All you need to know about shrimp farming, buying shrimp and the future of America's favorite seafood.

All you need to know about shrimp farming, buying shrimp and the future of America's favorite seafood.

It's after midnight inside the cramped cabin of the Lady Nora, a fishing trawler being battered by a storm about 10 miles off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. Two grocery store executives in rumpled shirts and jeans are wedged into a small wooden booth to taste the day's first catch. A deckhand standing at a nearby stove sets down a paper plate piled with just-boiled shrimp.

David McInerney tears off the head of one, slurps out the juices and shucks the shell of a tiny, translucent curl of meat. Pinching it by the tail, he lifts the steaming morsel into the air, theatrically appraising it before finally taking a bite. "This stuff is really good," he says. The meat is rich, buttery and semisweet with a hint of fresh-ocean brine-sort of like a mini lobster. Jeff Ludwin agrees: "That's as good as they get, right?"

McInerney is a co-founder of Fresh Direct, an online grocery store that acts like a cross between Amazon and Whole Foods, delivering from their warehouse to doorsteps in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Pennsylvania. Sourcing good food is what the company is about. And right now finding a source for the most delicious, fresh shrimp is McInerney's mission. Ludwin is his seafood buyer. But after looking at the ship's huge flash-freeze tank, both are already calculating several ways that great flavor can disappear.

The reason that fresh taste gets lost is because shrimp isn't what it used to be: once a special food reserved for fancy occasions and celebrations, shrimp has become a global commodity that must be procured cheaply in bulk to satisfy demand; in the process, taste sometimes gets the short end.

For the last decade, shrimp has been America's most popular seafood-a low-fat, high-protein, vitamin B12- and selenium-rich dinner staple lining restaurant buffets and supermarket freezer aisles alike. Americans eat about four pounds of shrimp per person each year. That nearly beats out runners-up canned tuna and fresh salmon combined.

Such cravings have sparked a Bubba Gumpian wave of efforts to land ever-greater quantities of these tiny crustaceans. Shrimp are harvested one of two ways: wild-caught in the ocean with nets or farmed. But both methods come at a high cost. In the U.S. alone, shrimp nets kill some 52,600 sea turtles, part of an estimated 1.8 million tons of global bycatch annually. Some farming has triggered massive shrimp pandemics and destruction of fragile mangroves. And it isn't just the environment that's paying the price-so is our health, with the illegal antibiotic dosing of shrimp, the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the use of preservatives that pump up our sodium intake and may even cause allergic-type reactions.

Carl Safina, Ph.D., founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, a conservation group, and a professor of marine science at Stony Brook University in New York, says that most shrimp production, particularly what happens outside the U.S., isn't sustainable. "Most of it is produced in a way that either harms other creatures or destroys a lot of habitat."

But all is not lost for shrimp lovers. That magical confluence of taste, sustainability and health is possible-and some food entrepreneurs have rediscovered it.

The Holy Grail of Shrimp

For McInerney, a former chef who's cooked at a three-Michelin-star restaurant in France and the famed Bouley in New York, the impetus to search out the holy grail of shrimp came last June after watching a mysterious disease called Early Mortality Syndrome strike shrimp farms in several countries at once. The outbreaks have since been linked to bacteria that can fester in the dirty ponds and overcrowded holding tanks of some shrimp farms. While not harmful to humans, the disease has proved difficult to control and has wreaked havoc on the seafood market. In 2013, Thailand, the world's biggest shrimp exporter (with a 500,000-ton annual production in recent years), lost 30 percent of its crop. Prices skyrocketed. There had to be a better way to source, thought McInerney.

He decided to look closer to home for fresher, wild shrimp. Hence, his reason for being out on a ship in the Gulf in the middle of the night. The country's biggest shrimp populations reside there, feasting on plankton from the region's fertile marshes. McInerney wanted to see firsthand how harvesting really works.

Shrimp ships haven't changed much over the last century. Trawlers generally extend a boom off each side of the boat and then drop weighted, cone-shaped nets that drag along the bottom. Because shrimp are so tiny, each net's mesh is ultra-small, capturing other sea life as well. In 1987, the U.S. passed a law requiring trawl nets to include turtle-excluder devices, trapdoors that swing open when hit by endangered sea turtles. Those same nets can also catch up to six pounds of fish for every pound of shrimp, so in 1996 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration required fleets to add a small escape chute for fish to wriggle out.

Those efforts have made U.S. wild-caught shrimp more sustainable. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, a consumer-awareness program that creates sustainability guidelines, bycatch ratios in domestic fisheries are about 50 percent lower with the improved nets. That's good news. Still, U.S. shrimping operations are niche: U.S. farmed and wild-caught account for only 200 million pounds per year or roughly 10 percent of what we eat. The rest is imported, primarily from Asian and South American shrimp farms.

