Do you know where your shrimp has been?

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Shrimp and prawns are some of the only seafood that I will buy in the grocery store.  I love shrimp, but alas, my husband does not fish for them, so I must resort to buying them.  But lately I have been having a really hard time finding US caught shrimp in our local grocery stores.  Even as recently as a couple years ago I could easily find a selection of shrimp from different sources; some from Asia, some from South America, Mexico, and the (more expensive) US caught option.

I always check the seafood section when I go grocery shopping, but at several different grocery stores around Bellingham I have been finding nothing but farmed shrimp from Thailand.  EVERYTHING is from Thailand.  Peeled, tail-on, cooked, raw, every option, every brand = Farmed/ Thailand.  What gives?  I understand that the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery has had a rough go of it, what with the BP oil spill and all, but I was under the impression that the industry has since made a recovery.

The problem is that Thailand’s aquaculture industry has been booming in the last few years.  Thailand is now the biggest supplier of seafood to the US, and shrimp is one of the top products imported. In fact, Thailand is now the world’s biggest supplier of shrimp.  Shrimp farming has been wildly successful in Thailand, where farmers clear mangrove forests along the coasts to make way for shrimp ponds (60% of Thailand’s mangrove forests have been cleared – read Cheap Shrimp: Hidden Costs).  Due to poor farming practices, like overcrowding, the use of harsh chemicals, fertilizers, and antibiotics, these ponds are often unusable after a couple years.  The farmers then abandon the polluted ponds and move on to start new ponds along the coast.

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an example of a shrimp pond, this one in South Korea

Even though Thailand has been increasing it’s environmental and health regulations, the fact is, their standards are just not the same as ours.  Don’t even get me started on their (lack of) labor laws, or the destruction done by their wild-caught shrimp fisheries.  And it’s not just Thailand – China’s fish farms have been growing at frightening speeds and they have the same disregard for environmental, labor and health regulations.

To add to the problem, only 1% of imported seafood is inspected, and only 0.1% is tested for residues of drugs that are banned in the US.  It is simply not feasible to test all seafood that comes into our country.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to eat shrimp from a country that has a reputation of feeding it’s farmed seafood with untreated animal manure and human waste (read this), I want it tested first.  And this is why I won’t eat imported shrimp, no matter how cheap it is, or any other imported seafood for that matter.  So until I find US shrimp back in the freezers at my grocery store (or even better, down in the harbor, fresh off the boat!) I will sadly not be eating any of those tasty little crustaceans, and I would advise all of you readers to do the same.  Read the fine print on the packaging – know where your seafood is coming from!

Seafood Fraud: Are You Getting What You Pay For?

I recently ordered a halibut taco, but what I was served was definitely not halibut.  It was probably tilapia, but it tasted good and it was cheap so I didn’t mind too much.  But what if I had payed good money for a swordfish steak in a nice restaurant, but I was really eating shark?  Or if I thought I was buying gulf shrimp in the grocery store, but they were really farmed shrimp from Thailand?  This is more common than you may realize.  Luckily, the practice of deliberate mislabeling seafood is being exposed through new technologies that allow the DNA of a species to be scanned and correctly identified.

I just finished reading this article, which was published in The New York Times a few days ago: New Technology Reveals Widespread Mislabeling of Fish –  The article claims that 20-25% of all seafood tested was mislabeled.  Fraud rates in certain species were as high as 70%!!!!

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Fish being processed in a factory, photo by HemaLutchoomun

With 84% of seafood eaten in the US being imported from other countries, the true identity and source of the species is often difficult to track.  Part of the solution is obviously greater monitoring and more testing and inspections.  But for those of us who live near water, perhaps more important should be a relationship with a seafood seller.  Find a local market you trust- someone who is knowledgeable about seafood- someone who buys direct from the fisherman.  Or even better, buy direct from the fisherman yourself.  This type of relationship not only gives you peace of mind, knowing you are supporting local families and businesses, but also the valuable knowledge of where your food comes from.

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Fishmonger filleting a fish, photo by Patrick

Hopefully widespread DNA testing of seafood will soon be standard, but I just feel better when I personally know where my fish came from and how it was caught.  I want to know that I’m actually getting what I’m paying for.

Eat More Seafood Part 3: Quick and Easy Recipes

This is my final post in my series “How to Eat More Seafood.”  My previous posts about working more seafood into your diet can be read here: How to Eat More Seafood: An Introduction, Eat More Seafood Part 1: What to Buy, and Eat More Seafood Part 2: You Can Afford It!

I get lots of questions from people about how to prepare seafood, and I know it can be intimidating if you aren’t used to cooking it (before I married a fisherman, I rarely cooked seafood because I was unfamiliar and uncomfortable with it).  So I’m providing some advice for those who don’t feel comfortable cooking seafood.  These are easy tips and recipes from the perspective of a mother (I need recipes to be easy and fast because I have to cook to the sounds of screaming, crying, whining, and an endless stream of questions like “what is that? Can we have pizza?  Why are you doing that?  Can I have this sharp knife?  Can I have candy?  What about this knife?”).  These are recipes that I actually use on a regular basis…

PASTA DISHES: Many types of fish, and pretty much all types of shellfish go great with pasta.  For example…

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  • Add a can of salmon, a can of clams, shrimp, or crab meat to any type of pasta sauce, red or white (it’s OK to use a jar of sauce, we don’t always have time to make our own!)
  • Make a simple sauce with olive oil, garlic, white wine, diced tomatoes (canned is fine) and parsley.   Throw in some shrimp or a can of clams, pour it over spaghetti or linguine and you’re good to go.
  • Add a can of salmon or tuna to macaroni and cheese.  My kids love this, so I add frozen peas to make it healthier.

