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All You Can Eat

A journey through a seafood fantasy

by Jim Carrier

Published in the March/April 2009 issue of Orion magazine



Photo: Jamie Goldenberg

The green dumpster behind Red Lobster was nearly empty when I lifted the lid. Through the effluvium of yesterday’s supper, way down, sat a couple of pretty blue boxes. I hitched myself over the rim, leaned in, and took one.

I am not a regular dumpster diver. I was driven by a hunger for knowledge. Inside the restaurant, where the décor, ambience, soundtrack—all but the smell—reeked of the sea, I asked the server who laid before me the first plate of Red Lobster’s “endless shrimp” where they came from.

“Farms,” she said.

“Where are these farms?” I asked.

“Different places.” She gave a shrug. “Do you want another beer?”

I ate only eight grilled shrimp from Red Lobster’s “endless” supply. Something was stuck in my craw. An hour before, I had been in a community hall in Brownsville, Texas, with forty-three angry, tearful American shrimpers. In a country awash in shrimp, they were going bankrupt. They had gathered to hear more bad news: severe new rules limiting what they could catch.

“What about Red Lobster?” I asked the group.

“Red Lobster!” one man shouted. “They’re our enemy. They haven’t bought a shrimp since the 1980s.”

The restaurant walls were covered with shrimp boats—striking photos of trawlers at docks, at sea, in sunset silhouettes. The Gulf of Mexico was a mile away. Yet, while I sat eating, real shrimp boats sat rusting, their outriggers raised as if surrendering.

The box from the dumpster gave me a clue: “Product of Ecuador. Farm Raised.”

I am farm raised. I nurse a nostalgia for what those words used to mean. Holding that fetid box, I began to question my own clueless consumption. From a springboard both pure and naïve, I dove into all-you-can-eat shrimp.

SHRIMP, IN MY YOUTH in upstate New York, were rare and pricey. I remember a 1960s shrimp cocktail at the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center. I don’t remember my date’s face but I do recall a scent of privilege. Thirty years would pass before another shrimp scene would be as sharply etched on my mind. It was late October in the Carolinas. I had tied my sailboat to an old wood dock in front of a village on the Intracoastal Waterway. Around me marsh grass tinted gold by the sunset was slowly emerging from ebbing waters. Barely a month into living aboard, I’d opened a beer to toast my good fortune when a man from the village walked onto the dock with a bucket and ball of netting.

With a practiced arabesque he threw the net. It blossomed into a ten-foot parachute that dappled a circle and sank. In a few seconds, he pulled the line and wet flopping creatures spilled onto the dock. He sorted through them, discarded several, and repeated the motion. Half a dozen throws later the bucket held two handfuls of shrimp.

“Supper,” he said, and walked off.

The scene was magical, almost biblical: its grace and bounty, its sense of proportion—one man, one meal—evoked a sustaining ocean. As I sailed farther south I began to see shrimp everywhere. Shrimp boats seining night and day. Roadside stands selling shrimp from coolers. All-you-can-eat shrimp buffets for a few dollars. These waters, a federal survey reported in 1884, contained “immense schools” of shrimp, so many a man could catch bushels on a “pleasant evening.” It appeared that nothing had changed. In fact, everything had changed during a century in which shrimp had gone from lowly regional fare, caught by hand, to America’s favorite seafood.

In 1913, one hundred miles down the coast from where I had watched the man cast his net, Billy Corkum, a Massachusetts fishing captain, introduced the otter trawl to Amelia Island, Florida. An ungainly contraption of ropes, cables, wooden doors and nets, the trawl was dragged through the water just above the ocean floor, its mouth open like a whale’s. Modified with a drooping chain to “tickle” mud-dwelling shrimp into jumping into the maw, diesel-pulled trawls scooped shrimp by the billions.

“We never had so darned many shrimp,” old-timer Anthony Taranto told the Southern Foodways Alliance, a University of Mississippi institute that studies southern food culture. “You couldn’t hardly sell them and couldn’t hardly do nothing with them.”

Shrimp are a perfect protein delivery system, built with a head and carapace that twist off easily, revealing a muscle that can be cooked in three minutes. The Chinese and Greeks loved them. Apicius included shrimp in his Roman cookbook. But it took decades for shrimp to whet appetites outside the American South. Packed in barrels of ice and shipped by rail, shrimp were served in tulip glasses as “cocktails” in upstate New York in 1914. As cookbooks added Low Country recipes, canning and, in 1943, a shrimp-peeling machine—invented by teenager J.M. Lapeyre in Houma, Louisiana, who noticed how easily shrimp meat could be squished out of its shell by his rubber boot—made shrimp available nationwide.