Farming's Dirty Side

Raising shrimp in captivity dates back centuries to when East Asian farmers flooded rice fields to raise small batches and coastal communities in the tropics corralled shrimp in mangrove swamps. Over the last 30 years, however, shrimp farming has gotten industrialized, borrowing factory-farm tactics to pop out perfectly cocktail-sized widgets of meat.

In the wild, a shrimp takes about a year to reach finger-size "jumbo" cocktail proportions. On shrimp farms, however-using practices likened to cattle-feedlot methods-most are harvest-ready in just a few months, allowing multiple harvests per year. Today's artificial pond operations can stretch to football-field size or even hundreds of acres. At these farms, shrimp growers, especially in Southeast Asia, use ponds that become ever more crowded and dirty as the animals get fattened up. The drive to produce more shrimp in less space has resulted in some farmers adding chemicals like commercial-grade fungicides and pesticides to the water in order to abate illness under such crowded conditions.

In addition, some overseas farmers treat the water with FDA-banned antibiotics. A recent independent study found that at least 10 percent of imported samples tested were tainted with banned antibiotics. For crooked producers, using unregulated antibiotics is a risk worth taking: the FDA inspects only about 2 percent of all seafood imports. Another report found that some imported ready-to-eat shrimp were contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Many experts believe the widespread use of powerful antibiotics and the resistant superbugs that develop as a result can make consumers more vulnerable to bacterial infections.

There are two types of shrimp farms: coastal and inland. In Asia and South America, the rise of coastal farms has led to the clear-cutting of mangrove swamps, destroying the habitat of millions of fish, shellfish and birds. Coastal practices are also risky because they exchange water directly with the ocean. In recent years, shrimp escapees from U.S. farms have popped up in trawls off the coasts of Texas and South Carolina. Those marauders can carry disease: Gulf surveys have found sporadic infections from lethal farm-based viruses like White Spot Syndrome.

In contrast, inland pools reduce the potential for escapes. But both types of farms still suffer from a broader issue: what to do with the wastewater from the ponds, which is contaminated with old food and feces. The U.S. regulates water quality and dumping practices. In a closed-loop shrimp farming system, between 95 and 97 percent of the water is reused, so the amount of waste water generated is very low. The tiny fraction of water that does leave the system is filtered and treated to standards similar to sewage. Overseas, however, this waste water is often more potent, laced with lots of unregulated chemicals. It typically is dumped-untreated-onto nearby land or into the ocean. When overcrowded operations get hit with disease outbreaks, many are simply abandoned, leaving behind a sludge that, according to the Mangrove Action Project, a global organization working to conserve mangrove forests, has contaminated an estimated 620,000 acres of now-barren land.

Challenges in the Gulf

Shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico have other issues to contend with. For instance, McInerney's midnight snack aboard the Lady Nora was from a test catch. It came from a side net dangling alongside the boat to help the crew estimate the haul below. But when the main nets are finally reeled in and dumped on deck a few hours later, rig man Mario Moreno, a contract shrimper from Mexico, looks disappointed about the weather's impact on their sparse haul. "Mal temps, mal production," he says, grabbing a metal rake to sort through the huge piles of mostly small fish and some crabs. Even with turtle excluders and fish escape hatches, many small sea creatures still end up as bycatch.

Weather is just one of the challenges facing Gulf shrimpers. Rising fuel costs, industry damage from Hurricane Katrina and mandatory Gulf fishery closures during the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil spill have caused Gulf fleets to shrink more than 50 percent over the last decade. Last year, things were supposed to get even tougher when the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch red-listed all shrimp brought to port in Louisiana. That's because the state doesn't enforce a federal law requiring certain vessels to have turtle-excluder devices (TEDs). "That's not to say there aren't Louisiana fisherman using TEDs, but what you need is as close to 100 percent compliance as possible to make sure the sea turtle populations are not being impacted by the fishery," says Robin Pelc, the Aquarium's fisheries research manager.

Perhaps the surprising part has been the state's response: there wasn't one. With shortages from disease hitting imports, Louisiana's business is still strong, says Karen Profita, the executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. While some sustainable-minded grocers like Whole Foods have switched to sourcing from boats that land at Texas or Alabama ports, Profita says that there hasn't been a huge incentive to change the state law because most retailers haven't blackballed Louisiana shrimp.

The broader question of whether Gulf shrimp is even safe to eat after the oil spill has an easier answer: Yes. In April 2010, NOAA and the FDA temporarily closed 37 percent of the fishery, an 88,500-square-mile swath stretching from the Texas coast to Florida. They then inspected more than 8,000 fish outside the quarantine zone for evidence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a compound present in oil that's been in the ocean for a while and at high levels may cause cancer in humans. According to the independent National Academy of Sciences report, everything tested came back at a safe level for consumption. Part of the reason for that could be the quick reproductive cycle of shrimp. In a way, the species is engineered for its own comeback. One shrimp can lay more than 500,000 eggs per year.

