No doubt, many of you are fans of a TV show called Deadliest Catch. For over 15 years now, the show has documented the trials and tribulations of the Bering Sea crab fishery as they haul up various king, opilio (aka “Snow”) and bairdi crabs. I hope – like me – that when you feast on those delectable crustaceans you first take a moment to appreciate the tutorial the show presents as to how those crabs find their way from the sea floor to your table. However, given the (understandable) cost of catching, processing and distributing them, it’s likely you don’t consume them very often. However, we on the east coast have a wonderful local seafood resource to enjoy which just about everyone covets as being top-notch seafood, and that’s caridea, the scientific name for shrimp. But other than how good they taste when served in a proper ice-filled shrimp cocktail glass with the requisite lemon wedge and a dollop of cocktail sauce, what do you really know about shrimp?
I spent over two decades living in the South Carolina low country where shrimp is woven into the fabric of society as much as grits and sweet tea. I had an “office” or sorts in a shack that was located at the end of a dock to which were docked several local shrimping vessels, and in that environment, shrimp were sometimes literally used as currency in all sorts of bartered transactions. Needless to say, getting my shrimp directly off the boat all those years made me a de facto expert on the subject. Remember Forrest Gump’s pal Bubba describing all the myriad ways you can prepare shrimp? Well, that’s the truth. And so prolific were the quantities we so nonchalantly consumed that we actually referred to them as God’s Ocean French Fries.
Let’s start with the basics about the shrimp themselves. They are most commonly caught in the waters of North Carolina southward around the Florida peninsula and up into the Gulf of Mexico across into Texas. There are basically four types of shrimp in those southern waters: white, brown, rock and down in the Gulf pink, with white and brown being the most prevalent. There’s one other that you’ve likely never heard of, royal red shrimp, which are found in extremely deep waters offshore. Royal reds are quite tasty and in the past, there was some market for them but given the cost of harvesting, they are generally disregarded for the more near-shore species. Rock shrimp, which have a carapace (shell) as relatively thick as a lobster, are also found in deeper waters and although they are quite labor-intensive to prepare, for my money I think they taste even better than lobster. But for this discussion, I’m going to concentrate on the white and brown shrimp.
The lifecycle of a shrimp is just that, a cycle, so it’s hard to know exactly where to start, sort of a chicken and egg scenario. I’m not going to go into every minute detail of the developmental stages because that would take pages. But suffice it to say shrimp breed offshore, the little ones move inshore to the marshes where they’re relatively protected to mature, then head back offshore to breed and the cycle then repeats. Now you may be asking yourself, just how does such a small critter move miles and miles, back and forth? The answer is, they surf… sort of. More specifically, they ride the tide. What they do is, when the tide is coming in, they’ll rise to the surface where the tidal movement is more prevalent, then when the tide slacks and starts ebbing out they sink back to the bottom. True, the tides at the lower levels of the water column do carry them backward some so it’s sort of a ‘two steps forward/one step back’ deal, but they eventually get where they’re heading. No one knows for sure exactly how long a shrimp lives or how often it reproduces, but most scientists agree it’s not likely more than 2 years and that pertinent fact comes into play a bit later. In terms of diet, shrimp eat all manner of things and are basically bottom scavengers, and also practice cannibalism. Hey, it’s a tough life in the ocean.
Now for the shrimpers. They get up at God-awful early hours, work their butts off in often brutal heat, live and often party hard and are some of the most self-sufficient, independent people you’ll ever meet. They take care of their own, would give you the shirts off their backs and work nearly year-round dragging their nets, keeping their boats in working order or trying to cope with and understand the volumes of rules, laws and regulations that researchers and regulators continually heap on them.
I think it’s also worth touching upon the shrimp boats themselves. Let’s just say they are expensive to run and maintain, and that’s if nothing breaks. Mending torn nets is a big hassle, too. Given the massive machinery and forces at work when underway in a rolling sea they can also be one of the most dangerous working environments you can imagine. But ask any shrimper (or commercial fisherman for that matter) why they do it and they’ll tell you it beats punching a time clock or being ensconced in some office cubical and they wouldn’t trade their lives with anyone. It’s not for me, but it’s for them, and God bless them for it. Further, many boats have converted themselves from being “ice boats” (where each day they take on a load of fresh ice) to being “freezer boats.” In those cases, the boat is outfitted with a large freezer box on deck which is filled with an icy brine mix into which the freshly caught shrimps are immersed, preserving them in a state just as good as if they were freshly caught. So not surprisingly, many shrimp processors, particularly the mega ones down in the Gulf States, prefer the flash-frozen ones simply for the reason that in very large quantities the weight of a deep vat of shrimp can tend to squish the ones near the bottom. But when frozen, it’s no longer an issue. And, if you use frozen shrimp, always thaw them slowly in ice water for the best results.
No doubt in your local waterfront communities you’ve seen the demise of the local commercial waterfront where commercial fishing fleets of all types are being literally run off the docks. Things like high fuel costs and dwindling waterfront docking and processing facilities lost to re-development are playing a role, and the same thing is happening down south to the shrimping fleets, but the number one threat to their economic success by far is the importation of farm-raised shrimp. That is the practice of raising shrimp in a landlocked pond in countries like Ecuador, Vietnam and China using peasant labor and some questionable if not revolting methods.
Pond-raised shrimp has gained popularity for several reasons. First off, it’s cheap, mainly because it’s cheaper to raise shrimp in a pond with peasants doing the grunt work than to drag nets behind a big expensive shrimp boat offshore. Second, like anything commercially farmed – be it animal or vegetable – the harvest is almost perfectly uniform in size and it’s that uniformity in size that processors and end users like restaurants prefer. Third, the farming and freezing of shrimp means that there’s always a year-round supply.
I don’t know about you but I have a heck of a time keeping my goldfish tank relatively clean so I just can’t imagine how many chemicals it takes to do so in ponds chock full of ravenously feeding shrimps. But it gets even better. In raising any sort of animal, the biggest cost is usually the feed. I’m not sure of the other countries, but the Vietnamese are very industrious and efficient people. They also raise a lot of hogs and as with shrimp, what goes in one end of a hog eventually comes out the other and there’s very little use for the excrement. No doubt you’ve heard stories of problems created by the waste runoff from hog farms in this country polluting adjacent waterways? So, what the Vietnamese figured out was you could really save on some shrimp food and solve the hog waste problem in one fell swoop. (Remember above I told you shrimp are basically scavengers, keeping the ocean bottom clean?) They dig shrimp ponds on the hog farms, build a type of grating over the ponds, and then herd the hogs onto the grating and PRESTO! Free shrimp lunch and happily relieved hogs!! Yummy, huh? NO thanks, not for this shrimp snob. So next time you decide to enjoy some shrimp, read the labels for the country or origin before you buy. There are also several places online where you can buy wild-caught American shrimp. It may cost a bit more but then, what product of real quality doesn’t?