Last year, the United States imported less than $700,000 worth of frozen, non-breaded shrimp from China. Through the first seven months of 2023, our country has imported less than $95,000 of Chinese shrimp.
Nevertheless, every single month, container after container of frozen, non-breaded shrimp is shipped from China to the United States.
How can this be?
As with many other areas of the seafood sold in this market, U.S. importers source large quantities of shrimp that has been processed in China but supposedly originates from other countries. Farm-raised vannamei shrimp from other countries, like Ecuador and Indonesia, is exported to Chinese packing plants before being shipped to the United States. And a large volume of Argentine Red shrimp makes its way into American grocery stores through Chinese processors.
While that explains how we are importing so much shrimp from China while not treating the shrimp as a product of China, it does not explain why shrimp is being shipped across the world to packers in China in the first place.
A remarkable article growing out of an investigation of Chinese seafood supply chains provides some context for these trade patterns. On Monday, The Outlaw Ocean Project published “Crimes on Land: The Uyghurs Forced to Process the World’s Fish.” The article explained how large seafood companies in China, principally operating in the Shandong province, have used over a thousand Uyghur workers since 2018. As the article notes, “[d]uring that time, those companies shipped more than forty-seven thousand tons of seafood – including cod, pollock, shrimp, salmon, and crab – to the U.S.”
The article describes how members of the Uyghur minority in China have been forced to leave their homes and work in industries throughout the country, including seafood processing plants in Shandong province. Concerns regarding the treatment of Uyghurs in China have led Congress to pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), which bans the importation of goods produced through Uyghur labor into the United States.
And yet bill of lading information confirms that processing plants in Shandong continue to export shrimp, including Argentine Red Shrimp, to the United States.
It is certainly possible that U.S. importers of shrimp shipped from Shandong have ensured that the plants they are sourcing from have no Uyghur labor, but as The Outlaw Ocean Project’s story makes clear, oversight of plants supplying other types of seafood products to the United States has not been terribly serious or otherwise effective. Moreover, the lack of transparency throughout Chinese seafood supply chains heightens the risk presented. In an accompanying article published in The New Yorker, “The Crimes Behind the Seafood You Eat,” a former official at the Department of Homeland Security, Ken Kennedy, declared that “[t]he U.S. is awash with criminally tainted seafood” and argued that the United States should block seafood imports from China until American importers can demonstrate that their supply chains are free from abuse.
“There may be no better example of the relentless, amoral quest for the lowest prices possible, then shipping shrimp across the world to China for packing before it is imported into the United States,” said John Williams, the Executive Director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance. “It is not surprising to learn that the Chinese seafood processing industry has been implicated in grave human rights abuses, any more than it is surprising to report that this doesn’t appear to have stopped anyone from sourcing from them.”
Review The Outlaw Ocean Project’s “The Uyghurs Forced to Process the World’s Fish” here: https://www.theoutlawocean.com/investigations/china-the-superpower-of-seafood/the-uyghurs-forced-to-process-the-worlds-fish/
Read The New Yorker’s “The Crimes Behind the Seafood You Eat” here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/10/16/the-crimes-behind-the-seafood-you-eat
Learn more about the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act here: https://www.cbp.gov/trade/forced-labor/UFLP