Posted by: 4pack | March 12, 2009

“Ideal Food” Update: Shrimp Is Tremendous Source Of Protein And Is Now More Affordable Than Ever As “Farmed Shrimp” Is Multi-Billion Dollar Industry

Shrimp are a perfect protein delivery system, built with a head and carapace that twist off easily, revealing a muscle that can be cooked in three minutes. The Chinese and Greeks loved them.shrimp Apicius included shrimp in his Roman cookbook. But it took decades for shrimp to whet appetites outside the American South. Packed in barrels of ice and shipped by rail, shrimp were served in tulip glasses as “cocktails” in upstate New York in 1914. As cookbooks added Low Country recipes, canning and, in 1943, a shrimp-peeling machine—invented by teenager J.M. Lapeyre in Houma, Louisiana, who noticed how easily shrimp meat could be squished out of its shell by his rubber boot—made shrimp available nationwide.

Trawls soon emptied the shallows of southern waters and moved deeper. For seventy years growing fleets of bigger boats galloped from one gold strike to another as veins of shrimp were discovered off Louisiana (white, 1933), Mexico (brown, 1940), Dry Tortugas (pink, 1949), and Key West, where in 1957 huge, royal red shrimp were discovered a thousand feet down.

“Greater riches are being brought up than all the gold ever sunk off the Spanish Main,” gushed National Geographic in 1957. Many shrimpers became millionaires.

“We were outlaws,” Wallace Beaudreaux, of Brownsville, Texas, eighty-one, told me, describing raids into Mexican waters. It was not unusual for boats to gross $10,000 to $25,000 on a single trip.

I felt rich, in 1998, buying a pound of shrimp for a mere three dollars right off the boats near where I anchored in Key West. I had only one question: with thousands of boats endlessly trawling and millions like me endlessly gobbling, how could there be any shrimp left in the sea?

“Shrimp are a crop, like wheat,” shrimpers replied. “You can’t overfish them.”

I was asking the wrong question. I should have wondered where all these shrimp were coming from, and how they could cost three dollars a pound. I happened to sail into the Deep South in time to witness the crash of a culture bound to, and blinded by, endless shrimp dreams.

SHRIMP HAVE BEEN AROUND since Gondwana. Their tracks are found alongside dinosaurs’, which explains their astounding diversity—more than two thousand species in every body of water in the world. They are a major food source for Salt Lake gulls, ocean whales, Gulf red snapper—virtually every marine critter, which makes them ideal bait.

But the shrimp’s life cycle was understood only in the 1960s. Shrimp didn’t ascend rivers to spawn, as once thought, but reversed the process in a complicated and delicate cycle. Adult shrimp mate in deep water, holding each other feet-to-feet. He inserts a capsule of sperm and she spews half a million microscopic eggs that resemble milk spilled in water. These babies molt through a dozen tiny, spiderlike creatures, finally emerging shrimplike in a month.

With mysterious instinct they move up and down in the water column, catching waves, currents, and winds that sweep them into shallow bays. In the Gulf this cycle coincides with a shift from northerly to southerly winds, a warming of bay waters, and an increase in freshwater runoff from rivers, which reduces salinity. In these brackish, rich estuaries, protected by reeds and organic muck, they begin devouring one-celled algae called diatoms and growing at the rate of one inch a month. In two or three months, triggered apparently by increased salinity, they begin to walk—literally—and flick their tails back to the sea, traveling as far as two hundred miles. Left alone, a shrimp grows to a length of six to eight inches, developing a tail as big around as a man’s thumb. At this stage they are in deep water, ready to spawn before dying or being eaten by a predator.

I learned all this aboard Leslie Hartman’s runabout one May day in Mobile Bay. She was out there, as she is every week of the year, her long brown ponytail swinging like a pendulum as she heaved a miniature trawl off the stern. As Alabama’s shrimp biologist, Hartman’s job is to constantly sample the size of shrimp returning to the sea, and determine when they are large enough to open the state’s shrimp season.

After fifteen minutes, she stopped the boat, hauled in the net, and dumped the catch into a white bucket. She knelt and fingered through glistening life. Little rays, horned blowfish, baby snapper, and a bunch of crabs were thrown back. Left in the bottom were a set of creatures that ranged from transparent globules half an inch long to juvenile shrimp up to two inches. She counted, measured, and logged the sample and sped off for another drag elsewhere.

