Book Review – Shrimp: The Endless Quest for Pink Gold

Shrimp

Shrimp is fancy food for anyone’s dinner table. Boiled, baked, grilled, poached… the culinary possibilities are almost endless, and the low price of shrimp at grocers and superstores makes it easy for us to keep on eating. Yet this abundance of shrimp obscures the true costs of the competing industries that keep supermarkets and restaurants supplied, and those stories are at the center of Jack and Anne Rudloe’s new book Shrimp: The Endless Quest for Pink Gold.

To be honest, I almost shelved this book without finishing it. After an interesting autobiographical introduction about what it is like to work on a shrimp boat, the book attempts to give readers a crash course on the history of shrimping, shrimp taxonomy, and the life cycle of shrimp. Each section is a litany of loosely-connected factoids that seem disconnected from any central narrative. By the time I got to page 80 I was considering moving on to the next book in the review pile.

I decided to give the book one more chapter to change my mind, and I am glad to say that once the authors finish providing background information the quality of the writing greatly improves. In these chapters (six through eleven) the authors describe the grueling work of shrimpers, the controversy over bycatch, the rise of shrimp farming, ecological degradation, and the many uses of chitin (a component of shrimp exoskeletons), all the while sharing tidbits of shrimp biology. While a hurricane might be disastrous for a fleet of shrimp boats, for instance, the storms kick up enough sand and detritus that shrimp come out of hiding to feed. Whatever boats can get out to shrimp will have a better chance of taking in a good haul, so there is some truth to the shrimping success of Forrest Gump after all.

As the authors note, however, American shrimpboats are rare these days. Dozens of boats and local shrimp processing plants have been destroyed by recent hurricanes, and aquaculturists in Thailand and China have been supplying so many shrimp for such low prices that local shrimp boats can’t compete. This trouble is compounded by runoff from inland farms that feed the expanding ocean dead zones. These toxic spots isolate shrimp in areas where they do not grow as well, making it even harder for shrimpers to take in a good catch. If you are having shrimp for dinner tonight, chances are it came from a distant shrimp farm.

Yet shrimpers are not just victims of ecological destruction. They have also been perpetrators of it. “Bycatch”, a word referring to the numerous sea creatures caught in shrimp nets but have no commercial value, has been a problem for years. Crabs, fish, sea turtles, and even whales have wound up dead in shrimp nets, and they only seem to be of value to the gulls and sharks that follow the shrimp boats to get an easy meal. Recent initiatives and technological innovations have helped to stem the problem, but shrimp boats still kill many marine organisms that they had no intention of catching. Additionally, some shrimpers have destroyed coral reefs and other underwater habitats to create sites more amenable to shrimp. While there has been a crackdown on these activities it will be decades before the natural marine gardens grow back.

The most frustrating thing about these discussions, however, is that the Rudloes refrain from taking sides. They describe some of the problems with shrimp farming and shrimp boats but they do not discuss what can or should be done to lessen the harmful environmental effects of these practices. How can we make things better without abstaining from shrimp altogether? These issues could probably feed an entirely different book (akin to Trevor Corson’s excellent The Secret Life of Lobsters), and even though the coverage in Shrimp was abbreviated I had hoped that the authors would provide some insight into how we might reduce the damage done by our attempts to bring the crustaceans to the dinner table. An appendix on where to get sustainable seafood, for example, would have been an excellent addition.

Such problems are relatively minor next to the book’s lack of a central story, however. Each chapter presents a series of interesting vignettes that do not seem to be connected to any sort of narrative. Rather than telling the story of shrimp the authors simply discussed each topic in turn until there was nothing left to cover.

Despite these drawbacks, however, the latter portions of Shrimp can be very enjoyable. The way we catch and consume shrimp has drastically changed during the last fifty years alone, and in their book their Rudloes have documented a number of the controversies these changes have spurred. It is a book that makes you think about where those popcorn shrimp on your plate came from, and when we understand where our food comes from we can start to make better choices about how we cultivate and collect it.

[Many thanks to Pearson for sending me a review copy of Shrimp.]

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