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The science of sustainable seafood, explained

An Overview of Shrimp and its Sustainability in 2024

In 2000, shrimp surpassed canned tuna as the top seafood product consumed per capita in the U.S., and it has remained number one ever since. The National Fisheries Institute estimated that shrimp consumption in the U.S. has increased steadily since 2013, peaking at 5.9 pounds of shrimp per person in 2021. Shrimp accounts for 38% of all annual seafood consumption in the U.S., more than canned tuna, tilapia, Alaska pollock, pangasius, cod, and crab combined. The U.S. is not alone in this trend: the global shrimp market is projected to grow by 6.72% annually over the next five years, with an estimated valuation of $69.35 billion by 2028.

Despite this steadily growing demand domestically and abroad, wild and farmed shrimp production has inherent, well-reported issues that make sustainability challenging. Consumers are more aware of these issues than ever, with considerable media attention given to the environmental and social challenges in recent years. Grocery retail buyers are responding by requiring minimum environmental certifications and labor standards for their suppliers. But how are these new criteria keeping up with demand? How sustainable is global shrimp production in 2024?

Global wild shrimp production

The U.S. produces about 150,000 mt of wild shrimp annually. White shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus) and brown shrimp (Farfantepenaeus aztecus) from the Gulf of Mexico, and ocean shrimp (Pandalus jordani) caught near Oregon, constitute the vast majority of domestic landings and are common on American menus. Mexican blue, white, and brown shrimp are important imports for U.S. restaurants, and Argentine red shrimp is an emerging fishery, popular at supermarket chains like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market.

As with many wild-capture seafood categories, China has the highest volume of annual wild shrimp landings, at about 1.1 million metric tons (mt) per year, equal to one-third of global wild shrimp landings in 2023 (See Figure 3 below). Most of that shrimp is not exported to the U.S., however.

Global farmed shrimp production

Farmed shrimp production far surpasses wild capture, with nearly 8 million mts produced in 2023. 80% was whiteleg shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei), also called white shrimp, Pacific white shrimp, or warm water shrimp in some markets. Giant tiger prawns (Penaeus monodon), formerly the farmed shrimp industry-standard species, ranked a distant second place with 9% of global farmed shrimp production in 2023. Giant tiger prawns are considered to be a higher quality product than whiteleg shrimp, with more flavor and brighter color, but whiteleg shrimp can withstand far greater pond densities without compromising quality. Over the last twenty years, whiteleg shrimp has become the dominant farmed shrimp species globally and the dominant shrimp on American restaurant menus and supermarket freezers thanks to its farming efficiency.

China tops the list of producers for farmed shrimp producing countries (Figure 5), but as with wild shrimp, most farmed shrimp imports to the U.S. market are not from China. India remained the top shrimp exporter to the US market in 2023, holding that title for 10 years in a row. Ecuador ranked second and was the only import country that increased its volumes sent to the US between 2022 and 2023. Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand round out the top 5, with China ranking 8th overall in 2023. (Figure 1).

Bar graph showing shrimp imports to the U.S.A from six different countries. India, Ecuador, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand are the top 5 exporters of shrimp to the U.S.

Figure 1. Shrimp imports by volume and country to the U.S. in 2022 and 2023. This figure combines both wild and farmed shrimp imports, but the overwhelming majority is farmed. Data from NOAA 2023.

The sustainability landscape of wild-caught shrimp

Many sea creatures enjoy shrimp just as much as we do, which explains one of the most difficult sustainability challenges with this species: bycatch.

Shrimp fishing requires a small mesh size, and besides a few species like spot prawns that are caught by stationary pots, shrimp are usually caught by trawl nets. Trawling with a small mesh size means any sea creature larger than a shrimp will probably be trapped and accidentally caught as the nets are dragged through the water and brought on board. The Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawl fishery – considered to be well-managed and one of the most sustainable wild shrimp fisheries for larger shrimp sizes – ranks fifth-highest in the world in bycatch with a discard-to-landings ratio of 4.6 to 1.