The threshold for legal shrimp in Alabama is 68 shrimp per pound. A “68” shrimp is pretty small, often canned, tossed into macaroni salad, or breaded and fried as “popcorn” shrimp. Shrimp cocktails use a minimum size of 40 to 50 per pound. When I look at shrimp in a grocer’s case I usually choose “20–25,” the size of my little finger. Hartman’s task was to calculate when the average of her samples reached 68. She was always anxious to reach that point, for she considered herself a friend of the industry.

“We want our great-grandchildren to be shrimpers a hundred and fifty years from now,” she said.

“GO,” SHOUTED JOE SKINNER, releasing brakes that governed two winches. Squeals, grinds, the sounds of cable and rope under stress on the throbbing bed of a major diesel smothered the splash of green nets on the water. As cables let out, the nets disappeared behind the boat. At 6 a.m. at the start of the 2005 Alabama shrimp season, the A.S. Skinner was trawling.

We were in Mobile Bay. A rising sun, barely burning through haze, added a band of pink to a formless horizon. Around us a circus of boats—trawls, skiffs, outboards—were out for opening day. “It’s a madhouse,” said Mike Skinner, Joe’s brother, at the helm. A black radar screen set at one-mile resolution was dotted with forty or fifty green moving spots. “I’ll be glad when this day is over.”

A.S. Skinner, for whom the boat was named, had been a jeweler, as was his son. But grandson Gary left gold in the showcase to seek his fortune with shrimp. Great-grandsons Mike and Joe joined him at age five. By high school, the last formal education they sought, they were taking boats out by themselves. “When I came out of high school, we done good,” said Mike, tall and angular, dressed in blue-jean shorts and a white t-shirt. The first year they grossed $200,000. “We didn’t work that hard. Dad had two good years and then it started dropping.”

The Skinners, aged thirty-two and thirty, each with a one-year-old son, reminded me of cowboys I’d known out West, still pining for pastures before barbed wire. Their dreams of a commons, free to exploit, had once been our dream, so woven into our national DNA that we, like they, mourned its passing. Each spring they rode out after a myth, only to find the world had changed.

The sea stopped giving in the 1980s. Catches flattened worldwide. There were, in fact, only so many shrimp in the sea. And because of overfishing for half a century, the average shrimp size caught in the Gulf had shrunk from “50” to “75.”

There was also growing dismay that shrimpers wasted more than they caught. Down below, in the channel made famous by Union Admiral Farragut’s cry, “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead,” was a kind of “fishing” that was nothing short of marine clearcutting.

In the gold-rush days, before Joe and Mike were born, shrimpers killed ten pounds of sea life for every pound of harvested shrimp—waste that reached one billion pounds a year in the Gulf. Once called “trash,” now called “by-catch,” this sea life included sea turtles driven to the brink of extinction, and juvenile red snapper, a good eating fish. Under environmental regulations requiring escape hatches in nets, the by-catch-to-shrimp ratio has been reduced to four-to-one, still a startling sight when the Skinners dumped their twin nets on deck. Using grain shovels, they transferred this squirming pile into a large wooden box of seawater mixed with Cargil Boat and Boil salt. The shrimp sank to the bottom, and the by-catch, mostly dead, floated to the surface. This they skimmed and threw overboard.

Gulf shrimpers, the last cowboys of the sea, were corralled in 2006 when the U.S. government, trying to balance the Gulf’s ecosystem with a sustainable supply of shrimp for a viable commercial fishery, capped the federal-waters shrimp fleet at twenty-seven hundred boats, down from a gold-rush high of seventy-five hundred, and ordered federal clerks to be randomly stationed aboard to record by-catch. The goal was a “maximum sustainable yield,” roughly 110 million pounds a year, which left 22 billion shrimp to reproduce, according to modeling by Dr. Jim Nance, head of the NOAA Fisheries Service Galveston Laboratory. This figure was half the natural shrimp population before the arrival of the trawl, estimated Bill Hogarth, the former head of the agency.

The Skinners grossed $1,000 on opening day—not a bad haul, I thought, until I learned that it was half the price they got when they were teenagers. They made a living but not a killing selling their shrimp to their father, who ran a roadside stand on Dauphin Island. “The last few years, we’re just paying for fuel,” said Joe, sitting below their federal license framed on the Masonite wall of their boat’s dinette. “If it weren’t for the shop . . .” His voice trailed off.

What really ended the Skinners’ dreams, what really brought shrimpers to their knees and tears in Mobile Bay, Brownsville, New Orleans, Biloxi, and Bayou la Batre—all along the Gulf Coast—was not regulation or lack of shrimp but good old global supply and demand. “Because of imported, farmed shrimp from the Far East,” said Joe Skinner, “wholesale shrimp prices in the U.S. are the same as when Dad started thirty years ago.”

