Should You Eat Shrimp?

1990s environmentalists are united in wanting to steer economic growth in better directions. but they disagree about tactics like shrimp boycotts.

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The shrimp-industry devastation is driven by complex international economics–and the challenges in stopping it aren’t unique to the shrimp crisis. Boycotts, certification programs, and green taxes are all strategies debated by environmental groups as they try to reach beyond weak governmental controls to better manage economic growth.

In Ecuador, for example, some activists are calling for a boycott of their country’s shrimp. But they face opposition even from other local environmentalists who are reluctant to jettison an industry that earned $539 million in 1994–the nation’s third-leading export behind oil and bananas. The shrimp ponds may not employ many people, but the broader industry supports some 260,000 jobs.

Gina Chavez of Acción Ecológica in Quito, the group calling for the boycott, says the shrimp industry is not only environmentally destructive, it is also part of an export-driven economy that serves only the wealthiest Ecuadoreans. But Fundación Natura, another Ecuadorean environmental group, argues that a boycott might hurt both labor and the environment. “To produce the same money, they might expand production in the mangroves,” says Fundación’s executive director Teodoro Bustamante. He proposes instead that shrimp-producing countries follow the model of the Forest Stewardship Council, which has established logging certification standards throughout the world.

Even if activists agreed to a boycott, they would face several hurdles. For one thing, an intelligent boycott promotes alternatives–and, with shrimp, it’s unclear what those should be.

One boycott that worked was led by the Earth Island Institute, which in 1990 pressured the three major tuna fish producers to stop buying from boats that killed dolphins. For two years, the group had pushed a consumer boycott of all three brands, especially Starkist. But Todd Steiner, who ran that campaign, says a shrimp boycott would be tougher because there are no brand names to target and the market is so fragmented that no one company controls more than 6 percent of it in the United States.

Besides, wild shrimp may not be much of an alternative. In the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. shrimp trawlers have killed millions of red snappers, Spanish mackerel, and croakers, along with thousands of turtles, including the rare Kemp’s ridley turtles, which have fewer than 1,000 breeding females left in the wild.

Federal rules require the trawl nets to have turtle excluder devices (TEDs) that work like escape hatches, but some 4,000 dead turtles have washed ashore in the past two years, leading Earth Island to suspect many shrimpers of cheating. A recent victory for Earth Island may help enforcement: In December, a judge ordered the U.S. Department of Commerce to ban all shrimp imports from countries whose trawlers don’t use TEDs.

The ruling’s implications are troublesome for shrimp farmers. They will have to separate their harvest from the wild-shrimp catch, especially if their governments don’t enforce the use of TEDs. Currently, farmed shrimp and wild shrimp are distributed to the U.S. through the same supply channels.

The next challenge is to establish a similar certification program for shrimp ponds–and it won’t be easy. First, advocates have to settle upon a common standard for a good pond, a much thornier issue than choosing the best turtle escape hatch for trawl nets.

Some researchers argue that the best compromise is semi-intensive ponds, but Alfredo Quarto, director of the Mangrove Action Project, a Seattle-based project of Earth Island, rejects that notion. “They have problems galore,” he says. Almost all of the ponds in Ecuador are semi-intensive or extensive operations. “No system has been put forward that I would support as safe, secure, and sustainable.”

Certification may not be the best answer, anyway, because it creates a niche market rather than reforming the entire industry. “People only pay so much more for a certified product, about 5 to 10 percent, not the 25 to 30 percent it would take to change most businesses,” says Jason Clay. He is writing a report for the World Wildlife Fund that proposes a much grander scheme. He believes shrimp countries should adopt a uniform green tax on their harvest to support restoration projects, help improve the bad ponds, and perhaps reward the good ones with rebates.

For further information, contact: The Mangrove Action Project, 4649 Sunnyside Ave. N., Suite 321, Seattle, WA 98103; e-mail:; (206) 545-1137.

Sea Turtle Restoration Project, P.O. Box 400, Forest Knolls, CA 94933; e-mail:; (415) 488-0370.

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