The Vancouver Sun Sarah Foster 5 June 2014

It’s a small thing. It’s an easy thing. And it’s arguably the best thing we can do to make a difference to the oceans.

Each year around World Ocean’s Day, family and friends ask me what they can do to make a difference to the health of our oceans. My answer? Don’t eat shrimp or prawns unless you know they have been sustainably sourced. Most aren’t.

Almost all shrimp you buy come from tropical trawl fisheries. Bottom trawling essentially clear cuts the ocean floor, catching shrimp and everything else in its path. An average of at least ten kilos of other marine life — often more — is captured and killed for every kilo of tropical shrimp landed. Some of this “other catch” or “bycatch” is kept and sold as is, but most is turned into fish meal or fishoil for fertilizer and aquaculture practices. Many of these species could instead be sources of food for humans and reducing them to plant or animal feed re-directs key protein sources away from the people that need it.

This is a crazy use of valuable marine life when so many of the world’s fisheries are overexploited. We should be looking after fish and invertebrates for their sake and for the sake of our own food security.

Trawl fishing also destroys critical marine habitats. The total area of seabed trawled each year is nearly 150 times the area of forest that is clearcut. We criticize forest clearcuts so why aren’t we making a fuss about clear cutting the ocean floor?

One problem is that out of sight is out of mind and few people have witnessed the waste of trawl fishing practices. I have seen it firsthand as I spent six months living aboard shrimp trawlers in the Gulf of California, Mexico studying the impact of trawl fishing on small fish. Everyday I watched the nets dump the ocean’s hidden treasures onto the boat deck. Some days the ratio of “other” to shrimp was as high as 70:1. I had to look really hard to see the shrimp among all the other marine life. I was also shocked when we landed a net full of another trawler’s discards — several dozen rays, already dead and scarred by mesh. That was a bad sign for the ocean and for the fishers who had wasted precious resources to catch stuff that had just been chucked away.

The best solution to the trawl bycatch problem is to keep trawlers out of large tracts of the ocean to help offset the ecological costs of fishing almost everywhere else. But something still has to be done to make trawlers change their practice. Shrimp trawlers around the world now carry Turtle Excluder Devices because the U.S. won’t import their shrimp if they don’t. Although implementation of these devices remains a challenge in some places, the point remains that the demands of a powerful import market influenced fishing practices. By buying or eating sustainably sourced shrimp, you too can provide the incentive to restrict bottom trawling and protect the bycatch.

It might be disappointing to learn that farmed shrimp are not a sustainable alternative. Most shrimp farming is as bad if not worse than bottom trawling. Shrimp ponds have destroyed thousands of kilometres of coastal habitats around the world, particularly mangroves. Mangroves are nurseries to many marine species but also help buffer coastal communities from ever more powerful storms. Shrimp farming also pollutes adjacent waters with chemicals and waste, and the salt from the ponds can turn formally productive land into a desert.

So be smart about the shrimp you eat. Thankfully in Canada this is easier than in many places. Most of Canada’s shrimp fisheries are considered to be ecologically sustainable with minimal bycatch, although some use otter trawls which can severely damage sea floor habitats. Canada is home to one of the most sustainable prawn fisheries in the world — the B.C. spot prawn fishery. This fishery uses traps that do not result in as much bycatch or habitat damage. We also have programs like Oceans Wise that will tell you if the shrimp you want to buy for the barbecue or order in a restaurant won’t harm the oceans they come from.

Shrimp should be something special we eat in celebration of special events like World Oceans Day! Fortunately the timing coincides with the B.C. spot prawn season. Yes, you will pay more for the shrimp you eat but the oceans will pay less for your choices. Your long-term gain will be appreciating and eating other marine life for much longer.

Sarah Foster is a research associate at The Fisheries Centre of The University of British Columbia, and program manager for the marine conservation organization Project Seahorse (www.projectseahorse.org)