Frozen Imported Shrimp: What are the implications?

Sonia - April 21, 2021

imported shrimp spot prawns

As you’ve probably heard, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans recently made the sale of frozen-at-sea spot prawns illegal, effectively stopping the sale of all frozen spot-prawns to Canadian markets. After a lot of pushback, (including from Skipper Otto members!) the DFO has now said they won’t be enforcing the rule this year, but the rule still exists, so there is still significant cause for concern. 

We’ve been talking a lot about the impact of this ban on prawn harvesters, chefs, and other Canadian consumers, but there’s one aspect we haven’t touched on much yet: if consumers don’t have access to sustainable, local, frozen spot prawns, what are the other options available to them? Skipper Otto members know they have access to a few species of locally-caught shrimp, but, as with most local seafood, these are hard to come by in most markets and grocery stores. 

The vast majority of frozen shrimp and prawns you see in grocery stores are imported. In fact, shrimp accounts for 50% of all seafood imported into Canada, and almost all of it comes from shrimp farms in Southeast Asia and Central America. Why is that a problem? 

Carbon Footprint of Imported Shrimp

Naturally, shrimp that is imported from Asia and Central America has a much higher carbon footprint than locally caught shrimp based solely on emissions from transportation and cold chain maintenance. But that’s not the main environmental issue with imported shrimp. Where and how they are farmed is also a huge concern. 

It is estimated that up to 60% of shrimp farmed in these regions are raised in ponds that used to be mangrove forests. Mangroves tend to grow in intertidal zones – the same areas big shrimp farms need for water exchange. When mangroves are clear cut to make room for these farms, we lose some of the most effective carbon capturing and storing trees on the planet. In addition, mangroves contribute to the creation of thick layers of peat which can store CO2. When the mangroves are cut down and the peat is dug up, this carbon is released. 

Because of this, it is estimated that 1 lb of shrimp farmed this way means the release of 1 ton of CO2. That is 10 times the carbon footprint of beef raised on clear-cut sections of the Amazon forest. 

More Mangrove Problems 

CO2 emissions are far from the only detrimental impact of the destruction of the mangrove forests. Forests at the edge of shorelines help stop coastal erosion and even protect communities from severe weatherDuring the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, communities surrounded by mangrove forests experienced fewer casualties than those without mangroves. 

Mangrove forests also play a role in keeping our oceans and rivers clean by functioning as natural filters for sediment and pollution, and they are an important habitat for many species of fish and animals that don’t exist anywhere else. 

While there are now promising programs in place to farm shrimp in these areas without disturbing the mangrove forests, they continue to be the exception, not the rule. 

Human Rights Concerns 

Human rights issues in the global industrial seafood industry are nothing new, and we’ve known for some time that the shrimp industry in particular uses slave labour – see this article from 2014 – but despite the fact that it was brought to light, this practice (as well as numerous other human rights abuses) continues. In 2018, Human Rights Watch found that migrant fishermen from south-east Asia continued to be routinely trafficked on to fishing boats, prevented from leaving or changing employers, and are often not paid for their work or paid less than the minimum wage. And with a weak or non-existent inspection regime, this is unlikely to change. 

person preparing imported shrimp 

Imported Shrimp Impact on the Community 

When shrimp farms move in, it’s not just the people working in the industry who are affected. These farms often displace local Indigenous fishing communities by privatizing and destroying the mangrove forests these communities rely so heavily upon. Shrimp farm companies fence off the areas they want for their farms, blocking local communities from accessing these areas for traditional uses including fishing, and for sourcing construction materials, firewood, and even traditional medicine. And as if being displaced wasn’t bad enough, members of these communities often face violence if they protest. There have been reports of rape and murder of community activists in Bangladesh, as well as the murder of a fourteen year old protesting a Guatemalan shrimp farm.   

What You Can Do 

While there have been efforts to create certifications for imported shrimp, and there certainly are examples of integrated shrimp-mangrove aquaculture farms that seem to be getting it right, there is not really any way to be sure of what you are getting when it comes to imported seafood. Seafood fraud is still a huge problem in this country with around 40% of seafood mislabeled in some way. The only way to truly know what you’re getting is to buy seafood that comes with the complete story of exactly who caught and processed it, when where, and how.  Because imported seafood travels so far, and changes hands so many times, its story is lost. Knowing this story is crucial to ensuring you’re supporting what you want to support. This is what we’re losing when we lose the right to freeze spot prawns at sea. By removing the option for Canadian consumers to choose these local prawns, the DFO is actually increasing the market for these highly problematic imported prawns.   

Sign Our Petition to Overturn The Frozen Spot Prawn Ban!



Sonia - April 21, 2021

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Frozen Imported Shrimp: What are the implications?

Sonia - April 21, 2021

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