Unsustainable shrimp a jumbo problem

By Dr. Sarah Foster

Project Seahorse researcher Sarah Foster says most of the shrimp we eat are unsustainably harvested. For every kilogram of tropical shrimp caught through trawling the bottom of the ocean, 10 kilograms of other marine life is killed. To protect ocean health, Foster argues that we have to be smart about the shrimp we eat.

How does shrimp harvesting impact our oceans?

Each year around World Oceans Day my family and friends ask 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.

Where do most of our shrimp come from?

Almost all shrimp you buy or get served come from tropical trawl fisheries. This fishing technique “clear cuts” the ocean floor, catching shrimp and everything else in its path. An average of 10 kilos of other marine life is captured and killed for every kilo of tropical shrimp landed. Some of this “other catch” or “bycatch” is kept and sold, but most is turned into fishmeal or fish oil for fertilizer and aquaculture practices. Many of these species could be sources of food for humans but reducing them to plant or animal feed redirects key protein sources away from the people who need it.

The total area of seabed trawled each year is nearly 150 times the area of forest that is clear cut. We criticize clear cutting forests so why don’t we fuss about clear cutting the ocean floor?

Is farmed shrimp a sustainable alternative?

Most shrimp farming is as bad, if not worse, as bottom trawling. Shrimp ponds have destroyed thousands of kilometres of coastal habitats around the world, particularly mangroves, which serve as nurseries to many marine species and help buffer coastal communities from powerful storms. Shrimp farming also pollutes adjacent waters with chemicals and waste, and the salt from the ponds can turn productive land into a desert.

How can we end ocean clear cutting?

Something has to make trawlers change their practice. By buying and eating sustainably sourced shrimp you can help provide the incentive. 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 remains a huge challenge.

Let’s give fisheries an incentive to protect the rest of the bycatch species. 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. 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 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.

Yes, you will pay more for the shrimp you eat but the oceans will pay less for your choices. Your gain is that you will be able to appreciate and eat other marine life for much longer.

On My Desk: Using social marketing to save the world

By Dr. Phil Molloy

When I was growing up, my brother and I used to watch movies about Gangland America. An odd choice for two English country bumpkins, but true nonetheless. One of my favourite quotes from those films is from John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood. Doughboy — Ice Cube’s character — explains why people don’t deal with the problems in his 'hood: “Either they don't know, don't show, or don't care about what's going on in the 'hood.” 

This is my explanation for why the environmental problems facing our seas are, if anything, getting worse. That is, either people don’t know how bad things are, they do know how bad things are but pretend not to because that would be tantamount to admitting they are partly responsible, or they just don’t give a monkey’s.

Perhaps I’m wrong. I hope so. But humour me for a minute and assume I’m right. How, then, do we deal with this depressing situation? This question has come up in a paper some colleagues and I are currently writing. We’ve been considering the role of social marketing in changing people’s behaviour. One of the most thought-provoking papers I’ve read on the topic is "Promoting Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing," a seminal article by the psychologist Doug McKenzie-Mohr, written over a decade ago.  

McKenzie-Mohr explains how we can use social marketing to promote sustainable behaviour. First, he says, of all the things that people could do that would be ‘greener’ than their typical day-to-day behaviours, what would be the most strategic to promote? That is, what behaviour is really going to make a difference? Once we’ve figured out what we want to promote, we need to establish what stops people from adopting these ‘good’ behaviours in the first place. This, in part, is where you solve Doughboy’s conundrum.

You’re determining whether the obstacle is that people don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care. Once you’ve figured this out, you must then work out the best ways to overcome the particular obstacle you face. These basic steps allow a prototype campaign to be designed. Before leaping into a full-blown social-marketing scheme, McKenzie-Mohr strongly advocates running a pilot campaign to check our proposed strategy will work. If the campaign doesn’t prompt the changes in behaviour hoped for, it should be tweaked and re-trialed until success is achieved. 

A good example of a successful social marketing campaign comes from Nova Scotia. To paraphrase the study: 

The provincial government announced a ban on all organic materials from landfills and tasked municipalities throughout the province with developing initiatives to increase composting. In one of the counties, local officials conducted survey research to identify local barriers to backyard composting and determine present levels of the practice. The survey showed that a surprisingly high number of residents were already composting — about 56%. The survey also showed that, among the people who did not compost, many perceived the practice as inconvenient and unpleasant, and lacked the basic knowledge about how to do it.