Trawls soon emptied the shallows of southern waters and moved deeper. For seventy years growing fleets of bigger boats galloped from one gold strike to another as veins of shrimp were discovered off Louisiana (white, 1933), Mexico (brown, 1940), Dry Tortugas (pink, 1949), and Key West, where in 1957 huge, royal red shrimp were discovered a thousand feet down.

“Greater riches are being brought up than all the gold ever sunk off the Spanish Main,” gushed National Geographic in 1957. Many shrimpers became millionaires.

“We were outlaws,” Wallace Beaudreaux, of Brownsville, Texas, eighty-one, told me, describing raids into Mexican waters. It was not unusual for boats to gross $10,000 to $25,000 on a single trip.

I felt rich, in 1998, buying a pound of shrimp for a mere three dollars right off the boats near where I anchored in Key West. I had only one question: with thousands of boats endlessly trawling and millions like me endlessly gobbling, how could there be any shrimp left in the sea?

“Shrimp are a crop, like wheat,” shrimpers replied. “You can’t overfish them.”

I was asking the wrong question. I should have wondered where all these shrimp were coming from, and how they could cost three dollars a pound. I happened to sail into the Deep South in time to witness the crash of a culture bound to, and blinded by, endless shrimp dreams.

SHRIMP HAVE BEEN AROUND since Gondwana. Their tracks are found alongside dinosaurs’, which explains their astounding diversity—more than two thousand species in every body of water in the world. They are a major food source for Salt Lake gulls, ocean whales, Gulf red snapper—virtually every marine critter, which makes them ideal bait.

But the shrimp’s life cycle was understood only in the 1960s. Shrimp didn’t ascend rivers to spawn, as once thought, but reversed the process in a complicated and delicate cycle. Adult shrimp mate in deep water, holding each other feet-to-feet. He inserts a capsule of sperm and she spews half a million microscopic eggs that resemble milk spilled in water. These babies molt through a dozen tiny, spiderlike creatures, finally emerging shrimplike in a month.

With mysterious instinct they move up and down in the water column, catching waves, currents, and winds that sweep them into shallow bays. In the Gulf this cycle coincides with a shift from northerly to southerly winds, a warming of bay waters, and an increase in freshwater runoff from rivers, which reduces salinity. In these brackish, rich estuaries, protected by reeds and organic muck, they begin devouring one-celled algae called diatoms and growing at the rate of one inch a month. In two or three months, triggered apparently by increased salinity, they begin to walk—literally—and flick their tails back to the sea, traveling as far as two hundred miles. Left alone, a shrimp grows to a length of six to eight inches, developing a tail as big around as a man’s thumb. At this stage they are in deep water, ready to spawn before dying or being eaten by a predator.

I learned all this aboard Leslie Hartman’s runabout one May day in Mobile Bay. She was out there, as she is every week of the year, her long brown ponytail swinging like a pendulum as she heaved a miniature trawl off the stern. As Alabama’s shrimp biologist, Hartman’s job is to constantly sample the size of shrimp returning to the sea, and determine when they are large enough to open the state’s shrimp season.

After fifteen minutes, she stopped the boat, hauled in the net, and dumped the catch into a white bucket. She knelt and fingered through glistening life. Little rays, horned blowfish, baby snapper, and a bunch of crabs were thrown back. Left in the bottom were a set of creatures that ranged from transparent globules half an inch long to juvenile shrimp up to two inches. She counted, measured, and logged the sample and sped off for another drag elsewhere.

The threshold for legal shrimp in Alabama is 68 shrimp per pound. A “68” shrimp is pretty small, often canned, tossed into macaroni salad, or breaded and fried as “popcorn” shrimp. Shrimp cocktails use a minimum size of 40 to 50 per pound. When I look at shrimp in a grocer’s case I usually choose “20–25,” the size of my little finger. Hartman’s task was to calculate when the average of her samples reached 68. She was always anxious to reach that point, for she considered herself a friend of the industry.

“We want our great-grandchildren to be shrimpers a hundred and fifty years from now,” she said.

