Americans eat more than a billion pounds of shrimp a year, or about four pounds each, which is nearly double what they consumed 20 years ago. It’s now America’s favorite seafood, surpassing the long reigning king of the can, tuna.
Until the mid-1980s all the shrimp consumed in the United States was wild and sourced from thriving family-run shrimping businesses located along the Gulf of Mexico and southern Atlantic shores. But as cheap farmed seafood began coming to the market, many shrimpers were unable to make a living wage and left the industry. Today, only 15 to 20 percent of the shrimp we consume is wild and from American waters. After numerous disasters including hurricanes and the Gulf Oil Spill of 2010, that number has decreased even more.
Greater than 80 percent of our shrimp (850 million pounds) comes from farms in Asia and South America. However, the Food and Drug Administration recently curbed the sale of shrimp from China, the largest supplier of fish to the United States, over concerns about food safety. Several southern states, which have their own shrimp and catfish farms, have also blocked the sale of some Chinese seafood.
Capitalizing on the growing concern over farmed shellfish, American shrimpers, helped by restaurants and chefs, are waging a timely comeback, with a marketing campaign funded by industry contributions, foundation grants, and federal government assistance. The campaign is designed to educate consumers about the purity and superior taste of wild shrimp, which is sweeter and has a better texture than the farmed variety—qualities chefs are happy to pay extra for. “We can’t supply all the demand [for wild] in this country,” says Eddie Gordon, executive director of Wild American Shrimp, Inc. (WASI), an organization of eight Gulf and South Atlantic states, including Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and both Carolinas. The group certifies that shrimpers and their shrimp catch meet stringent environmental and quality standards to be able to carry the “Certified Wild American Shrimp” sticker on packages and in restaurants.
“There are premium customers out there,” Gordon states, noting that more people are asking where their shrimp is from. “For foodies, it’s great. There’s a huge difference in flavor.” But even with customers willing to pay more, there is still not enough wild shrimp to satisfy the demand, particularly in the South, where shrimp is a way of life.
A Cross-Country Staple
“We use shrimp for everything,” exclaims Batt Humphreys, communications director for Crew Carolina, which operates two Boathouse restaurants in South Carolina and the high-end, 110-seat Carolina’s in Charleston. Crew Carolina buys about 25,000 pounds of wild shrimp a year for the Boathouse operations and 5,000 pounds a year for Carolina’s. The Boathouse menu features traditional boil-and-peel shrimp, fried shrimp, and such classics as Spicy Shrimp & Grits ($18.95), Broiled Seafood Combination ($22.95), and a Lowcountry “Fin & Shell” Steam Pot ($19.95).
In New Orleans, shrimp is a mainstay of the local Louisiana economy as well as the “Haute Creole” cooking of Executive Chef Tory McPhail at Commander’s Palace. Shrimp specials change regularly, but a fixture on the menu is McPhail’s appetizer of Tasso Shrimp Henican ($9.50), with jumbo shrimp quickly seared and coated with hot sauce beurre blanc, accompanied by five-pepper jelly and pickled okra. For fresh supplies of the crustacean, McPhail reports, “We have a guy, Richard, who delivers wild shrimp with the back of his pickup truck every other day. He goes to the docks and knows the fisherman. . . . We can rely on his quality and price [$5 per pound]. It’s a good arrangement for the shrimpers, too—they get more money in their pocket than if they were to sell to a big commercial wholesaler.” Different kinds of shrimp are harvested year-round from the Gulf waters, so McPhail always has some local product to work with. For small wild shrimp, his kitchen sources frozen supplies from Crown Seafood in Delcambre, Louisiana.
On the West Coast, Mark Stark, executive chef and co-owner with his wife Terri of the Stark Reality Restaurants in Sonoma County, California, gets his wild shrimp from a local distributor. He uses about 40 pounds of wild shrimp a week in Willi’s Seafood Bar in Healdsburg, as well as in Willi’s Wine Bar in Santa Rosa, where small plates are the norm. “We’re in an area of the country where everyone is aware of where you are and what you eat. We’d get beaten up if we were not ‘PC.’” Stark pays $3 to $4 more per pound for wild than for farmed shrimp. A favorite on his menu, “since day one,” at both his seafood bar and the wine bar, is Pan Roasted Shrimp with Chilies, Lemon & Garlic ($12).
Swimming in the Fast Lane
Unlike lobster and crab shellfish, which take more time to mature and reproduce, shrimp grow and reproduce quickly, living just over a year before spawning and dying. Young shrimp live in coastal estuaries for a couple of months before heading out to sea, where the water is cooler. Because they are bottom dwellers, other creatures are often caught in the shrimping drag nets and must be tossed back into the water. Federal regulations require a special turtle-excluder device (TED) to allow sea turtles that are accidentally caught up in the net to escape safely. Trawl nets must also have a by-catch reduction device (BRD) installed to allow other unwanted fish to escape.
Once the shrimp are caught, they are iced or frozen. Gordon explains that the day boats still do it the old-fashioned way: “They shovel layers of ice on top of the catch. However, in the Gulf, where boats from Louisiana or Texas are out for longer periods, they put the just-caught shrimp in a brine bath, then into a box so they don’t get damaged and freeze them immediately. They are not completely thawed when they are graded and packed.” He adds, “Many shrimpers have converted from ice to brine freezing tanks and are now able to supply an excellent fresh-frozen wild shrimp, so it’s easier to keep wild shrimp for year-round use.”
Three primary species of wild-caught American shrimp are from the Gulf of Mexico between Texas and Alabama and from the South Atlantic coast between North Carolina and Florida.
Pink shrimp have a firm texture and mild flavor, with light pink shells that turn a deeper shade when cooked. They are caught primarily off the Florida coast in the Gulf of Mexico from October to May and in the South Atlantic from January to May.