Even when managed carefully, with gear modifications like turtle excluder devices (TEDs) to minimize bycatch as much as possible, the highest rating for any wild shrimp fishery by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program is yellow (“Good Alternative”). Even MSC-certified shrimp fisheries, like the Oregon ocean shrimp fishery, are docked points for bycatch concerns. The environmental sustainability of most shrimp fisheries will always be capped because of inherent bycatch challenges.

Bottom trawling is another sustainability concern as many shrimp trawls are bottom trawls. Benthic impacts from bottom trawling can be managed sustainably, but poorly managed bottom trawls are potentially devastating to sensitive marine habitats and structures.

Bar graph showing global wild shrimp production in 2023. Global wild shrimp production reported for 2023. Light gray = Fisheries Not Yet Assessed: 2,583,104 mt - 77.7%; Black = Currently in the MSC Assessment Process: 11,934 mt - 0.4%; Red = Seafood Watch Avoid: 151,595 mt - 4.6%; Yellow = Seafood Watch Good Alternative: 69,787 mt - 1.8%; Purple = Active FIP: 257,466 mt - 7.7%; Blue = MSC-Certified: 260,842 mt - 7.8%. Data from the Certifications and Ratings Collaboration 2023.

Figure 2. Global wild shrimp production reported for 2023. Light gray = Fisheries Not Yet Assessed: 2,583,104 mt – 77.7%; Black = Currently in the MSC Assessment Process: 11,934 mt – 0.4%; Red = Seafood Watch Avoid: 151,595 mt – 4.6%; Yellow = Seafood Watch Good Alternative: 69,787 mt – 1.8%; Purple = Active FIP: 257,466 mt – 7.7%; Blue = MSC-Certified: 260,842 mt – 7.8%. Data from the Certifications and Ratings Collaboration 2023.

Bar graph showing wild shrimp production by country for the year 2023.

Figure 3. Wild shrimp production for 2023, by country. The colors match the sustainability rating legend in Figure 2. Data from the Certifications and Ratings Collaboration 2023.

Bar graph showing U.S. wild shrimp production reported for 2023. Light gray = Fisheries Not Yet Assessed: 12,298 mt - 8.8%; Red = Seafood Watch Avoid: 9,518 mt - 6.8%; Yellow = Seafood Watch Good Alternative: 11,470 mt - 8.2%; Purple = Active FIP: 79,722 mt - 56.8%, (this portion accounts for the completed Louisiana and Texas FIPs); Blue = MSC-Certified: 27,306 mt - 19.5%. Data from the Certifications and Ratings Collaboration 2023.

Figure 4. U.S. wild shrimp production reported for 2023. Light gray = Fisheries Not Yet Assessed: 12,298 mt – 8.8%; Red = Seafood Watch Avoid: 9,518 mt – 6.8%; Yellow = Seafood Watch Good Alternative: 11,470 mt – 8.2%; Purple = Active FIP: 79,722 mt – 56.8%, (this portion accounts for the completed Louisiana and Texas FIPs); Blue = MSC-Certified: 27,306 mt – 19.5%. Data from the Certifications and Ratings Collaboration 2023.

The sustainability landscape of farmed shrimp​

Farmed shrimp production has evolved significantly in the last three decades, both in efficiency and in environmental sustainability. However, like wild shrimp, most farmed shrimp production still includes many fundamentally unsustainable practices that are rated poorly by environmental advocates.  Habitat loss and the use of chemicals and antibiotics are primary concerns for environmentalists.

Mangrove forest degradation was the primary criticism of shrimp farming as the industry grew in the early 2000s. Mangroves are essential for biodiversity, nitrate, phosphate, and pollutant filtration, and protection from soil erosion and storm surge impacts. Shrimp farming requires brackish water, and mangrove forests are conveniently located in coastal areas that help regulate the pH and salinity necessary for shrimp production. The rise of the farmed shrimp industry in the tropical climates of Southeast Asia, India, and South America led to the removal of millions of acres of mangrove habitat. Conservation International estimates that 40 percent of global mangrove habitat has been lost, mainly due to shrimp farm development.