BAKED or BBQ-ED: If you have any whole fish or a fillet of fish, there are endless ways to bake or BBQ it, just as long as you don’t overcook it.

  • If you are concerned about your fish drying out, make a foil envelope to enclose the fish in.
  • Put it on the BBQ on a piece of foil, or directly on the grate (skin side down), or in a pan in the oven (375° – 450° F).  Top it with any combination of herbs, onions, garlic and citrus
  • A classic combo is onions, lemon and dill (especially good on salmon).
  • Go Mexican with garlic, cayenne pepper, cilantro and lime.
  • Try Italian, with onions, garlic, sliced tomatoes, and parsley or oregano (feta cheese is greek, but it would go great with these flavors)
  • Spread a layer of pesto on your fillet, pop it in the oven, and when the fish is almost done, sprinkle some Parmesan cheese on then finish cooking it to melt the cheese.
  • Most fish can benefit from a little olive oil or butter and a generous sprinkling of salt.
  • Check your fish regularly as it cooks and try to pry apart the layers with a fork.  If the layers flake apart easily and the meat looks more opaque than translucent, it’s done!

FISH TACOS: This is one of my favorite ways to eat mild white fish.  Just cut the fish up into chunks, salt it, and fry it in some olive oil (garlic is good too).  Put it in a warm corn tortilla with shredded cabbage or lettuce, chopped onions, cilantro and squeeze on some lime juice.  Deliciously simple!

BIVALVES: I LOVE clams and mussels!  I am also lucky that I live close to a shellfish farm that sells them at a really reasonable price, but I understand that not everyone has access to fresh, live bivalves.  But if you are so lucky, this is my favorite way to prepare them…

  • Heat a couple tablespoons of butter and 1/4 cup – 1/2 cup white wine in a large frying pan or wide saucepan over medium heat.
  • Add as much chopped garlic as you want, more is better and you can’t really have too much.
  • Add a finely chopped tomato or a can of diced tomatoes.
  • Toss in a hand full of chopped parsley
  • Throw in a pound or two of live clams, put a lid on the pot and cook until all the clams open.  If one doesn’t ever open, throw it out, it was already dead.
  • Serve the clams and juice with a loaf of fresh bread.

Steamer clams, photo taken by Paul Keleher

Salmon Burgers: You can use cooked salmon if you have it, but I always use canned salmon, because it’s cheap and easy and I always have some in my pantry.

  • Mix one 7.5 oz can of salmon with,
  • One egg,
  • 1/4 cup breadcrumbs,
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion,
  • Juice and zest from 1/2 lemon,
  • A tablespoon or so of chopped parsley or dill
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Form into 2 patties and fry over medium heat in a little olive oil for about 5 min on each side or until browned.

FIND MORE SEAFOOD RECIPES!: I have these sites bookmarked on my computer, so I can reference them when I’m planning meals.  (in my sidebar I have more links to sites I use for recipes)

So that’s pretty much it… cooking seafood can be a pretty simple affair.  Simple enough to become part of your regular meal plan, with enough cheap options to find a spot on your grocery list, and with enough sustainable choices that you can feel good about supporting. Seafood is so important for your overall health, there really aren’t any good reasons not to eat more of it.

I would love to try and answer any questions you might still have about cooking seafood.  I’m not an expert by any means, but I love cooking, and I love talking about cooking, so shoot me a question.  If I don’t know the answer, there’s a good chance I know a fisherman who does.

Eat More Seafood Part 1: What to Buy

As I stated in my last post, Americans are not eating enough seafood-an average of only 3.5 ounces a week, when we should be eating at least 8 ounces a week.  From my perspective I see three obstacles keeping many people from eating seafood regularly. 1: They are intimidated by headlines of fish shortages and and mercury warnings and don’t know what they should or shouldn’t be buying.  2: They think they can’t afford it.  3:  They don’t know how to prep it or cook it.

This week I am going to focus on what to buy.  The goal is to find seafood that is plentiful in the oceans, fished or harvested in a low-impact manner, and low in mercury and other contaminants.  Luckily you have many options, especially if you live on the west coast (the other benefit to living on a coast is the availability of fresh markets where you can by locally, or even directly from the fishermen).


Here are the main points to remember (it’s really very simple):

  1. Buy American: US fisheries are better managed and have more environmental and labor regulations than other countries.  Because of the rigid fishing regulations in the US, if you see a fish for sale that was wild caught in the US, you can feel good about eating it.  If a species of fish is considered “overfished”, it won’t be caught and you won’t see in on the market.  Boycotting wild US caught fish only hurts the fishermen who catch it!  West cost waters are cleaner and Alaskan waters are the cleanest (Alaska also has the best managed fisheries).  
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photo by Jeremy Keith

  • Read the Labels: If you’re at the grocery store, fish market, or restaurant and you can’t tell where the seafood is from, or how it was caught, ask someone.  Don’t be afraid to ask your grocer or chef where their seafood comes from, and if they don’t know, don’t buy it!
  • Don’t buy Farmed Salmon: If you aren’t clear on the reason for this, read some of my previous post like “Out of Control Sea Lice”, “My Discussion with a Salmon Farmer”, “Study Shows: Fish Farms Harm Wild Sockeye”.  If a fish is labelled “Atlantic Salmon,” it is farmed.  Make sure it says “Wild.”

I know there is a lot of info out there to sift through, but hopefully this will help you select a few types of seafood that you can enjoy eating with a clean conscience.

In my next post, I will explain how to eat the 2-3 recommended servings a week of seafood without changing your grocery budget.