for Cape Ann’s next season, beginning November 1,  or check out this list of CSFs around the country.