Going Old School

One of McInerney's other concerns won't disappear by going wild. Until the early 1980s, most shrimp pretty much went straight from ocean to freezer, stored on ice-loaded day boats for the journey in between. The process allowed the catch to remain as pure as the seawater they swam in. But to get bigger hauls more efficiently, boats are now out for weeks at a time and the meat travels thousands of miles before reaching the grocery store. So producers add preservatives along the way to keep shrimp fresh longer.

After being sorted on the Lady Nora, shrimp are tossed into a 50-pound mesh sack and flash frozen in a nearby chill tank filled with salt, water and an additive called sodium bisulfite, an industrial bleaching agent. When applied to foods, bisulfite slows decomposition. For shrimp, it also slows melanosis, a condition that causes the shell membrane to blacken. (The shrimp aren't spoiled when the shells blacken; Americans just prefer them flawless.) While the FDA considers bisulfite safe, some people are sensitive to it.

The second commonly used shrimp preservative is sodium tripolyphosphate (STP), a rehydrating agent that is applied at the processing plant. Shrimp are 80 percent water, so they tend to get wrung out during peeling and even more dried out when stored in grocery store freezers. To prevent that, most shrimp coming off a boat get thawed, rinsed, shucked and then coated with STP before being quickly refrozen for resale. As the industry transitioned from boutique to bulk production, using both additives became standard procedure, making finding chemical-free, lower-sodium shrimp challenging.

But some processors are returning to the old ways. Calvin Nguyen is the founder of Shrimper's Pride, a label owned by the New Orleans-based Vietnamese American Commercial Fisherman's Union. The collective has about 1,000 Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian captains, most of whom were granted asylum in the U.S. in the mid-'70s after fleeing persecution in Vietnam. As they re-settled in coastal communities alongside the Gulf in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, many returned to their native trade. In 2002, Nguyen decided to bring his fellow countrymen together, hoping to combine their marine skills and newer preservative practices to compete with imports. After starting an accompanying hibachi restaurant and watching his STP-soaked catch sizzle down to nothing, he changed his mind.

Now, his crew fish at night when it's cooler, use compressors to super-chill their tanks to about -30°F to freeze catch even faster and make shorter runs. Instead of preservatives, they use extra salt that can be rinsed off later. Shrimper's Pride fishes in the Gulf and south Atlantic, labeling its catch with a QR code that indicates the region where the shrimp was caught. They mandate that all boats, including those in Louisiana, use bycatch reduction and turtle-excluder devices.

A Better Shrimp Farm

Finding sustainably farmed shrimp requires looking at factors like water quality and what the shrimp get fed. As a basic rule, U.S. farmed shrimp are considered a "good alternative" by Seafood Watch because federal and state laws regulate water quality. U.S. farms also use 30 percent less food for shrimp than most overseas processors-about 11/3 pounds in for every pound of shrimp that comes out. Feeding shrimp less yet higher-quality food means a more efficient and healthier food production.

Some overseas companies have also converted to the more eco-friendly closed-loop systems, which clean and recirculate wastewater to eliminate water contamination and shrimp escapees.

The point: Not all farms are bad. Domestic wild-caught shrimp alone can't feed everyone, so it's important to have a variety of sustainable and ethical options.

For his part, McInerney feels like wild-caught wins out for one important reason: that authentic oceanic taste. When dawn breaks over the Lady Nora, he heads out on deck to fire up his own mini grill. By now, everything has been treated with bisulfite. He tosses a few of the treated shrimp onto the grill. They simmer for a bit, turning a caramelized orange color. Compared to last night's tasting, though, today's meal disappoints. "The texture is different," he says. "Last night's catch reminded me of lobster." These are harder to describe. McInerney offers up several potential descriptors-"saltier… more mild… hard, gelatinous"-before settling on a fairly nongourmet way to sum it up. "They are resilient," he says. "When you bite down, it springs back."

Standing on the ship's stern, McInerney stares out at the sea. "It's a different story that's starting to emerge," he says of all the behind-the-scenes factors that no one really thinks about when they head to the supermarket. "If people are educated, they might choose a better alternative."

FreshDirect is an industry trendsetter, so this marks a big moment for one of the ocean's smallest foods. Consumers deserve better. As we understand more about where our food comes from, we can vote with our dollars at the cash register. Slowly but surely, the booming global shrimp industry is being better regulated and understood. This is how all great sea changes start.

Ben Paynter is a senior editor at Men's Health. He won a 2012 James Beard Award for a story about the sweetener Truvia.

May/June 2014