The featured documentary by Earth Focus,1 an environmental investigative news magazine, reveals the toxic sides of the shrimp and smart phone industries.
Aquaculture promotes itself as a sustainable solution to overfishing. But in reality, seafood farms cause as many problems as they solve, and may even be making matters worse. There's really little difference, in terms of environmental pollution, between land-based feedlots and water-based ones.
As documented in the featured video, low fish stocks in the wild has led to illegal fishing—some of it within national park waters off the coast of Thailand—an area that now supplies much of the fish meal to feed factory farmed animals, including farmed shrimp and prawns.
Yes, immature tropical fish is now being turned into shrimp food. This has devastating effects on the ecosystem, and more...
Aquaculture—Not as Sustainable as You Might Think
Carnivorous sea animals, such as prawns, need fish in their diet. Since overfishing has led to declining fish stocks, much of this needed protein is sourced from so-called "trash fish," collected by trawlers off the coast of south east Asia.
Fish that are still too small to be edible are indiscriminately caught in bottom-dragging trawling nets, and are then "left to rot in the holds of vessels for days or weeks on end," according to investigators.
This rotting fish is then sold and transported to processing plants, where they're washed, cooked, and ground into fish meal. Even rare shark species, sea sponges, starfish, and octopi end up as fish feed in this process.
Catching small, immature fish reduces fish stocks. Bigger fish are also left without a suitable food source. The end result is rapidly decreasing fish stocks for human consumption. In short, the entire balance in nature is being destroyed.
"Touted as a solution to overfishing, this investigation has found that the feed used in industrial shrimp aquaculture in Thailand is indirectly driving illegal fishing, ecological destruction, and chronic human rights abuses,"the film states.
Environmental and Social Impacts of Shrimp Farming in Bangladesh
Tropical prawns are popular across the Western world. But there are many hidden costs to this delicacy.
The poverty-stricken region of Khulna is the leading producer of prawns in Bangladesh, the majority of which are exported overseas. In this area, many native farmers have lost their land to industrial shrimp farms, and once fertile crop land now lies buried under manmade prawn ponds, owned by non-locals.
Natural resources are being gobbled up at breakneck speed; nothing can be grown; cattle cannot be raised, and the local population is sinking ever deeper into poverty, unable to live off the land. Even infrastructure such as roads is being destroyed in the process.
The investigation also found evidence of illegal, toxic pesticides being routinely used to farm shrimp destined for the European market, including a chemical sold under the name Hildan (endosulfan, a broad spectrum insecticide), which is banned in Bangladesh and more than 80 other countries due to its environmental toxicity.
It's known to be particularly toxic to the aquatic ecosystem, impacting the entire food chain, from the smallest to the largest aquatic sea life. In humans, exposure has been linked to brain damage, cancer, and Parkinson's disease. It may also increase the risk of autism.
Antibiotics are also routinely added to the shrimp feed, as described in the report, Suspicious Shrimp, by Food and Water Watch.2 And just as in cattle and poultry, antibiotic use in aquatic farming promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant disease.
In 2010, a British film crew also uncovered disturbing evidence of "routine adulteration" of shrimp sold to the European market from Bangladesh. Shrimp may be secretly injected with dirty water to add weight, which increases profit...
Combating the Anti-Development Movement
Aquaculture is promoted as necessary for development in underdeveloped countries such as Bangladesh. But is it really helping anyone? The evidence tells us no...
A woman named Khushi Kabir is the coordinator for Nijera Kori, a movement of more than 200,000 people who have been affected by the industrial shrimp industry in Bangladesh.
"People who are living in areas where shrimp are cultivated are being completely devoid of their livelihoods," Kabir says. "It's a system that is totally non-sustainable—and just to provide some food for people to be able to eat cheaply in the consumer countries. How can that be development?"
As noted by one man inside the anti-shrimp farm movement: "I would like to tell consumers that these shrimp are produced by harassing poor people. By sucking their blood, by looting their resources, by taking away their land from them to produce shrimp. To stop the blood bath here, I would request that consumers do not touch shrimp."
Another Bangladeshi woman says: "My request to my brothers in foreign lands, if you can stop eating shrimp from our country, then there is a chance for us to live. If you do not stop eating shrimp, then we have no other way to life; we will die."