“GO,” SHOUTED JOE SKINNER, releasing brakes that governed two winches. Squeals, grinds, the sounds of cable and rope under stress on the throbbing bed of a major diesel smothered the splash of green nets on the water. As cables let out, the nets disappeared behind the boat. At 6 a.m. at the start of the 2005 Alabama shrimp season, the A.S. Skinner was trawling.

We were in Mobile Bay. A rising sun, barely burning through haze, added a band of pink to a formless horizon. Around us a circus of boats—trawls, skiffs, outboards—were out for opening day. “It’s a madhouse,” said Mike Skinner, Joe’s brother, at the helm. A black radar screen set at one-mile resolution was dotted with forty or fifty green moving spots. “I’ll be glad when this day is over.”

A.S. Skinner, for whom the boat was named, had been a jeweler, as was his son. But grandson Gary left gold in the showcase to seek his fortune with shrimp. Great-grandsons Mike and Joe joined him at age five. By high school, the last formal education they sought, they were taking boats out by themselves. “When I came out of high school, we done good,” said Mike, tall and angular, dressed in blue-jean shorts and a white t-shirt. The first year they grossed $200,000. “We didn’t work that hard. Dad had two good years and then it started dropping.”

The Skinners, aged thirty-two and thirty, each with a one-year-old son, reminded me of cowboys I’d known out West, still pining for pastures before barbed wire. Their dreams of a commons, free to exploit, had once been our dream, so woven into our national DNA that we, like they, mourned its passing. Each spring they rode out after a myth, only to find the world had changed.

The sea stopped giving in the 1980s. Catches flattened worldwide. There were, in fact, only so many shrimp in the sea. And because of overfishing for half a century, the average shrimp size caught in the Gulf had shrunk from “50” to “75.”

There was also growing dismay that shrimpers wasted more than they caught. Down below, in the channel made famous by Union Admiral Farragut’s cry, “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead,” was a kind of “fishing” that was nothing short of marine clearcutting.

In the gold-rush days, before Joe and Mike were born, shrimpers killed ten pounds of sea life for every pound of harvested shrimp—waste that reached one billion pounds a year in the Gulf. Once called “trash,” now called “by-catch,” this sea life included sea turtles driven to the brink of extinction, and juvenile red snapper, a good eating fish. Under environmental regulations requiring escape hatches in nets, the by-catch-to-shrimp ratio has been reduced to four-to-one, still a startling sight when the Skinners dumped their twin nets on deck. Using grain shovels, they transferred this squirming pile into a large wooden box of seawater mixed with Cargil Boat and Boil salt. The shrimp sank to the bottom, and the by-catch, mostly dead, floated to the surface. This they skimmed and threw overboard.

Gulf shrimpers, the last cowboys of the sea, were corralled in 2006 when the U.S. government, trying to balance the Gulf’s ecosystem with a sustainable supply of shrimp for a viable commercial fishery, capped the federal-waters shrimp fleet at twenty-seven hundred boats, down from a gold-rush high of seventy-five hundred, and ordered federal clerks to be randomly stationed aboard to record by-catch. The goal was a “maximum sustainable yield,” roughly 110 million pounds a year, which left 22 billion shrimp to reproduce, according to modeling by Dr. Jim Nance, head of the NOAA Fisheries Service Galveston Laboratory. This figure was half the natural shrimp population before the arrival of the trawl, estimated Bill Hogarth, the former head of the agency.

The Skinners grossed $1,000 on opening day—not a bad haul, I thought, until I learned that it was half the price they got when they were teenagers. They made a living but not a killing selling their shrimp to their father, who ran a roadside stand on Dauphin Island. “The last few years, we’re just paying for fuel,” said Joe, sitting below their federal license framed on the Masonite wall of their boat’s dinette. “If it weren’t for the shop . . .” His voice trailed off.

What really ended the Skinners’ dreams, what really brought shrimpers to their knees and tears in Mobile Bay, Brownsville, New Orleans, Biloxi, and Bayou la Batre—all along the Gulf Coast—was not regulation or lack of shrimp but good old global supply and demand. “Because of imported, farmed shrimp from the Far East,” said Joe Skinner, “wholesale shrimp prices in the U.S. are the same as when Dad started thirty years ago.”

