Say it's Cajun cooking night around the homestead, and you're making your way down the aisle of your local grocer looking for ingredients to accompany that nice andouille made from pasture-raised pork you bought at the farmers market.
You snag some okra—organic, of course—and aromatic basmati rice. And then you spin over to the frozen food aisle and grab a bag of crustaceans grown in faraway, fetid pools laced with antibiotics and who knows what else.
The shrimp in the bright frozen package are the product of an industry that is systematically destroying mangrove forests and, with that, ruining the traditional fishing waters along the coasts of several developing countries. As the Environmental Defense Fund, Food & Water Watch and several other environmental organizations have pointed out, imported shrimp, mostly farm-raised, is about as un-local and unsustainable a product as you can find. But man, is it ever cheap, so cheap the U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that imported shrimp, most of it farm raised, now accounts for roughly 90 percent of U.S. sales.
Individual consumption is on the rise as a result. Ten years ago, shrimp claimed the title to chicken of the sea when it topped tuna as the most consumed seafood. On average, Americans now consume about 4 pounds per person each year.
It's no longer considered "fancy" eating. Shrimp cocktail used to be five or six jumbos over ice. Now it's a ring of three dozen, rubbery but perfectly uniform comma shapes arranged on a stylish black plastic serving tray.
Like pork, beef, chicken and other food raised on a massive scale, shrimp significantly harm the environment. A host of environmental organizations have decried the destruction of mangrove forests resulting from shrimp farming operations. There are also worries about antibiotics and other chemicals used in the ponds, as well as the ability of U.S. food inspectors to adequately monitor overseas farming practices.
Some foreign operators are trying to buck that negative image by adopting more sustainable practices, especially as grocers like Whole Foods, Target and others require their suppliers to adhere to fair trade and best practices agreements. Last year, the Seafood Watch program run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium approved its first major farm-raised shrimp importer, a sign that suppliers and the food-service industry are getting as serious about the sustainability of shrimp as they are about other seafood.
Meanwhile, the domestic shrimp industry is scrambling to reposition itself in the face of new competition. The foreign supplies may have helped make shrimp more popular, but that hasn't translated to a boon for domestic shrimpers. On the contrary, when adjusted for inflation, shrimp prices have fallen to 1960s levels. In 2003, as imported shrimp flooded the market, the dock price for N.C. shrimp fell below $2 a pound. Today, depending on quality, it can easily be half that.
Domestic shrimpers in the southeast Atlantic region have banded together to try to market what they see as their advantages, which dovetail neatly with a locally grown narrative. A recent ad campaign touting the Wild American Shrimp—the generic brand name for wild-caught shrimp from the southeastern states—targets the difference between foreign and U.S. shrimp with taglines like "The shrimp you thought you were eating." In promoting American wild-caught shrimp, both state and federal marketing efforts have been aimed not just at raising consumer awareness but in trying to convince restaurants and grocers to forgo foreign shrimp as well.
Lantern chef and author Andrea Reusing says while she and others may support the idea, converting much of the restaurant market to domestic shrimp will be daunting, even among people who wouldn't consider buying factory-raised pork. "When it comes to buying shrimp, it's out of sight, out of mind," she says.
At Lantern, Reusing tries to source her shrimp as close to the Carolina coast as she can: "There's something weird about getting that big block of frozen shrimp from halfway around the world."
It is not always easy. When cooked right, Carolina shrimp are hard to beat for flavor and texture, but consistency varies in freshness and handling. Reusing says that the factory-farm boom, which delivers a consistent year-round product, loses the natural cycle of the shrimp haul. "People don't conceive of it being seasonal anymore."
In North Carolina, improving consistency of the product has been coordinated with attempts to better market local shrimp. That means hauling in nets more often, which reduces damage to the catch, and improved on-boat storage and sorting, among other practices.
But making headway in a low-price environment has been difficult for local shrimpers.
"There's not a restaurant that sells local shrimp around here," says Jimmy Phillips, whose father started Clyde Phillips Seafood in Swansboro in the early 1950s. "They just buy the processed shrimp from their frozen food supplier."
After pausing for a moment, he reconsiders. "Well, I'm at least 90 percent right in saying that."
Phillips runs a handful of boats ranging from the 78-foot Captain Phillips to small skimmer rigs from the company's docks and retail store on the White Oak River. The company mainly works the Pamlico Sound and sells most of its catch to individuals at retail prices or wholesale to other seafood shops.
Fuel prices continue to be the biggest concern. "The worst pressure we feel is when fuel prices go up as they have been," Phillips says. "You're not able to shrimp as much. Sometimes there are too few [shrimp] to pay you to go out."
According to the annual catch report by the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, last year North Carolina's shrimpers took in nearly 6 million pounds of shrimp valued at about $10.7 million. Shrimp rank third behind blue crabs and Atlantic croaker by weight and typically place second behind crabs in dollar value. The per-pound value of the catch has varied over the past several years from $1.59 per pound in 2006 to $2 per pound two years later. Squeezed between fuel prices and cheap competition, the state's shrimpers realize only a fraction of that per-pound value, measuring their take on each pound in pennies. It's an industry where volume counts.
Each season presents its own challenges. "You have to remember that there's a new crop of shrimp every year, and weather by far is the biggest factor," Phillips says.
A cold winter wiped out the early season for white and spotted shrimp. Waters opened at the end of May for brown shrimp season; shrimpers are monitoring the weather and the growth cycle.
The last few weeks have been relatively slow on the sound, which has often been blanketed with a thick haze from nearby wildfires, making it a difficult time to be on the water. But all that's due to change soon, during what Phillips says is shaping up to be a promising brown shrimp season. "Next month," he says, "there will be a hundred boats in the Pamlico."
And up and down the coast, vacationers inspired by the sight of shrimp trawlers with their trademark dragonfly nets working the waters will pad down to the local all-you-can-eat buffet for heaping mounds of seafood harvested an ocean away.