Today, mangrove loss from shrimp farms is still a major concern in some countries, but mangrove conservation has improved significantly. Some shrimp-producing countries are initiating mangrove recovery programs around abandoned shrimp ponds, with the help of NGO partners. Silvoculture, a new farming method that incorporates mangroves and other trees within the shrimp farm to maintain a healthy shrimp-rearing environment, is an increasingly popular farming method in Vietnam that receives high sustainability grades.

Another common environmental issue with modern shrimp farms is antibiotic use. The U.S. and many shrimp-importing countries have reduced the list of acceptable antibiotics or banned them altogether. Producers are required to test and present clean results on parts per million, or even parts per billion, before exporting to international markets. However, some countries have slightly different standards than others on these test results (Canada prohibits some antibiotic levels 100 times less than the U.S.), and there are rumors that some shrimp farms still use banned treatments. If antibiotics are used at the beginning of the shrimp-rearing process, they may be undetectable by the time the product is harvested, processed, and officially measured by export authorities. This continued use of antibiotics and chemicals in shrimp production leads to medicine-resistant bacteria and viruses. The spread of new pathogens within shrimp farms in Southeast Asia and India is still very common. There are considerably fewer antibiotics used today in shrimp farming than thirty years ago, but it remains a nagging concern and a relevant threat to coastal and marine habitats. Ineffective chemical regulations and the ongoing use of banned antibiotics and antimicrobials are some of the primary reasons why China is not a major whiteleg shrimp exporter to the U.S. market.

However, amidst these persistent challenges there has been a considerable rise in eco-certified shrimp farms. The Seafood Certifications and Ratings Collaboration estimates that 15.7% of all farmed shrimp production is ASC, BAP, or Fair Trade certified (Figure 5). That percentage is even higher for the U.S. market, which rarely imports farmed whiteleg shrimp from China, the world’s biggest producer of uncertified farmed shrimp. The next five shrimp-producing countries (India, Ecuador, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand) are the most relevant to today’s North American and European markets.

Most major grocery retail brands in the U.S. require some kind of environmental standard for farmed shrimp. BAP is the most common, with ASC becoming more common. Some U.S. buyers accept shrimp sourced from farms rated as ‘Best Choice’ or ‘Good Alternative’ by Seafood Watch. Ecuador’s shrimp industry has boomed in recent years, and all of its production is either certified or rated highly by Seafood Watch. Shrimp farms in Ecuador minimize impacts on the surrounding environment and are viewed as having effective management of antibiotic and chemical use, compared to other shrimp farming countries. Unfortunately, Ecuador mostly exports block frozen shrimp, meaning popular processed forms like peeled and deveined shrimp, or value-added items like breaded shrimp, still usually come from Southeast Asia and India, where environmental standards are sometimes lower.

Bar graph showing global farmed whiteleg shrimp production reported for 2023. Gray = Farms Not Yet Assessed: 286,543 mt - 4.5%; Red = Seafood Watch Avoid: 4,159,533 mt - 65.8%; Yellow = Seafood Watch Good Alternative: 808,010 mt - 12.8%; Purple = Active Aquaculture Improvement Project: 75,190 mt - 1.2%; Blue = Certified: ASC-Certified: 348,218 mt - 5.5%; BAP-Certified: 643,648 mt - 10.2%; Free Trade-Certified: 111mt - 0.0%. Data from the Certifications and Ratings Collaboration 2023.

Figure 5. Global farmed whiteleg shrimp production reported for 2023. Gray = Farms Not Yet Assessed: 286,543 mt – 4.5%; Red = Seafood Watch Avoid: 4,159,533 mt – 65.8%; Yellow = Seafood Watch Good Alternative: 808,010 mt – 12.8%; Purple = Active Aquaculture Improvement Project: 75,190 mt – 1.2%; Blue = Certified: ASC-Certified: 348,218 mt – 5.5%; BAP-Certified: 643,648 mt – 10.2%; Free Trade-Certified: 111mt – 0.0%. Data from the Certifications and Ratings Collaboration 2023.