THE STORY OF FARMED SHRIMP begins with a Japanese dish called “dancing shrimp,” a casserole that arrives at your table with the unmistakable sound of something inside striking the cover. Jumping about on a bed of hot rice are Kuruma prawns—live. The object is to grab one between chopsticks and pop it wiggling into your mouth. Kuruma, large, meaty shrimp found in limited quantities in the Sea of Japan, sell for a hundred dollars a pound. Seventy-five years ago this rarity prompted an ichthyology student at Tokyo University to try growing Kuruma in captivity.

Until 1933, when Motosaku Fujinaga first spawned and hatched shrimp in a lab, aquaculture had been an ancient artisanal practice. Tides swept fish and shrimp into estuaries, and weirs were built to prevent their escape. The shrimp grew to eating size in naturally replenished waters.

Out of their element, though, shrimp proved to be finicky eaters, fragile and prone to diseases. It took Fujinaga twenty-five years of trying, interrupted by World War II, to be able to grow ten kilograms of shrimp to adulthood. In 1967, when he spoke to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s first world conference on shrimp culture in Mexico City, Fujinaga envisioned a world where capitalism and altruism could coexist in the “vast and boundless marshes, swamps, or jungles in the tropics.” Shrimp farms, he predicted, “will greatly contribute toward the increased supply of animal protein to the human race.”

It was a lovely thought. A Blue Revolution. But his success fueled a global grab in which protein and profits flowed one way—north toward the moneyed. One year after his speech, a group of Japanese businessmen bought Fujinaga’s technology, won a U.S. patent, and approached DuPont for money. DuPont declined, but two officials who heard the pitch, Paul Bente and John Rutledge Cheshire, were so excited they quit their jobs, put up $200,000 of Cheshire’s family money, and opened Marifarms in a bay near Panama City, Florida.

Aided by research at the U.S. lab in Galveston, Marifarms harvested a disappointing six thousand pounds in 1970, according to Cheshire’s book,Memoir of a Shrimp Farmer. The same year, another venture, Sea Farms, was digging canals in a Florida key to grow shrimp.

Because of environmental issues—Marifarms scooped up pregnant white shrimp and confined them in a public bay, while Sea Farms flew in nonindigenous shrimp from Central America, a practice Florida soon prohibited—shrimp farming moved south. Supported by USAID, World Bank loans, and willing developing-world officials, corporate giants United Fruit, Armour, Conagra, and Ralston Purina launched shrimp farms in Honduras, Brazil, Panama, and Ecuador, according to oral histories collected by Bob Rosenberry of Shrimp News International. Learning as they went, the farmed-shrimp industry laid waste to mangroves, fishing communities, and ecosystems. The word “plundering” comes to mind.

A shrimp farm is a saltwater feedlot. There can be as many as 170,000 shrimp larvae in a 1-acre pond that is 1 to 2 meters deep. So-called intensive ponds can yield 6,000 to 18,000 pounds of shrimp in that acre in 3 to 6 months. (A good wheat yield is 3,600 pounds per acre.) Because of this density, the waste they swim in, and their susceptibility to disease, most farmed shrimp are treated with antibiotics, only some of them legal in the U.S. A wide array of poisons is used to kill unwanted sea life and cleanse ponds for reuse, creating what Public Citizen calls a “chemical cocktail.” In random sampling of imported shrimp, health officials in the U.S., Japan, and the European Union have found chloramphenicol, a dangerous antibiotic banned in food.

The industry acknowledges that 5 percent of the world’s mangroves, hundreds of thousands of acres, have been destroyed creating shrimp ponds. In some estuaries 80 percent of the mangroves are gone. A commons was privatized, ruining artisanal fishing and driving indigenous fishermen to work raising shrimp. By removing the thick coastal barrier of trees, shrimp farms have undoubtedly aggravated damage from hurricanes and tsunamis. And salt intrusion has sterilized once-fertile estuaries.

Even in the best-run farms, two to four pounds of sea life is caught and ground up as feed for every pound of shrimp raised. Mortality rates of 30 percent are common. The dead shrimp, shrimp excrement, and chemical additives are often flushed into coastal waters.

By the mid 1970s, farmed shrimp from South and Central America, at less than half the cost of Gulf shrimp, began arriving at Red Lobster restaurants—and everywhere else. All-you-can-eat shrimp dinners became a standard, filling both waistlines and Red Lobster’s coffers. That box of shrimp I retrieved from the dumpster cost $2.50 a pound, and sold, in my case, for $25 a pound, a markup that bettered the beer’s.

