Warning: After Reading This, You May Never Eat Shrimp from Thailand Again | Civil Eats

Warning: After Reading This, You May Never Eat Shrimp from Thailand Again

I vowed never to touch another Thai-farmed shrimp after attending a panel discussion recently at the SeaWeb Seafood Summit in New Orleans.

Steve Trent, the executive director of Britain’s Environmental Justice Foundation, described a multi-billion-dollar industry with a financial model that would not be viable without slave labor. “It’s the most horrific situation I have seen in more than 25 years of monitoring human rights abuses around the world,” he said.

The victims, according to Trent, typically come from poorer countries near Thailand such as Burma, Cambodia, and Laos, which together supply 90 percent of the 300,000 shrimp workers in Thailand. Some are lured by promises of well-paid factory jobs only to be forced aboard fishing boats where they are held captive. Others are kidnapped by traffickers. Fishing boat owners can conveniently order slaves from criminal gangs just as they order nets, engine parts, and fuel from suppliers, although humans are not as expensive as a new net or a tank of diesel. The going price for a human being in Thai fishing ports ranges between $375 and $960–cheaper than a pure-bred dog.

Once aboard the boats and in international waters, the unpaid workers remain trapped, often for several years, according to the United States State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, in which Thailand was relegated to the lowest category among 188 countries examined. More than half of Burmese workers in one Thai fishing port reported to state department officials that they had experienced slave conditions.

Shrimp slaves are fed as little as one bowl of rice a day, are forced to work for 18-hour shifts, and often endure beatings—or worse. More than half of workers on Thai fishing boats surveyed by the United Nations reported that they had seen fellow workers murdered while at sea. Slaves too weak or too ill to work are often simply tossed overboard.

Thailand’s slavery problem was caused by rampant, uncontrolled overfishing. Catches there have dropped to 14 percent of levels a few decades ago, and most of what’s caught consists of small “trash” fish that are sold to companies that make the fishmeal fed to farmed Thai shrimp. In order to profit in the face of the plummeting catches, boat owners kept cutting crews’ wages until they hit zero. To keep itself afloat, the industry became reliant on slavery rings for labor.

Despite its unsavory underpinnings, the Thai shrimp industry generates $6 billion in export earnings. Much of that profit comes from shrimp sold to the United States. Shrimp is the most popular seafood in this country, and we import more than 90 percent of the shrimp we consume. For most of the last decade, Thailand has been our biggest source of imported shrimp, accounting to one-fourth of the total. After the conference I visited the Shaw’s supermarket in my New England hometown. Half the bags of frozen shrimp there were imported from Thailand. I could have also easily found them in very major supermarket chain, as well as in Costco and Walmart.

Thai government officials are doing little, if anything, to combat the problem. According to the Guardian, many regulators work in cahoots with boat owners and slavers. Trent said that there has never been a conviction as a result of slavery on a Thai fishing boat. “The countries that Thailand exports to are the only way to pressure Thailand to take action,” he said. “The market can provide sustainable long-term solutions to these problems.”

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In other words, American consumers should refrain from buying Thai shrimp until the country cleans up its act.

Avoiding them is easy—at least in supermarkets. Regulations require that unprocessed seafood is labeled with the country of origin.

I usually play it safe by buying wild American shrimp. They cost more, but it’s a small price to pay to know that I’m not supporting slavery.


This post originally appeared on Barry Estabrook’s blog, Politics of the Plate.

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A former contributing editor to Gourmet magazine, Barry Estabrook is the author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit and Pig Tales: An Omnivore's Quest for Sustainable Meat which was published in May 2015. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. Read more >

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  1. anita
    We will not support slavery and will buy only American shrimp.
  2. Margie
    Hi Barry,
    Good to see your byline.

    How do I know for sure where the shrimp I buy is coming from? Do I just ask when I go to ShopRite??? Also, there is a small fish store within driving distance of my home, would they also be getting the Thai shrimp???

    I agree, worth paying extra rather than support the horrible conditions these poor people are enduring.

  3. Robert Ford
    Boys are sold into slavery to harvest cocoa beans. http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/19/child-slavery-and-chocolate-all-too-easy-to-find/
  4. hitesh
    The Thailand government must take immediate actions for these poor people suffering for sui a long time now all this evidence is published
  5. Barry
    Margie. Any unprocessed shrimp in a grocery store should have a country of origin label on its bag/container. Sometimes you have to look. The same is true for seafood sold unbagged in display cases. Barry
  6. Redeem Sumicad
    All is not perfect this side of the world.

