by Craig Weatherby
It seems a fitting coincidence that we’re introducing our all-natural, wild-harvested Spot Prawns less than two weeks after the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a ban on farm-raised shrimp from China.
The New York Times reports that coastal waterways in the main aquaculture regions of China “…are so fouled with industrial chemicals or farm effluents that many seafood exporters are forced to rely on antibiotic drugs to keep their fish alive” (Barboza D 2007).
In China, 3.7 billion tons of sewage is discharged into rivers, lakes and coastal water—some of which are used by its
booming aquaculture industry. Only 45 percent of China’s population is served by any kind of sewage-treatment facility… the worst record in Asia.
And according to a new independent report, the Chinese aquaculture industry crams fish and shellfish into facilities to maximize production, generating large amounts of waste, contaminating water and spreading disease (Food & Water Watch 2007).
China’s seafood farmers try to control the spread of infections, disease, and parasites by pumping the animals' feed with antibiotics and filling the waters with pesticides and fungicides.
As the FDA said in their recent ruling, “China is currently the third largest exporter of seafood to the U.S. The use of unapproved antibiotics or chemicals in aquaculture raises significant public health concerns.”
The recent FDA report detailed the agency inspectors’ disturbing findings:
- “Based on an increased monitoring of imported aquacultured seafood from October 1, 2006, through May 31, 2007, FDA continued to find residues of unapproved new animal drugs and/or unsafe food additives in seafood imported from China.”
- “During that period, FDA tested 89 samples consisting of catfish, Basa, shrimp, dace and eel from China. Twenty two (22) of the 89 samples (25%) were found to contain drug residues. These residues include nitrofurans detected in shrimp at levels above 1 ppb… prolonged exposure to nitrofurans… has been shown to have a carcinogenic affect.”
In reality, the low-cost allure of Chinese shrimp means that the FDA’s regulatory action is unlikely to cause more than a temporary pause in the accelerating wave of cheap Chinese shrimp landing on these shores… unless consumers complain to their Congresspersons and refuse to purchase fish from countries with records as poor as China’s.
Shrimp farms devastate vital coastal ecologies
Shrimp have been farm-raised for centuries in Asia, using traditional low-density methods. Indonesians raised shrimp in brackish water ponds called tambaks as early as the 15th century.
But technological advances have led to growing shrimp at ever higher densities in industrial monocultures that have caused increasing ecological problems and repeated disease outbreaks. Three out of four farmed shrimp are produced in Southeast Asia, and China overtook Thailand as the biggest producer in 2000 (Most of the rest are grown in Latin America).
Unfortunately, many Asian shrimp farms are sited in critically important coastal mangrove forests, with more than 617,500 acres of abandoned shrimp ponds scarring the mangrove regions of Asia and Latin America.
Growing in the inter-tidal areas and estuary mouths between land and sea, mangroves are comprised of salt-tolerant tree and other plant species from a range of plant families.
Mangroves have specially adapted aerial and salt-filtering roots and salt-excreting leaves which enable them to occupy the saline wetlands where other plant life cannot survive.
Aquaculture-related damage to coastal mangrove forests is all too common, and it matters for many reasons:
- Three-quarters of all tropical commercial fish species pass part of their lives in the mangroves, which provide critical nursery grounds, shelter, and food.
- Mangrove forests’ protective buffer zone helps shield coastlines from storm damage and wave action.
- These unique ecosystems stabilize soil and reduce erosion. In regions where these coastal fringe forests have been cleared for shrimp farming, tremendous erosion and silting problems have arisen.
- Mangroves absorb carbon dioxide and store carbon in their sediments, thereby lessening the impacts of global warming.
- By filtering sediments and pollutants, mangrove forests help preserve nutrients and improve water quality
- Mangrove forests absorb excess nitrates and phosphates, thereby preventing contamination of near-shore waters.
- Mangroves protect associated marine ecosystems. Sea grass beds and coral reefs depend on healthy mangroves to filter sediments and provide nursery grounds for resident species.
- Indigenous coastal populations secure sustenance from mangroves, collecting products and resources in a sustainable manner for hundreds or even thousands of years, including food, firewood, medicines, fibers, dyes, charcoal, and construction materials.
While some shrimp are raised in closed-pen systems located on shore—which may or may not observe ecologically sound waste disposal methods—it is impossible to tell which package of frozen shrimp in your supermarket was raised in a responsible manner, and which package contributed to the destruction of vital eco systems.
Imports kill American jobs; Proposed solutions could endanger coastal ecologies
In 1982, only 60 percent of shrimp consumed here was imported. Now, nearly nine of every 10 shrimp eaten in the United States comes from overseas, with Chinese shrimp accounting for a fast-rising proportion of that total.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the seafood Americans consume is imported, and at least 40 percent of those imports are farm-raised seafood.
According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the US imported 1.74 billion pounds of shrimp in 2006, versus domestic production of only 182 million pounds.
Last year, one out of every dozen shrimp imported into the US came from China: a pile of farm-raised crustaceans weighing some 150 million pounds. And that total is expected to rise fast, with Americans eating more shrimp than ever… about 4.4 pounds per person annually.
(Note: Vital Choice wild Spot Prawns are harvested in cold, clean Pacific waters between Washington State and Southeast Alaska.)
Seafood imports from China, which were once a mere trickle, exploded after Beijing was admitted to the World Trade Organization in 2001, which removed most trade barriers to the US market.
China quickly became the world's leading seafood exporter, and by 2006 it was the third-largest source of seafood imports in the US. Since cheap Chinese seafood began flooding the US market, many domestic shrimp fishermen have been driven out of business.
Alarmed by the trend, coastal politicians have joined The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to push legislation that would open new offshore areas to aquaculture operations to salmon farms, and add new species— including sablefish, tuna, and oysters—to the roster of aquacultured species.
This is an understandable reaction, given the impacts on real people in fishing communities, but it’s one that threatens to harm coastal ecologies and undermine the ocean’s food chain, unless aquaculture regulations are tightened.
- Barboza D. A Slippery, Writhing Trade Dispute. Accessed online July 5, 2007 at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/03/business/worldbusiness/03fish.html
- US FDA. Import Alert #16-131, 6/28/07. Accessed online July 5, 2007 at http://www.fda.gov/ora/fiars/ora_import_ia16131.html
- Mangrove Action Project. Shrimp Farming. Accessed online July 6, 2007 at http://www.mangroveactionproject.org/issues/shrimp-farming/shrimp-farming.
- Monterey Bay Aquarium. How Fish are Caught or Farmed. Accessed online July 5, 2007 at http://www.mbayaq.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/sfw_gear.asp#shellfish
- Food & Water Watch. Import Alert, May 2007. Accessed online July 6, 2007 at http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/fish/pubs/reports/import-alert