Selfish Shellfish?

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Selfish Shellfish: The Global Demand for the Smallest Crustacean Leads to the Biggest Environmental Exploitation?

Documentaries such as Seaspiracy have sparked global conversations regarding the environmental impacts of the fishing industry. While there is immense value in assessing how an industry as a whole can influence the environment, there is a risk that such generalizations can disregard nuances that individual species experience. In an attempt to ensure that the smallest of creatures are not overlooked, this post is dedicated to understanding trends in shrimp production, its impacts on the environment, and whether high yielding countries should be regulated in order to uphold global sustainability agreements.

Aquaculture refers to the farming of fish and other aquatic organisms through breeding, raising, and harvesting in order to yield commercial products (NOAA, 2021).  Typically, shrimp aquaculture is considered to be less harmful than other forms of agriculture, urban development, or industrialization (Páez-Osuna, 2001).

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However, an overwhelming lack in regulations within the industry, has resulted in the environmental degradation of coastal regions around the world (Páez-Osuna, 2001). Between 1 and 1.5 million hectares of coastal lowlands have been cultivated to establish shrimp aquaculture sites (Páez-Osuna, 2001). This level of ecosystem takeover to construct ‘shrimp ponds’ has severely threatened mangrove and marsh ecosystems worldwide (Páez-Osuna, 2001). The takeover of mangrove or marsh ecosystems to create commercial shrimp harvesting grounds impedes on the ability for other aquatic species to use these habitats as nurseries or as an area for refuge (Páez-Osuna, 2001). Consequently, entire habitats and the species that rely on them are at risk from suffering from the adverse impacts of shrimp aquaculture.First it was crucial to gain an understanding in shrimp production trends in order to assess the relevance of shrimp farming in the industry. Data from the National Ecological Footprint accounts was used to analyze trends in shrimp production over time.

As is depicted in the graph above, the proportion of shrimp produced through farming became the predominant method of shrimp harvesting in 2003. The rapid increase in proportion of shrimp farmed demonstrates that shrimp farming is a production method that is, and will continue to be, heavily relied upon. This indicates that an analysis on the commercial demands for shrimp product and the impacts of shrimp harvesting is critically needed.

Data from the recently published National Ecological Footprint accounts was used to identify the highest producers of shrimp in the world for 2018. This was calculated by summing total ‘Shrimp Caught’ and ‘Shrimp Aquaculture’ stats provided by each country. The accounts revealed that the world’s top five producers of shrimp in order are: China, Mexico, Argentina, United States of America, and Indonesia. This is a change in data from 2017  as China, Ecuador, Mexico, Argentina, and the United States of America were listed as the top five producing countries. Naturally, the next question that follows is “what harvesting practices each country used in order to amount their high yields of shrimp produce?”. This graph also demonstrates that in some of the top producing countries, shrimp farming is predominantly used to in order to obtain their high produce yields.

A question that comes to mind is what are the demands on shrimp supply that lead these countries to have such high production rates? Consumption habits may influence production per country. Therefore, understanding supply and demand trends can be significant when identifying opportunities to improve sustainability within an industry. The graph below compares total production and consumption for each of the leading countries in the shrimp industry.

Consumption was calculated using data submitted by each country to the National Footprint accounts using the formula (Total Shrimp Produced + Imports) – Exports.

This image demonstrates that in some of the leading countries shrimp production is a response to the consumption demand within the country (China and Mexico). However, it also identifies countries in which production is for trade rather than consumption (Argentina). In last years study, the 2017 data showed that the United States was a top producing country however their demand significantly surpassed their supply and therefore indicated the country relies on imports of shrimp products. However, as can be noted above, the 2018 data seems to show more equal production and consumption habits. Indonesia’s consumption calculated was intriguing as the data stated that they exported more tonnes of shrimp than were produced within the country. This is a significant difference from previous years and warrants further inspection.

The United Nations Sustainable Development goal 14 (Life Below Water) aims to address various sustainability issues regarding the world’s oceans (UNDP, 2021). Namely, 30% of the world’s fish stalks are being overexploited surpassing estimates for sustainable yields (UNDP, 2021). Enforcing sustainable practices or regulations for high shrimp producing countries is an area of research that needs to be explored, and soon, before extensive or permanent damage to the world’s mangroves and marshlands is experienced. This does initiate a controversial discussion about industry responsibility. Should countries that rely on high shrimp imports for consumption be regulated to ease demand on global supplies? Should countries that rely on exporting large quantities to meet global demands be regulated for environmental exploitation? Is there a way to regulate international supply and demand trends in relation to the stress that consumption habits may have on shrimp aquaculture environments? These are the reflections that the data inspires and definitely require further inspection.



NOAA. (2021). What is aquaculture?. U.S. Department of Commerce.

Páez-Osuna, F. (2001). The environmental impact of shrimp aquaculture: a global perspective. Environmental pollution, 112(2), 229-231.

UNDP. (2021). Goal 14: Life Below Water.