Retail giants Walmart and Costco are dealing with the fallout from a Guardian investigation that has uncovered the use of slaves in the production of shrimp that they buy from Thailand. Migrant workers, who thought they were going to work in factories, told of being bought by boat captains and then enslaved, suffering terrible conditions and extreme violence—even of seeing fellow slaves tortured and killed. The trawlers they are forced to work on—often for years—scoop up “trash fish” which is then ground into fishmeal to feed industrial shrimp farms, including those owned by the world’s largest shrimp farmer, Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, which sells to US retailers and food manufacturers. The companies involved are all obviously saying this isn’t acceptable and they are taking corrective action, while even the state department considers whether to blacklist Thailand for human trafficking.
Even without accusations of slavery, the industrial farming of shrimp looks pretty ugly and has come under attack for trashing the environment: The destruction of mangrove forests, the bottom trawling that sweeps away whole habitats, the use of harmful chemicals and antibiotics and damaging egg harvesting practices that decrease wild populations. It’s part of the race to produce the cheapest food at the greatest profit, no matter the cost.
In Oregon we are somewhat blessed in that our native pink shrimp, which is caught wild off the coast, is considered sustainable both by Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), largely because the trawlers don’t bottom trawl and measures are taken to reduce the bycatch (though there aren’t any quotas to restrict catches). The shrimping season is limited to April through October to reduce the impact on the shrimps’ reproduction.
So, yeah, it’s down to choice—our choice. Portland is full of restaurants and bars that source their ingredients responsibly and fishmongers such as the Flying Fish Company only deal in sustainable seafood. Pink shrimp aren’t available year round (maybe they should be treated like a seasonal vegetable and revered all the more?) but the MSC and Seafood Watch have alternatives to avoid cheap Thai shrimp. At times it may be inconvenient, but it's not difficult. The other option is to take part in a dirty, murderous and destructive industry. As Wendell Berry wrote, “One reason to eat responsibly is to live free.”