Why the Most Popular Seafood in the U.S. Is Now Being Farmed in Hundreds of Indoor Pools Across the Country
The drive through Triple J Farms outside St. Louis, Missouri, is pretty much what you'd expect. A long gravel road winds past fields of soybeans and an occasional Caterpillar construction vehicle in an expansive meadow, before arriving at a red, metal-sided barn. But inside, instead of being filled with typical barn accouterments like tractors, work boots and shovels, it's filled with, well, shrimp.
Fourteen aboveground pools of shrimp, to be exact, are flanked by an inordinate amount of hoses, buckets and fans that make it possible to churn out 5,000 pounds of Pacific white shrimp each year—700 miles from the nearest ocean.
The operation is about as under the radar as it gets. Orders for Jeff Howell's shrimp (sold under the brand Triple J Farms) have had a two-month-long waiting list despite Howell doing no advertising outside of a few social media posts and a handful of community news articles. (As of publication, they are currently open to the public for orders without the wait.) Howell believes people want to know where their food comes from, and says that when he gives tours, visitors often become instant customers after he talks about overfishing and the perils of the global shrimp industry.
But it's the freshness and unparalleled taste of his shrimp that seals the deal—"along with the goofy little cooking videos I post on social media," he laughs. "Not many people around here have prepared a whole, head-on shrimp, so I thought it would be beneficial to show how easy it is to cook them." Clearly, his small-scale tactics are having a big impact. "We don't do any advertising," he says, "but people knock on our door constantly. Even with our closed sign, they still show up."
Related: 15 30-Minute Shrimp Dinners
For all the head-scratching such an operation may inspire, Triple J is not alone in their quest to bring shrimp, the most consumed seafood product in the U.S., to landlocked parts of the country in creative, DIY setups that often look like indoor swimming centers. (In the U.S., shrimp are primarily grown indoors because, as tropical animals, they require certain temperature conditions to thrive.)
Though shrimp farming (aka aquaculture) is still a burgeoning industry in the U.S., there are more than a dozen farms in places like Kentucky, Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. It's a business model that feels more necessary than novel, as oceans across the world become overfished. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 57% of fish species—which includes shrimp—are harvested at maximum sustainable levels. "We cannot increase our harvest from the ocean," says David Brune, Ph.D., a professor in Plant Science and Technology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "So if we're going to expand the seafood supply, aquaculture will be the only way."
Despite the fact that U.S. seafood farming has been recognized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as one of the most environmentally sustainable ways to produce food, we import 1.5 billion pounds of shrimp annually from countries including India, Thailand, Ecuador and Indonesia. Half of the seafood the U.S. imports comes from aquaculture, and the global aquaculture industry increased by 527% between 1990 and 2018.
This growth has sometimes come with a steep cost. Mangrove forests, tangles of trees and shrubs that grow along the coasts in tropical and subtropical regions, are often turned into shrimp farms. Ocean advocacy organization Oceana says farms built in these vital ecosystems have destroyed natural habitats for birds, mammals and fish. The nonprofit also mentions pollution of coastal systems from the runoff of heavy antibiotic use, as well as human trafficking and labor violations, all tied to shrimp aquaculture.
From an environmental perspective, says Brune, "Most U.S. shrimp growers are operating at zero or near zero discharge, and aren't polluting a body of water, since U.S. laws don't allow for water discharge. And most, if not all, do not use chemicals or antibiotics."
In indoor growing environments, electricity and fossil fuels are necessary to keep the lights on and ensure that water temperatures remain consistent (Howell uses propane to keep his pools at 85 degrees). But Brune points to the overall energy consumption for marine shrimp production as being less than that required for pork and beef production—15 kilowatt-hours of energy per pound of product versus 24 and 35 kWh, respectively.
Howell, who uses heterotrophic bacteria to eat the waste that shrimp produce, converting ammonia from the waste to nitrite, and nitrite to nitrate, says there are some environmental benefits to his process, such as being able to reuse the same water for years. He also points to some farms he has seen that are using solar panels to offset energy consumption, and says he's interested in exploring the idea further.
Getting your shrimp fresh, not frozen, makes a big difference in flavor and texture, and there are environmental and economic benefits that come from supporting community farming models. But for most consumers, price plays a big role in purchasing decisions. Buying local is an important consideration, but not everyone will be able to afford these shrimp. As Brune points out, "Imported seafood is at a $1 to $2 a pound production cost. If we go to indoor systems, we're talking about $3 to $5 a pound production cost. If people pay $8 a pound for shrimp, a local grower can't compete with that, as they're charging around $20 a pound. People have to make a decision to pay a higher price for a local product if these guys are to survive."
Given that the oceans can only produce a finite amount of fish, and we know that number is dwindling rapidly, domestic shrimp farming offers hope for the future. John Brawley of Sweet Sound in Charlotte, Vermont, has plans to double his production this year, and Karlanea and Darryl Brown, who have owned RDM Aquaculture in Fowler, Indiana, since 2010, dream of making Indiana the shrimp capital of the world.
And though the battle for sustainability may feel, at times, like swimming upstream against a raging current, there is a place where the waters are calm and abundant—in a barn down a gravel road, where the wave of the future is closer than we ever imagined.
How to Shop for Sustainable Shrimp
Follow these tips when looking for sustainable and responsibly farmed shrimp options at the grocery store:
- Be curious and ask for details. Get to know your retailer and learn about their commitments to sustainable products. This info can often be found on their website, but don't be afraid to ask seafood-counter staff, "Do you sell sustainable shrimp? Where and how was it caught or farmed?"
- Compare countries of origin (required on packaging and/or signage) with the ratings on Seafood Watch. But, generally speaking, wild-caught shrimp from Alaska and the U.S. West Coast are recommended, as are farmed whiteleg shrimp from the U.S., Ecuador, Honduras and Thailand.
- Another label to look for is the one from the Marine Stewardship Council. The blue-and-white checkmark label is used to identify wild-caught seafood that comes from fisheries with impeccable sustainability ratings.
- Whole Foods has incredibly high sustainability standards, and lists Seafood Watch ratings or includes the MSC blue fish label on all products.
Where to Find a Local Shrimp Farmer Near You
Alabama: Greene Prairie Aquafarm
Arkansas: The Salty Sailor Shrimp Co.
Indiana: RDM Shrimp
Iowa: Midland Co.
Michigan: Motor City Sea Farm
Minnesota: Trū Shrimp
Nebraska: Chundy Aquaculture/Champion Shrimp
Vermont: Sweet Sound Aquaculture