Ecuador and Organic Shrimp’s “Murky Waters”

Not many shrimpers will describe themselves as environmentalists.  Some will.  Most probably won’t.  The long history of efforts by some organizations to shut down or severely limit shrimp trawling in U.S. waters tend to rile up shrimpers whenever the word “environmentalist” is mentioned.  But that doesn’t mean that shrimpers are not environmentally conscious.  Folks have long dismissed or refused to recognize the work done by the shrimp industry to support the recovery of Kemp’s Ridley turtles in Rancho Nuevo, likely because those efforts don’t fit with prevailing stereotypes of commercial fishermen.

Even those of us who claim dominion over God’s green and blue Earth – and I count myself among them – are forced to be conservationists by law.  Regulations regarding our nets, the excluder devices we carry, the bottom we can trawl, and the animals we can “interact” with, all dictate that we limit our impact.  And if we don’t comply, there is hell to pay in terms of fines, penalties, and even more restrictive regulations.

Whether by preference or by compulsion, we are all environmentalists now.  Yet, domestic, wild-caught shrimp is often closed out of niche marketplaces because we don’t carry private certifications of our “sustainability” or our “eco-friendliness.”

For these reasons, I noted with interest the Ecuadorian exporter OMARSA’s announcement that it would be featuring “organic farmed shrimp,” accompanied by a European Union Organic Certification, next week at the Boston Seafood Show.  Making the announcement, OMARSA explained that “Two of the three shrimp farms that Omarsa has are organic totaling 1,600 hectares with production systems carefully selected to reduce the impact on the environment with a density of 5-10 animals per square meter.”

A move towards organic shrimp production – and away from the high-density, chemical-laced industrial model that currently dominates the industry – should be encouraged.  By moving to organic production, shrimp farms internalize a number of the production costs that are currently forced on everyone else in shrimp farming countries.  Organic farming should align prices more closely with the costs of production, consistent with the manner in which shrimpers absorb those costs in the United States.

Two months ago, I asked industry members to watch a short documentary made by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation about the Bangladeshi shrimp industry called Murky Waters.  The documentary’s findings were appalling, but not surprising in light of what is currently coming out about shrimp farming and processing operations throughout Asia.

Another part of the Swedish Society’s investigation focused on “organic” certifications of shrimp farms in Ecuador that did not get as much attention.  OMARSA, along with two other Ecuadorian producers that export shrimp to the United States (Expalsa and Langosmar), figure prominently in the Swedish Society’s report about this investigation.  The report’s discussion of problems with “organic” certifications in Ecuador is about twenty-five pages long.  It is worth reading, but the short version of the Swedish Society’s findings is that shrimp exporters claiming to produce “organic” shrimp from Ecuador – particularly OMARSA – were found to have had a history of illegal deforestation of mangroves, failed to have met reforestation requirements, and unfairly restricted the access of local fishermen to historic fishing grounds.

Another bit in the report relates to “unilateral eyestalk ablation,” where shrimp farmers cut off one eye of a female shrimp to make it reproduce faster and more prodigiously:

Ablation has always struck me as an odd practice.  It turns out that “organic” certifiers are concerned about it too.  Still, despite the concern, the report says:

According to Carlos Tomala, Commercial Manager at Faraeco/Omarsa Hatcheries, Omarsa still blinds 70 percent of its mother shrimps to avoid higher costs and extra investments, as well as to be able to supply nauplii [shrimp larvae] at competitive prices to conventional shrimp farms.

Whether the Swedish Society’s accusations are true is beside the point, as are the merits of “organic” certification.  A world where the price of imported shrimp more accurately represented the cost of farmed shrimp production is one that we would welcome.

What interests me about the Swedish Society’s investigation is the fundamental flaw of private certification programs that are proliferating in the marketplace.

As U.S. shrimpers, we must preserve and protect a sustainable fishery.  If we don’t do so, if we fall short of our requirements, we are compelled to get back into line.  The “sustainability” of our fishery is established by the government and is maintained through a pretty transparent process through which public interest and environmental organizations get to press their case that more needs to be done.

But what happens when shrimp falls short of what private certification systems purport to certify?  What happens when “organic” environmentally-friendly shrimp turns out not to be so environmentally-friendly after all?  Or what happens when a producer that is supposed to abide by the best aquacultural practices (BAP) is found to routinely export merchandise contaminated with banned antibiotics?  Or when a producer is found to have been complicit in horrific abuses of migrant labor?  What happens then?  Based on what we’ve seen, the answer, with a few, isolated exceptions, is:  nothing.

We’ve added the “Check Your Supplier” function to the website in part to respond to the lack of accountability and transparency of private certification systems.  If a private certification is relied upon to insure the quality and integrity of a product, it should matter that, for example, Vietnam’s Minh Phu Seafood Corp. is currently listed on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Mandatory Inspection List for fluoroquinolones (March 2, 2012), and that the company had one shipment of shrimp rejected by the Japanese government in February following the detection of Trifluralin and another rejected following the detection of enrofloxacin.  At least with respect to food safety, these public resources allow some validation of claims made.

No similar objective resources exist that allow consumers, retailers, and restaurants to cross-check claims regarding labor or environmental law compliance.  In the absence of such a resource, the public is dependent on efforts of public interest groups like the Swedish Society to keep the certification systems honest – something far from ideal.

Private certification systems represent a marketing effort to address the concerns of consumers about how their food is produced and where it comes from.  I happen to think that this marketing effort is necessary because there are a lot of unresolved problems with farmed shrimp production.  Because we’re subject to U.S. regulations and laws, we’ve had to take on the concerns of consumers and environmentalists head on.  We haven’t had a choice.  Now, we need to get in the habit of telling anyone who will listen:

You want sustainable seafood?  Buy domestic shrimp.

You want seafood produced organically?  Buy domestic shrimp.

You want to make sure that the people producing your shrimp aren’t being exploited?  Buy domestic shrimp.

Not convinced?  Then at least check the supplier of your imported shrimp.


John Williams

Executive Director

Southern Shrimp Alliance


Read a summary of the results of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation’s investigation of “organic” shrimp farming in Ecuador at this link:


Read the full Murky Waters report by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation here:

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