Bar graph showing farmed whiteleg shrimp (Litopenaeus vanname) production for 2023, by country. The colors match the sustainability rating legend

 Figure 6. Farmed whiteleg shrimp (Litopenaeus vanname) production for 2023, by country. The colors match the sustainability rating legend in Figure 5. Data from the Certifications and Ratings Collaboration 2023.

Human Rights Issues in Shrimp Production

Some seafood supply chains struggle to prevent forced labor and other human rights abuses. Shrimp production has been associated with these issues in recent years, and a summary of shrimp sustainability is incomplete without mentioning these challenges. In 2015, the Associated Press published an investigative report, building on extensive local reporting that exposed slavery in Thailand’s shrimp processing industry:

Poor migrant workers and children are being sold to factories in Thailand and forced to peel shrimp that ends up in global supply chains, including those of Wal-Mart and Red Lobster, the world’s largest retailer and the world’s largest seafood restaurant chain, an Associated Press investigation found.

This report reverberated through almost every shrimp market, smearing trusted retail and food service brands worldwide and exposing the potential human costs of untraceable seafood commodities. It proved the shrimp industry and its customers were blind to significant portions of the supply chain.

Reports like these have sparked increased investment in audits and social parameters to existing sustainability certifications. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a major grant provider in the sustainable seafood space since 1968, recently committed to making justice and equity central to its future seafood grantmaking efforts. BAP and ASC will always be environmental certifications first, but both also now include social audits and labor standards to mitigate some risks. Shrimp buyers, especially grocery retailers, are beginning to add social responsibility best practices into their seafood sourcing policies. Other certifications, specifically focused on fair labor practices, are expanding.

Despite all these efforts, major gaps still exist. Fair labor practices will always be difficult to ensure in shrimp production, which requires cheap labor to remain profitable.  These considerations are a critical part of the shrimp sustainability story in 2024.

How to buy sustainable shrimp at the grocery store

If sustainability is your primary objective when buying seafood, refer to our Buying Guide, which outlines the steps to making a responsible choice at the grocery store. Many of those tips overlap with shrimp purchasing specifically.

U.S.-caught shrimp is the top choice for sustainable wild shrimp offerings. Whether it’s white, brown, or pink shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, or MSC-certified bay shrimp from Oregon, U.S. shrimp fisheries are well-managed to minimize bycatch. If you’re in the southeast U.S. you can also find fresh shrimp at your grocery store when in season, a rarity that should be appreciated. Within a few days, shrimp heads and tails become dark, and the meat turns soft if not frozen, so fresh shrimp at the grocery store means that the product was caught locally and recently.

For many American shoppers, however, wild shrimp will be too expensive or unavailable. Frozen, imported farmed whiteleg shrimp is the most common species in stores across the country, and might be the only option in many landlocked states. In these instances, it’s advisable to review product packaging carefully and avoid buying thawed, imported shrimp from the seafood case unless the counter staff can validate environmental certifications (unlikely). Often, thawed shrimp will feature a country of origin, but no additional information. If you see Ecuador or Thailand, you can refer to Seafood Watch ratings and confirm that all whiteleg shrimp production in these countries is rated at least a ‘Good Alternative.’ But for imported farmed shrimp coming from other countries, you’re better off checking the freezer aisle where the same shrimp thawed in the fresh case will be waiting in packaging with better traceability and production information. Look for the ASC certification logo, or the BAP logo with the associated star count (preferably 4 stars). 

