How to Pick a Shrimp

By Elia Herman

Elia Herman, Duke graduate student discusses her quest to find the right fish to eat.

I pull up to the Shrimp Shack where they serve heaping plates of shrimp smothered in garlic. As soon as I hear the bell ring telling me that my order is ready, I start to salivate like Pavlov’s dogs. After several minutes, all that remains from my foraging frenzy is a pile of shrimp shells and bad breath.

I know that sounds uncivilized, but seafood tastes good. How else can you explain a 12% rise in per capita seafood consumption in the U.S. since 2001?

Seafood seems to come up more often in conversation lately. Omega-3 this. Mercury that. And recently, people have started to think about where their seafood comes from. Forrest Gump showed us the myriad different culinary shrimp creations, and it turns out that fishermen catch shrimp in almost as many locations. On any given day, the waitress at my favorite round-the-corner restaurant may tell me one of several things about the shrimp I’m thinking of ordering: (1) It’s local North Carolina shrimp, fresh off the boat; (2) It’s from somewhere in the U.S.; (3) It’s from Thailand; or (4) Your guess is as good as mine.

As a concerned consumer, the last answer is an immediate sign to search elsewhere on the menu for flavorful foodstuff with a known home base.  Otherwise, I pull out my Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch card, a wallet-sized guide to the “best”, “good”, and “worst” seafood choices. Running my finger down the list, I make a decision.  Thailand out.  Local in.  The “U.S.” response causes me to waiver. I know that shrimp caught in the United States is a fairly good choice (more regulations mean less bycatch, less habitat destruction, and less overfishing), but what if it’s coming all the way from California? I start to worry about carbon emissions.

This doing right is a complicated business.

After a few months of effort—going to restaurants, asking about fish, and examining my Seafood Watch card—I started to wonder how sustainable the seafood in North Carolina restaurants is overall.  I set out with a group of fellow graduate students to find out. To clarify, the American Heritage Dictionary defines sustainable as, “To keep in existence; to maintain.” Applied to seafood, sustainable means:  preserve the fish, their salty neighbors, and the environment.

Armed with questions, definitions, and insatiable curiosity, we hit the pavement, ran up phone bills, and created an online survey (take a peek at SurveyMonkey.com) to see if restaurants—both on the coast and inland—sold sustainable seafood. And if not, why not?

Bouncing from restaurant to restaurant, we learned that nearly every one served shrimp, salmon, and tuna.

Salmon

Shrimp

Tuna

After scrutinizing some of the other menu items, we gave each restaurant a sustainability score based on what they served. We expected that demographic data would somehow predict a restaurant’s score. Perhaps coastal restaurants serve more sustainable seafood items because they have easier access to fresh fish and can be more flexible?  Maybe upscale restaurants use sustainable seafood more often because they can afford to make the “right” choices?

We were wrong on all accounts. Location did not affect the score, and neither did price. Inland or coastal, mom-and-pop joint or upscale restaurant, responses were completely unpredictable.

We decided to delve deeper. Rebooting our computers, we let the statistical magic run. We learned that if a restaurant already made sustainable choices, it was more likely to adopt additional environmentally-friendly practices later. Apparently our ever-warming climate can still produce a snowball effect.

But why don’t restaurants serve sustainable seafood in the first place?  According to the survey responses, sustainable seafood costs more and few fish companies supply it. Restaurateurs also feel they lack the information and know-how to begin changing their seafood-selling practices. Additionally, the seasonality of seafood poses a problem, as certain sustainable fish, such as wild-caught Alaskan salmon, don’t run all year long.

Obstacles

I wanted to know how we could help restaurants overcome these hurdles. Over half of the restaurateurs wanted more information, either detailed information or a tidy list of good and bad seafood choices. In some cases, they also felt that personal, one-on-one consultations would best increase their awareness. Restaurateurs also thought that the ability to advertise as a sustainable restaurant might lure eco-friendly customers.

Fortunately, there already is a way to advertise admirable seafood-selling practices. The Marine Stewardship Council has analyzed fisheries and suppliers, awarding a distinctive blue label when they meet environmental standards. Of course, this label has not been integrated into mainstream consciousness like the popular “Dolphin Safe” tuna label. Educational campaigns that inform consumers and suppliers about the classification, however, may make it more popular and ultimately more useful.

Best of all, the infrastructure for sharing this information already exists. Organizations such as Seafood Choices Alliance, Environmental Defense, Blue Ocean Institute, and Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch promote consumer and restaurateur education. Crucial to the sustainable seafood movement, this information can still get bogged down in confusing standards. For example, the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch card lists mahi mahi (dolphin fish) in all three of its categories: “Best Choices” (U.S. Atlantic troll/pole), “Good Alternatives” (U.S.), and “Avoid” (imported). Although these distinctions may be important for management purposes, from the perspective of someone trying to run a restaurant or order a meal, these differences become cumbersome and may ultimately discourage attempts to make sustainable choices all together.

Between education and advertisement, conservation organizations are setting the table. The cornucopia of information just needs to be palatable so consumers can sit back and enjoy their sustainable, soon-to-be certified, Oregon pink shrimp sandwich.

Sustainable Seafood Survey Questions

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