THE STORY OF FARMED SHRIMP begins with a Japanese dish called “dancing shrimp,” a casserole that arrives at your table with the unmistakable sound of something inside striking the cover. Jumping about on a bed of hot rice are Kuruma prawns—live. The object is to grab one between chopsticks and pop it wiggling into your mouth. Kuruma, large, meaty shrimp found in limited quantities in the Sea of Japan, sell for a hundred dollars a pound. Seventy-five years ago this rarity prompted an ichthyology student at Tokyo University to try growing Kuruma in captivity.

Until 1933, when Motosaku Fujinaga first spawned and hatched shrimp in a lab, aquaculture had been an ancient artisanal practice. Tides swept fish and shrimp into estuaries, and weirs were built to prevent their escape. The shrimp grew to eating size in naturally replenished waters.

Out of their element, though, shrimp proved to be finicky eaters, fragile and prone to diseases. It took Fujinaga twenty-five years of trying, interrupted by World War II, to be able to grow ten kilograms of shrimp to adulthood. In 1967, when he spoke to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s first world conference on shrimp culture in Mexico City, Fujinaga envisioned a world where capitalism and altruism could coexist in the “vast and boundless marshes, swamps, or jungles in the tropics.” Shrimp farms, he predicted, “will greatly contribute toward the increased supply of animal protein to the human race.”

It was a lovely thought. A Blue Revolution. But his success fueled a global grab in which protein and profits flowed one way—north toward the moneyed. One year after his speech, a group of Japanese businessmen bought Fujinaga’s technology, won a U.S. patent, and approached DuPont for money. DuPont declined, but two officials who heard the pitch, Paul Bente and John Rutledge Cheshire, were so excited they quit their jobs, put up $200,000 of Cheshire’s family money, and opened Marifarms in a bay near Panama City, Florida.

Aided by research at the U.S. lab in Galveston, Marifarms harvested a disappointing six thousand pounds in 1970, according to Cheshire’s book,Memoir of a Shrimp Farmer. The same year, another venture, Sea Farms, was digging canals in a Florida key to grow shrimp.

Because of environmental issues—Marifarms scooped up pregnant white shrimp and confined them in a public bay, while Sea Farms flew in nonindigenous shrimp from Central America, a practice Florida soon prohibited—shrimp farming moved south. Supported by USAID, World Bank loans, and willing developing-world officials, corporate giants United Fruit, Armour, Conagra, and Ralston Purina launched shrimp farms in Honduras, Brazil, Panama, and Ecuador, according to oral histories collected by Bob Rosenberry of Shrimp News International. Learning as they went, the farmed-shrimp industry laid waste to mangroves, fishing communities, and ecosystems. The word “plundering” comes to mind.

A shrimp farm is a saltwater feedlot. There can be as many as 170,000 shrimp larvae in a 1-acre pond that is 1 to 2 meters deep. So-called intensive ponds can yield 6,000 to 18,000 pounds of shrimp in that acre in 3 to 6 months. (A good wheat yield is 3,600 pounds per acre.) Because of this density, the waste they swim in, and their susceptibility to disease, most farmed shrimp are treated with antibiotics, only some of them legal in the U.S. A wide array of poisons is used to kill unwanted sea life and cleanse ponds for reuse, creating what Public Citizen calls a “chemical cocktail.” In random sampling of imported shrimp, health officials in the U.S., Japan, and the European Union have found chloramphenicol, a dangerous antibiotic banned in food.

The industry acknowledges that 5 percent of the world’s mangroves, hundreds of thousands of acres, have been destroyed creating shrimp ponds. In some estuaries 80 percent of the mangroves are gone. A commons was privatized, ruining artisanal fishing and driving indigenous fishermen to work raising shrimp. By removing the thick coastal barrier of trees, shrimp farms have undoubtedly aggravated damage from hurricanes and tsunamis. And salt intrusion has sterilized once-fertile estuaries.

Even in the best-run farms, two to four pounds of sea life is caught and ground up as feed for every pound of shrimp raised. Mortality rates of 30 percent are common. The dead shrimp, shrimp excrement, and chemical additives are often flushed into coastal waters.

By the mid 1970s, farmed shrimp from South and Central America, at less than half the cost of Gulf shrimp, began arriving at Red Lobster restaurants—and everywhere else. All-you-can-eat shrimp dinners became a standard, filling both waistlines and Red Lobster’s coffers. That box of shrimp I retrieved from the dumpster cost $2.50 a pound, and sold, in my case, for $25 a pound, a markup that bettered the beer’s.


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