Though sustainable shrimp is accessible to many consumers, there is a valid argument to be made that we should all eat a little bit less shrimp, even if it’s produced sustainably. The carbon footprint of wild and farmed shrimp production is generally higher than other types of seafood. Ultimately, there are many more sustainable seafood options at your local grocery store that are less intensive to produce, and those should be included more often in substitute of a few shrimp meals per year. 

Where will shrimp sustainability be in the future?

Imported farmed shrimp and domestic U.S.-caught wild shrimp are at odds. Domestic shrimp producers argue that record-low prices for imported whiteleg shrimp are unfairly limiting their place in the market. They claim major producing countries like Ecuador, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam are “dumping” frozen whiteleg shrimp at less than fair value, driving down the market and making domestic shrimp too expensive to compete. The American Shrimp Processors Association is petitioning for a countervailing duty to be applied to restore a fair trading environment. The circumstances that initiated this petition are relevant to the future sustainability challenges for both wild and farmed shrimp globally:

Whiteleg shrimp price indexes are near all-time lows because demand for imported shrimp has paused. Food service sales were curiously down during the normally busy holiday season. Seafood retail sales are struggling as well. This comes after a long period of seafood category growth for many markets, which led to suppliers over-stocking inventory. Those inventories are still high, at a time when warehouse storage costs are soaring and Lineage Logistics, one of the largest freezer storage and transportation companies in North America, is seeking an IPO. All these conditions explain why seafood buyers are not buying much seafood right now, even America’s most popular type.

This low demand has reduced cash flow and triggered other significant strains for producers. Under normal conditions, shrimp farming cycles are relatively quick, with 3-5 months being a typical farming period before harvest. But with slow demand, those shrimp are getting larger and larger as farmers wait for higher prices. Eventually, farmers will be forced to harvest and freeze their raw materials. This hurts value as many buyers prefer fresh shrimp processed for specific orders – this is particularly relevant for value-added shrimp products. Therefore, storage of frozen shrimp decreases the return on investment, increases overhead in energy costs and storage space usage, and delays sales. The Soc Trang region of Vietnam, a hub for farms and whiteleg shrimp value-added production companies, is suffering from these increased pressures and uncertainty.

Back in the U.S., the incredibly low imported shrimp prices are viewed as a premeditated economic attack by the national governments of shrimp exporting countries, instead of a symptom of economic desperation. Such accusations are related to the dire economic situations being reported all across the southeastern U.S., where fishing overhead costs and slow demand are driving many shrimp fishers out of business. When sustainable U.S. fisheries disappear, they are too often replaced by unsustainable cheaper alternatives.

But a successful countervailing duty applied to shrimp imports would exacerbate the already dire situation for many shrimp farmers abroad. Expensive environmental certifications and social audits might be first on the chopping block if cost-cutting becomes more severe for shrimp producers and processors. Worrying about the capacity for sustainable improvements under these market conditions is fair.

Luckily, shrimp’s global popularity remains intact. Even if production costs rise, there will always be demand for this product category. The U.S. Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery, despite feeling unfairly priced out of the market by imported shrimp, is finalizing a lengthy and expensive MSC certification process. Even though these fisheries are mostly well-rated by Seafood Watch and other environmental organizations, stakeholders felt the MSC certification process and price tag would be worth it to access more global markets. The same reasoning will be applied to shrimp farms that pay for ASC-certification, knowing such an achievement would unlock more seafood buyers that care about seafood sustainability in North America and Europe.

Like every seafood category, shrimp fishing and farming is never without its challenges and environmental questions. But shrimp’s mass appeal will guarantee its place in the sustainability spotlight going forward. Its unique challenges will remain points of emphasis for environmental and social advocates, which will hopefully improve standards and have positive spillover impacts on other seafood commodities and supply chains.

Picture of Jack Cheney

Jack Cheney

Jack has sourced, sold, cooked, and sustainably certified seafood over the past 10 years. In addition to his contributions to Sustainable Fisheries UW, he is working to increase traceability into supply chains and educate consumers, chefs and retailers on the value of environmentally sustainable seafood. He earned a Master's in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington in 2015.

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