Hugh’s trash talk casts a shadow over shrimp

Published on
March 7, 2013

It’s fair to say Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s “Fish Fight: Save Our Seas” TV program has been derided by many connected with the U.K. seafood industry for its lack of solid scientific evidence, and yet it did leave one notable bad taste in consumers’ mouths with an attack on the shrimp feed sector.

The main objective of the latest three-episode Fish Fight documentary was to urge U.K. government to implement 127 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the country’s coastal waters. While the series finale was a march on parliament in London, the swansong episode also saw the campaigning chef visit Thailand to investigate what he called, “the link between our love of king prawns (shrimp) and the devastation of these hugely overfished waters.”

Fearnley-Whittingstall’s main gripe was with the use of so-called “trash fish” in cheap fish feeds, which are then supplied to shrimp producers as well as pig and poultry farmers. Trash fish are generally the low-end of fishermen’s catch, comprising small, bony, unwanted fish and crustaceans and his program estimated that around 25 percent of Thailand’s marine catch ends up being turned into fishmeal.

“Most of our king prawns come from Asia, where they are farmed on an industrial scale and what they are being fed on is a mounting concern because it is contributing to the final depletion of these already extremely overfished waters,” said Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Scientists have estimated that the waters around Thailand are being overfished by 250 percent, the program said. It added that most of the big fish there had “already been wiped out” and that the fishery was close to “a total collapse.”

“Although the exact recipe of each company’s prawn feed is a closely guarded secret, we do know that the industry uses a lot of what has come to be known as ’trash fish,’” said Fearnley-Whittingstall. His biggest concern being that trawlers targeting this fishmeal-in-waiting, some of which were operating in MPAs, left nothing behind.

“The end product isn't cheap. But it is being consumed in huge quantities and the market is growing. The more the market grows, the more the demand for feed to raise prawns in these ponds — that's where the squeeze is and that's where the real problem is environmentally.”

Fearnley-Whittingstall’s said he was convinced that to give those seas a chance to recover, people need to put pressure on the companies that control the fishmeal industry. “They need to commit to using only sustainable and legally-caught fish in their feeds.”

To put a face to the problem, he singled out Thai feed and food giant CP Foods as a major miscreant and alleged that it was using illegally-caught fish in its feeds — something that CP has since denied. However, in his attack on CP he attempted to name and shame the supermarket chains Tesco, Co-op and Morrison’s which source shrimp and other products from the company and urged viewers to Tweet the message “What are your prawns eating?” to the retailers’ respective Twitter accounts. So far, more than 40,000 messages have been sent.

Shrimp is the United Kingdom’s favorite shellfish by some considerable margin, with Brits eating around 50,000 metric tons of them each year. But with his call to arms declaration: “If you eat prawns and they are not organically farmed then you are part of this global problem,” Fearnley-Whittingstall’s sets out to taint that affection.

As already documented on SeafoodSource, like CP, the aforementioned supermarkets were fairly swift to issue statements that clarify their respective shrimp buying policies and their sustainable sourcing commitments, but their collective voice is nowhere near as loud as that of Fish Fight or Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Only time will tell if shrimp is now sullied in some consumers’ eyes. But with considerable outrage still surrounding the European horsemeat scandal and a new study claiming a link between processed meat and cardiovascular disease and cancer grabbing the headlines last week, there will surely be seafood industry members in the United Kingdom and beyond hoping the subject of shrimp feeds falls quickly from consumer consciousness.

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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