Out for dinner recently at a Spanish restaurant downtown, trying to decide whether to order the paella, I asked the chef where he buys his shrimp. He was proud to tell me how much he cares about sustainability, and that all his other seafood is Oceanwise-approved. But the shrimp was from Indonesia and “pretty much grown in poison,” he spat out. Customers want big shrimp, he said, shaking his head, but they don’t want to pay for them.
We’ve gradually come to care about how our beef is raised, who stitches together our clothes and the carbon footprint of our strawberries. We want to know the number of bluefin tuna in the ocean and whether our chicken sandwiches are sold by homophobes. But shrimp? Not yet. People, for the most part, don’t care. But they should. Of the many problems with the global shrimp trade, the worst involve actual slavery and human trafficking. As the Guardian has reported, Burmese and Cambodian immigrants are forced to work 20-hour days on Thai and Indonesian boats, kept awake with amphetamines, chained, beaten and murdered. These aren’t mere allegations: CP Foods, the world’s biggest shrimp farmer (for clients that include Walmart and Costco), have conceded that slavery is part of the supply chain. The company promised to change their practices, no longer buying the “trash fish” from slave boats that’s ground into food for farmed shrimp. But a year after that story out of Thailand comes further news from Indonesia reported by the Associated Press, of slaves fishing for shrimp that’s then dumped onto trucks bound for international seafood suppliers.