Quietly, farmed shrimp took over the market, its source hidden behind the motif of a picturesque but actually sinking shrimp fleet. By 1980, half of America’s shrimp consumption came from foreign farms. By 2001, shrimp passed canned tuna as America’s favorite seafood. Today, 90 percent of our shrimp—more than 1 billion pounds a year—come from foreign farms. Virtually any restaurant chain, from Captain D’s to Red Lobster, serves farmed shrimp. Foreign farmed shrimp was peddled for years by vendors at the National Shrimp Festival in Alabama—until they were caught—and at happy hour for the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, in March 2005, where government officials finalized a ten-year freeze on twenty-seven hundred shrimp boat licenses. The sight of government biologists slurping Vietnamese shrimp after reining in American shrimpers was an irony sharper than cocktail sauce. Even in New Orleans, where a handful of high-end chefs brag about their Louisiana shrimp, imported shrimp are the norm in most restaurants. A new Louisiana law requires restaurateurs to tell the truth—if asked.

TO GET A SENSE of the pink tsunami on U.S. shores, I flew to Long Beach, California, the single largest shrimp port, where among the five million containers arriving each year are several thousand filled with shrimp, 265 million pounds of it in a year.

On the day I visited, 5 ships were docking with 9 containers—412,000 pounds—of shrimp from Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, and China. One container, a semitractor load, holds an astounding amount. Laid out in a customs warehouse, boxes holding 30,000 pounds of shrimp covered a 12-by-100-foot area chest high. Based on our average consumption, this one container held a year’s supply of shrimp for 12,000 Americans.

The container in question had been seized and opened because of suspicions that the beautiful bags of store-ready “26/30” frozen raw shrimp, labeled “farm raised in Indonesia,” may, in fact, have come from China and been relabeled in Singapore, a common cat-and-mouse game that customs officials calls “transshipment.” A bag was dispatched to a government lab in Savannah, Georgia, to try a new sniffing tool that might determine its source. Transshipping is used to evade special import taxes or restrictions, such as one imposed on Chinese shrimp and four other species in 2007 after malachite green, gentian violet, and other carcinogens were found in farmed fish.

“It’s very, very difficult to prove a transshipment issue,” said Jeff DeHaven, the deputy director of fines, penalties, and forfeitures. So great is their volume of business that importers just walk away from seized containers, he said. Moreover, U.S. customs is concerned primarily with duty issues, not food safety. “We don’t look at that much shrimp,” admitted an enforcement chief.

The Food and Drug Administration, responsible for imported food safety, samples less than 1 percent of the 1 billion pounds, a “sorry” record, according to U.S. Representative John Dingell, who in 2007 chaired food safety hearings before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Mindful of consumer fears fanned by poisoned seafood arriving from China, the Global Aquaculture Alliance—an industry group underwritten by Wal-Mart, Red Lobster, and multinational seafood importers—has written standards that, if enforced, could produce clean, safe shrimp without damaging people or the environment. But that will take years, admitted GAA president George Chamberlain. Only 45 shrimp farms are certified by the alliance—out of more than 100,000 worldwide.

TODAY, IF YOU LIVE more than a hundred miles from the Gulf Coast, the shrimp you eat most likely come from a foreign farm. You can tour these farms while standing at your supermarket seafood freezer and reading labels. The top ten importing countries are Thailand, Indonesia, Ecuador, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Mexico, India, Bangladesh, and Guyana. The wholesale value of their shrimp is $4 billion a year.

Despite that income, citizens in the developing world have protested shrimp farms—and been killed for doing so. The Blues of a Revolution, a book published in 2003 by a consortium of environmental and indigenous groups, described Honduran shrimp farms ringed by barbed wire and watchtowers and armed guards. Between 1992 and 1998, in the Bay of Fonseca near large shrimp farms, “11 fishermen have been found dead by shooting or by machete injuries . . . no one has been brought to justice.”

One story from the book I cannot shake involved Korunamoyee Sardar, a Bangladeshi woman who, on November 7, 1990, joined a protest against a new shrimp farm near Harin Khola. She was shot in the head, cut into pieces, and thrown into a Bangladesh river. A monument stands where she was murdered. It reads: “Life is struggle, struggle is life.”

Red Lobster, which buys 5 percent of the world’s shrimp, is Bangladesh’s biggest U.S. customer. The restaurant did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. 

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Author of nine books, award-winning journalist Jim Carrier has published in National Geographic and the New York Times. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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