As part of a pilot program, campaign planners decided to leverage these already high levels of backyard composting by asking local residents who composted to do two things: 1) place a decal on the side of their blue box or garbage container indicating to their neighbours that they were committed to composting, thereby making the practice more visible and more socially acceptable; and 2) encourage neighbours to compost by speaking directly to them about it. Most local residents who composted were happy to place the decal on their bins, but very few were willing to talk to their neighbours. The failure of the second initiative underscored the need for piloting strategies before broad implementation.

Residents who did not compost but expressed an interest in the practice were visited instead by city employees who provided information about how to do it cleanly and effectively. Several months later, 80% of these residents were composting regularly in their backyards. The result of the social marketing campaign was a significant increase in backyard composting and a decrease in organic waste flowing into Nova Scotia’s landfills.

In Doughboy’s terms, an environmental social marketing campaign is a way to make sure that people do know, do show and do care about what’s going on in their ’hoods. But a good campaign will go further — it will make sure that people get stuck in and do something to make a difference.

Sustainability at Shedd Aquarium

By Jennifer Selgrath

Two baby leafy pipefish are zooming around a tank. I try to take pictures and they come out looking like blurry toothpicks. Blimey! They are totally unlike their parents, who hover gently over rocks in the tank just above — cool, calm, and unhurried. I guess some things don’t change between species.  I am in Chicago visiting the John G. Shedd Aquarium, and their aquarist, Erika Lorenz, is kindly giving me a tour. Erika specializes in seahorse husbandry (i.e. feeding, breeding, and caring for seahorses) so she is full of information about seahorses and just about everything else. The Shedd Aquarium is a long-time partner of Project Seahorse, so it is lovely finally be here, seeing their work in action. 

One of the reasons these baby leafy pipefish are so exciting is that the Shedd is committed to exhibiting animals they have sourced sustainably. Seahorses are one species with which they’ve had a lot of success. We walk past tanks that house hundreds of babies. Seahorses are notoriously difficult to rear in captivity, so the birth of these new seahorses counts as a major success. Erika boxes some of the animals in a special container to be shipped to other aquariums around the world. Shedd’s collection includes a number of different species, including spiny, tigertail, and long-snouted seahorses (H. barberi, H. comes, and H. reidi). 

Sourcing fish and other marine and freshwater critters in sustainable ways is incredibly important. Aquarium- and aquaculture-bred animals have a much higher survival rate in captivity than animals that are caught in the wild for captivity. And if too many fish are caught, then the aquarium fishery can have devastating effects on local populations. My friend Malin Pinsky did his PhD research studying clownfish (think “Finding Nemo”) and found that their populations were almost locally extinct close to cities where there were aquarium fisheries.

Shedd sources their leafy pipefish and other species from Australia’s sustainable fisheries. There, one person is allowed to catch three males per year right before they give birth (seadragons, like seahorses, have male pregnancies).

The fisher is allowed to keep and sell the babies – some of which, like the ones I see at Shedd, are raised to adulthood – but he must return the fathers back into their homes in the ocean, thereby maintaining the local population, too. It’s fantastic to see what is possible when an aquarium integrates conservation into their mission.

Jennifer Selgrath is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.

Conservation through the back door

By Jennifer Selgrath

Day two of the International Marine Conservation Congress found me speaking about my Philippines-based research. I was sandwiched in a session of talks between Nishan Perea,  a Project Seahorse researcher based in Sri Lanka, and Felicity Burrows from The Nature Conservancy’s Bahamas’ office.  

All of us work on different aspects of sustainable fisheries and it was fascinating to compare notes from around the world. To set the scene, Nishan has been investigating how changes in Sri Lankan policy have influenced seahorse fishing and trade. Felicity spoke about the Bahamas’ effort to make their lobster-tail fishery sustainable. I study how fishing – legal and illegal — shifts across space and scale, in order to make management and conservation more effective. 

In Sri Lanka and the Bahamas, conservation has been happening in unexpected ways. The changes have been largely driven by seafood exporters with a financial stake in change  – conservation is a side-effect.  The Sri Lankan seahorse fishery has become illegal, and in countries with a thriving black market, that would simply drives the trade in seahorses underground. But in one part of Sri Lanka, an exporter got into the legal, captive-bred seahorse market and decided he made better money selling the seahorses he raised than the ones that he caught illegally in the wild.

In the Bahamas, the exporters decided to certify their fishery as sustainable through the Marine Stewardship Council – a move largely inspired by the European Union’s decision to import only sustainable seafood. Exporters started refusing to buy undersized lobsters, and dinged the fishers with steep fines if they tried to sneak undersized lobsters by.

I am inspired by these tales from other parts of the world!

Jennifer Selgrath is a Ph.D student with Project Seahorse.