I never ate shrimp on any regular basis when I was a kid. I really don’t remember having prawns as part of any childhood meal, certainly before man landed on the moon, the commercial introduction of the jumbo jet, and probably not until after Elvis’s untimely death. In the ‘70s a shrimp cocktail was the fancy appetizer of choice when you could afford to take a girl out on one of those rare real dates that included nourishment—also if she was fortunate enough to be allowed a starter. Nevertheless I found that I loved the stuff: At corporate functions a few years later in the ‘80s I could usually be found, drink in hand, in prawn proximity. Ah the lure of that bitter, crimson, horse-radished glop, complemented by freshly sliced lemons.
Since then, it seems that I’ve been living in shrimptopia, with large circular aluminum plates festooned with magnificent pink swirls of marine decapod crustaceans on a bed of smashed ice, continually within arm’s reach. Even when I find myself occasionally and inexplicably in a supermarket, there are shrimper dishes apparently everywhere: little blue or white rectangular plastic-wrapped polystyrene plates, packed with tiny anemic de-shelled prawns, identifiable only by their naturally convenient little red finger-food tails. Furthermore, the small frozen ones are dead cheap and they taste ok with a splosh of lemon and a dollop of magic sauce.
Sadly, I’ve never really thought to question the sheer abundance, availability, affordability and wholesomeness of this agreeable source of sustenance. I read online newspapers daily, I’m generally curious by nature and I travel a lot; heck I’m even a fairly avid diver and snorkeler. I always thought that shrimp was a good thing all around: nutritious, copiously available, and harvested honestly, in all weather by solid guys like Lieutenant Dan. Yet only now has it come to my full attention that I have been instrumental in helping to build the Death Star, one prawn at a time: One big modern-day Molotov cocktail.
Staying recently at the fabulous Tangalooma resort on Australia’s Moreton Island, I was engaging in various aquatic and other healthy outdoor activities: snorkeling the wrecks, whale watching, feeding the wild dolphins and so on. Between these marvelous activities I spent an hour in Tangalooma’s marine education center, which was fairly rudimentary though informative on ocean-saving topics ranging from turtle troubles to shark suffering. However, one small laminated flyer on the center’s window really caught my attention, and had the elevator speech on shrimp farming.
As I was now to understand, prawns were not good for my cholesterol, were processed by Asian slaves, and ultimately responsible for ongoing decimation of the world’s mangrove forests. Say what? Well I had read about the Thailand slavery issue a few months earlier and the European Union’s import ban threats, but the tropical shrubbery destruction was news to me, and since then I’ve read up on it a bit, and basically Asian shrimp farming appears to be responsible for obliterating large tracts of mangrove forest. I won’t repeat all the stats as they are a few clicks away for anyone, but those that jumped out at me are: five square miles of mangrove devastation yields only a few pounds of shrimp, after ten years the depleted land is useless for another forty, and twenty percent of the world’s mangrove forests are now lost to this inefficient practice (many sources including treehugger.com). Furthermore, when compared to the carbon footprint of beef raised to the detriment of tropical rainforest, shrimping is ten times worse! That’s ten times worse than pretty darn bad already. To me, these inefficiencies and collateral damage are truly staggering in any reasonable analysis of twenty-first century agriculture practices. The stats are also ugly for wild catch: For every two pounds of prawns that make it to your table, there are twenty-six pounds of ill-fated, unused by-catch.
So that’s it, I’m afraid. Deal me out on prawn Provencal and Szechwan shrimp and I must apologize to mother earth for unwittingly treating her like dirt these past few decades. I may be one step closer to veganism, but certainly slightly closer towards more responsible global citizenry. I thought I was doing my part already with all the recycling, energy efficient practices, and blacklisting other dodgy food sources, but the Cajun shrimp casserole came at me out of nowhere.