Optimism for shrimps

I eat a lot of shrimps (‘prawns’ in British parlance) in curries and sauces, and these days that’s about my only consumption of sea-food. I’ve been thinking about the subject since I heard Jesse Ausubel’s recent Long Now talk, in which he briefly outlined the findings of his recent global Marine Census.


So I thought I’d take quick look about how rational it is to be optimistic about this delicious low-in-fat high-in-protein nibble. Shrimps also happen to have a few healthy omega-3s too, though not as many as one might want, and are also quite handy if you’re on the Atkins Diet. So, all round useful. Which means I’m glad to discover that wild coldwater shrimp doesn’t have contaminants. Some eco-worriers may freak out about eating a shrimp cocktail or a shrimp curry (“the PCBs leeching from all the ocean microplastic is entering the human food chain!” etc), but it appears that there’s no need to worry on PCBs, whatever the source of the shrimps…

“exposure to PCBs from [human] consumption of farm-raised and wild-caught shrimp imported from different regions are not likely to pose any health risks.”

Shrimps also very easily pass the mercury detection measures put in place for public health, having unmeasurably low levels in the 2% annual sampling of shrimps undertaken by the FDA in the USA. The FDAs sampling methods are apparently quite sophisticated too. So I’ll take their findings as a proxy for the UK, though I’ve no doubt the UK Food Safety Agency does similar sampling. As far as I can see from Google Scholar and JURN.org, shrimps don’t appear to be causing any current research concern about microplastics or nanoplastics ingestion.

Shrimps are being hugely over-fished in Southeast Asia, which has recently caused a collapse in the stocks there due to disease — and thus (due to insatiable Chinese demand) a consequent global rise in the price in mid 2014. That’s presumably why we’re seeing smaller packet weights for the same old price here in the UK. In Southeast Asia they’re also often poorly farmed and corruptly regulated, with sloppy pond cleanliness and over-use of antibiotics. So I’ll be checking the origin label on my packet the next time I buy some. My last packet of cheapest-available small frozen shrimps from Sainsbury said ‘Fished in the North Atlantic and packed in Denmark’. That’s fine, it seems. Irish Sea and North Sea prawn fishing quotas have been increased by the EU for 2015, and Atlantic wild-caught stocks are healthy except for the near-shore coastal waters off New England (Maine’s famous appetite for sea-food is still ravenous, it seems). Most UK frozen coldwater shrimp currently comes from Greenland or Canada, according to the industry magazines, and confirmed by my packet label.

“But what about the global warming!?” cry the eco-worriers. Not a threat, it seems, at least to shrimps in colder waters. They’ll simply move north a bit. One article quoted Paul Wassman of the University of Tromso, who said that if global warming does eventually de-ice the seas between Europe and the Arctic…

“Coldwater shrimp, scallops and polar cod are the species which will thrive in these futuristic conditions … Estimates put stock increases for some regions at anywhere between 5 and 20%, with the North Sea at 22%”

After reading the articles for this blog post, in future I’ll be far more wary of buying tropical shrimps labelled as from places such as Bangladesh, Indonesia or Thailand. I also read that a few big city restaurant goers are likely to be conned over expensive ‘wild’ shrimps: activist group Oceana recently claimed that around half the ‘wild’ sample platters they purchased in New York City proved to be farmed shrimps being passed off as wild.

But otherwise, as long as shrimps are adequately re-washed and properly cooked, it seems one can indeed be a rational optimist about shrimps.

The same can’t be said about scampi. Scampi is a British favourite with chips, a sort of de facto large prawn in heavy crispy batter. Much cheap ‘scampi’ in supermarkets is anything but the genuine article. Recent DNA tests on UK ‘scampi’ found 1-in-5 samples were actually intensively pond-farmed Vietnamese and Thai catfish! Traditional cleaned and gut-free Scottish ‘wholetail’ scampi tails may be ok, or… they may have been dredged from old industrial rivers such as the Clyde and have absorbed chemicals from microplastics in their gut. Personally, all scampi is off my menu now, although in the past I’ve usually only eaten it about three times a year anyway.


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