The Environmental and Economic Impact of Tin Mining for Smart Phones and Electronics
The last part of the video covers the environmental and economic impact of tin mining for smart phones and electronics. The demand for tin has skyrocketed, fueling "a wild West economy" of new miners searching for earth minerals across the globe.
This includes Bangka in Indonesia, situated between Sumatra and Borneo, where nearly one-third of the entire global tin supply is currently produced. Much of this tin is used for solder, a key component in virtually all modern electronics. But again, there's a steep and hidden cost to the environment.
In Bangka, thousands of mining sites scar the island, leaving behind barren muddy quagmires—eyesores at best; ecological suicide at worst. Groundwater supplies are being polluted to the point of being undrinkable, and valuable farm land and forests are being lost. The natural habitat of native wildlife has been irrevocably altered as well.
New reserves of tin are also being sourced off-shore, under the seabed. Seabed mining from platforms is now being blamed for a number of new problems, including the destruction of coral reefs and entire aquatic ecosystems. The already endangered green sea turtle is also deeply threatened by tin mining operations—to the point that at the time of filming (circa 2012), not a single green sea turtle nest had been found on the island... According to Friends of The Earth, Apple and Samsung almost certainly use solder sourced from the island of Bangka, and the campaign group is calling for both companies to be more transparent about their sourcing of minerals.
How Can You Tell if Your Seafood Is Sustainably Sourced?
Under the US federal Country of Origin Labeling Law, also known as COOL, fresh seafood must disclose where the food was farmed or caught. However, this rule does not apply to processed foods, including seafood that is boiled, breaded, or added to packaged meals. Nearly half of all shrimp sold in the US are processed and therefore do not bear country of origin labels. Restaurants are also exempt from this labeling requirement.
This means that unless you're buying unprocessed seafood, it's virtually impossible to tell where it came from. There are no easy answers to any of the issues brought up in the featured film, but I believe it would be wise to avoid ALL farmed seafood—both shrimp and fish—for a number of reasons. Even if it doesn't come from impoverished areas where people are abused during the course of production, like Bangladesh, aquafarms are an environmental disaster, and farmed seafood is inferior from a quality standpoint as well.
You can also look for products certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). This certification assures that every component of the manufacturing process – from how the raw materials are harvested to how the product is manufactured – has been scrutinized by MSC and has been independently audited to ensure it meets sustainable standards. All of my krill products, for example, are MSC certified, allowing you to track where the krill oil came from in the Antarctic Ocean, as each batch of krill is carefully monitored all the way through, from catch to sale.
Best Seafood Options: Wild Alaskan and Sockeye Salmon
It's become quite clear that shrimp and fish farms are not a viable solution to overfishing. If anything, they're making matters worse, destroying the entire marine ecosystem at a far more rapid clip to boot... So what's the answer? Unfortunately, the vast majority of fish—even when wild caught—is too contaminated to eat on a frequent basis. Most major waterways in the world are contaminated with mercury, heavy metals, and chemicals like dioxins, PCBs, and other agricultural chemicals that wind up in the environment.
This is why, as a general rule, I no longer recommend getting your omega-3 requirements from fish. However, I do make two exceptions. One is authentic, wild-caught Alaskan sockeye salmon; the nutritional benefits of which I believe still outweigh any potential contamination. The risk of sockeye accumulating high amounts of mercury and other toxins is reduced because of its short life cycle, which is only about three years. Additionally, bioaccumulation of toxins is also reduced by the fact that it doesn't feed on other, already contaminated, fish. The two designations you want to look for on the label are:
Neither is allowed to be farmed, and are therefore always wild-caught. My favorite brand is Vital Choice Wild Seafood and Organics, which offers a nice variety of high-quality salmon products that test high for omega-3 fats and low for contaminants. Canned salmon labeled "Alaskan salmon" is a less expensive alternative to salmon fillets. To be on the safe side, whenever I consume fish I also take a handful of chlorella tablets along with it.
The chlorella is a potent mercury binder and if taken with the fish will help bind the mercury before you are able to absorb it, so it can be safely excreted in your stool. The second exception is smaller fish with short lifecycles, which also tend to be better alternatives in terms of fat content, so it's a win-win situation — lower contamination risk and higher nutritional value. A general guideline is that the closer to the bottom of the food chain the fish is, the less contamination it will have accumulated. Good choices include sardines, anchovies, and herring.