I have come to the conclusion that there just is no ethical way to eat shrimp. (Calling them prawns won’t change that either.)
Harvested by Slaves
If they are wild caught in Southeast Asia, they are harvested by slave laborers. This was uncovered by a Guardian investigation in 2014. It hasn’t changed appreciably since then either. Workers from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia and other countries are kept on boats for months and years at a time:
“Men who have managed to escape from boats supplying CP Foods and other companies like it told the Guardian of horrific conditions, including 20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings. Some were at sea for years; some were regularly offered methamphetamines to keep them going. Some had seen fellow slaves murdered in front of them.”
Sadly, not just shrimp but other fish and seafood harvested in all the countries of Southeast Asia, Taiwan and Japan, are known to be tainted by the connection with slave labor practices.
Farmed Shrimp Associated with Environmental Problems
If they are farmed, they are grown in unsanitary conditions which pollute and which require antibiotics and other chemicals to obviate this. Have a look at this article. Or if you prefer a more industry-targeted article, take a look at this article “Preservation of Prawns with Chemicals” written for the shrimp farming trade.
Farmed shrimp in SE Asia are also connected to the issues of slave labor. The fishmeal fed to farmed shrimp is bought from companies which use slave labor to catch and process it.
Natural Toxin Magnets
Like lobsters, crabs and crayfish, prawns are bottom feeders. They snarf around at the sea or pond floor and eat whatever they can find. Along the way they ingest the heavy metals and toxins which settle out down there.
If they are from the Gulf of Mexico, they have been breathing and feeding in crude oil and toxins from oil rigs (remember the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion from 2010?) Seafood from polluted waters show an increase in genetic abnormalities and tumors. Sound delicious?
Added Chemicals, Even in Frozen Shrimp
And if you find some clean, wild prawns from, say, Alaska, and you buy them frozen, you may be surprised to find they are still doused in chemical “preservatives”. Read the label. You would think that being flash frozen would be preservative enough, but apparently chemicals add a necessary je ne sais quoi.
Now, I am not saying that a single hit of FDA-approved preservative will cause you cancer or poison you. But given that there are preservatives in so much of our food supply, any way I can reduce the chemical load on my plate, I will endeavor to do so.
North Atlantic Wild Shrimp May Be Best Option
A friend of mine says wild caught shrimp from the north Atlantic is clean. The “Seafood Slavery Risk Tool” at seafoodslaveryrisk.org agrees. My friend has the good fortune to live in Denmark, so she probably has ready access to north Atlantic seafood, but here in the Pacific Northwest of the US, mostly I see seafood sourced from SE Asia, the Gulf of Mexico, and Alaska.
Another good resource is the seafood app from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which can tell you how endangered or sustainable are the stocks of a great variety of fish and shellfish, searchable by both common names and also the Japanese for sushi fish.
All I Can Do Is What I Can Do
I can’t stop unscrupulous fishing companies from enslaving and exploiting their workers. I can’t tell shrimp farmers to grow their product without chemicals and chance a lost harvest or a business failure. I can’t keep companies from “enhancing” their prawns with moisturizers and preservatives.
I can only do what I can do. And I can choose not to have my money go to slavers and polluters, and I can choose not to ingest chemicals when I can avoid it.