Brown shrimp have firm, dense meat with light brown or tan shells that turn coral when cooked. They are the primary species caught in the Gulf of Mexico from July to December and are also harvested off the South Atlantic coast between North Carolina and Florida from June through August.
White shrimp are sweet, with a firm texture. The grayish white shells turn pink when cooked. They are caught off the Atlantic coast between North Carolina and northeast Florida from May to December, and in the Gulf of Mexico between Texas and Alabama from July to December.
Other lesser-known warm-water shrimp captured in these coastal fisheries include the rock shrimp, the royal red shrimp (a deepwater species), the roughneck or blood shrimp (also called sugar shrimp), and the seabob, a small oceanic species. Much smaller shrimp are caught in colder waters off the coasts of the Northeast and Northwest, but they are too small for human consumption.
Humphreys says, “It’s neat to see the heads on . . . it’s part of the wild shrimp experience,” but Chef Jeremiah Bacon of Oak Steakhouse admits, “Most of the diners don’t want the heads on. That’s not for everyone.” Stark is emphatic about leaving the heads on. “The old-timers would have a cow if we took the heads off,” he remarks, adding, “but I’m still trying to get my wife to eat them that way.”
McPhail, who favors white shrimp for its cleaner taste, is a fan of serving shrimp simply, with the heads on. “There’s something really rustic and natural and true about this presentation, like the fish just came off the dock.” He laments the way many cooks diminish the flavor of shrimp. “They take off the heads, and then the shells, and then rinse them off. And after all that, they boil them in water. Well, shoot, half the flavor of the shrimp has just been eliminated.” The better way, McPhail insists, is to leave the shrimp intact and “just throw them on the grill like you would a good piece of meat.”
Feeding the Future
Because there will never be enough wild shrimp to meet increasing demand, better methods of farming are being studied here. Blue Ridge Aquaculture in Martinsville, Virginia, is working with researchers from Virginia Tech to create an indoor facility at Virginia Shrimp Farms. This is part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture–funded study to evaluate technology, management practices, and distribution channels for shrimp. Every aspect of shrimp aquaculture will be studied, from nutrition to efficiency of production, to find out how much space is needed to produce about 35 million pounds of shrimp a year—plans include replicating the Gulf white type.
While aquaculture looks for ways to produce healthy seafood and prevent damage to the environment, there are still problems. Because there is a much higher density of shrimp in a pool or tank than there is in the ocean and because shrimp are bottom feeders, Gordon warns, “You can imagine the amount of feces they might be swimming in.” That’s one reason he’s optimistic about the future of wild shrimp. “We have always sold all of our [wild] shrimp; in fact last year we had a record season.” Gordon expects more positive results as the wild-shrimp campaign continues and as people taste the difference. Success will literally be, he adds, “by word of mouth.”
Szechuan Peppercorn Shrimp with Sauteed Baby Vegetables and Red Pepper Caramel Sauce
From Jeremiah Bacon, chef, Oak Steakhouse, Charleston, South Carolina
Yield: Appetizer portion, serves 1
Sugar 1 cup
Water ½ cup
Red bell peppers 2
Champagne vinegar or red-wine vinegar 2 Tbsp
Baby vegetables (such as fennel or patty-pan squash), sliced 1 cup
Parsley, chervil, or other green herbs, chopped 1 tsp
Large shrimp (preferably with head on) 4
Szechuan peppercorns, ground to taste
Salt to taste
1. To make the sauce, combine sugar and water in small saucepan over medium heat. Cook for about 15 minutes, until mixture begins to caramelize and turn amber. Meanwhile, put bell peppers through a juicer or liquefy in a blender; strain. Stir the juice into the caramelized mixture. Reduce by about a third. The sauce should thicken some but should not be stiff. (It will not coat the back of a spoon.) Add vinegar to the sauce and reserve.
2. Quickly blanch sliced vegetables and transfer to cold water to stop cooking process. Drain and hold. Just before serving, reheat in saute pan and season with salt and pepper. Add green herbs.
3. To make the shrimp, heat a little canola oil over medium heat in nonstick pan. Season shrimp with peppercorn and salt. Add to pan and cook about 30 seconds on each side. To plate, place shrimp on top of vegetables and drizzle a spoonful of red pepper caramel sauce around all.
Skillet Roasted Shrimp with Chilies, Lemon and Garlic
From Chef Mark Stark, Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar, Healdsburg, California
Yield: 4 appetizer or small-plate servings
Garlic, minced 2 Tbsp
Ground cumin, toasted 2 Tbsp
Ground ginger 1 Tbsp
Spanish sweet paprika 2 Tbsp
Cayenne pepper ¾ tsp
Olive oil to make a paste
Wild shrimp (16–20 count), shells on 1 lb
Olive oil 2 Tbsp
Kosher salt to taste
Large lemon, cut in six wedges 1
Red Fresno chilies, split in half lengthwise 3
Garlic cloves, thinly sliced 3
Butter 3 Tbsp
Fresh cilantro 12 sprigs
1. Mix all marinade ingredients together to make a loose paste. Devein shrimp, leaving the shell intact. Toss the deveined shrimp in the marinade to coat. Marinate at least 30 minutes or overnight.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in heavy-bottom pan large enough to accommodate all shrimp in a single layer. Season shrimp with kosher salt. When oil is hot, add shrimp, lemon, and chilies. Sear shrimp for one minute on each side. Add sliced garlic, butter, and cilantro. Cook until butter begins to brown, garlic is lightly toasted, and shrimp are just cooked through.
Chef Stark recommends serving with Sauvignon Blanc from Dutcher Crossing Winery, Dry Creek Valley.