    ..Such cravings have sparked a Bubba Gumpian wave of efforts to land ever-greater quantities of these tiny crustaceans. Shrimp are harvested one of two ways: wild-caught in the ocean with nets or farmed. But both methods come at a high cost. In the U.S. alone, shrimp nets kill some 52,600 sea turtles, part of an estimated 1.8 million tons of global bycatch annually. Some farming has triggered massive shrimp pandemics and destruction of fragile mangroves. And it isn’t just the environment that’s paying the price—so is our health, with the illegal antibiotic dosing of shrimp, the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the use of preservatives that pump up our sodium intake and may even cause a
  7. Jay
    my wife is from Thailand and from what I personally see in Thailand.,This article is totally not true. Yes, you do see homeless begging with children on the road sometimes but murdering salves on the sea? That is just not true. We hope everyone reading this really questions the source of the article. I doubt Barry can actually provide any proof or citation on the claim of the article. If you could, please do so and that might help solve the problem. However this article does look made up to us.
  8. seacern
    Please consider the environmental costs of domestic shrimp trawling. Studies have shown that NC shrimp trawlers are killing as many as 1/2-billion juvenile croaker, spot and weakfish. This is only 50% of the waste; there are other important food and forage species also killed. It's not just fish. The Center for Biological Diversity says "Shrimp trawlers operating in the southeast United States capture and kill over 53,000 threatened and endangered sea turtles each year."

    This is trawl bycatch- It is unsustainable fishing that is depleting many of our important finfish and forage fish species.

  9. Barry
    Hi, Jay. Thanks for the comment. If you click on the link in the post to the U. S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons report and scroll to the Thailand section you will find verification for many of the details I reported about slavery in the Thai shrimp fishery.
  10. Rhys
    I'm confused. The author blames the slavery on poor economic conditions and lack of profitability. How exactly would boycotting their shrimp exports help? I mean, wouldn't shrimp prices drop even further if I stop buying them? Thanks for anyone help explaining.
  11. Glenn Matherne
    Here we go again. I was a commerical fisherman for 35 years in the Gulf of Mexico. Yes I was a shrimper. It took all the the 35 years for me to catch 2 (TWO) sea turtles in my nets, which by the way were not endangered and released unharmed. But it seems that every year the number of sea turtles killed in shrimp nets just keeps getting bigger. Now, i'm not. Scientist, but i spent my years on those waters making a living. I know what I saw and i also know BS when I see it. This is and always has been a heavy dose of BS. The consumer knows no better and are apt to believe anything that someone with a few extra titles behind their names will swear to. Not the consumers fault. Wake up people... Sniff a lil and you will smell it to.
  12. Greg Barnes
    @seacern, that is absolutely not true!! People like you, are the reason Comercial shrimpers are having such difficult seasons, , trying to survive, !! I was once a Comercial shrimper for twenty four years, , and seen no more than ten to fifteen sea turtles,, where you get those numbers from, I have no clue! !!!! Pond raised shrimp are fed antibiotics to survive, if God would have wanted a salt water shrimp in ponds, he would have put them there!!!!!!
  13. Brandon
    Hi I would like to start by saying I am a commercial fisherman on the Mississippi gulf coast. I have been shrimping since I was in diapers and I will do it forever. My dad has done it for 36 years. The first thing I would like to input on is the deal with the turtles. We do not hardly kill turtles. Mine And my dads whole life of doing this I can honestly say we have brought more turtles back to like if we catch one ( which very rarely happens due to the Turtle Exlusion Device aka Ted.) and can honestly say I have never personally seen one die that we caught. So if I have never seen one die and multiple others can say the same thing it has to be impossible for them to be dying from us. Secondly. Shrimp prices would not drop if you quit buyin
  14. Brandon
    Their shrimp they would sky rocket due to supply and demand. Cut off imports and domestic price and demand goes way up. It helps our own economy more. There is a reason alone. And the slavery that I do believe is true. I we have spoken with a fisherman or two from there and they admit it. Admit that if sharks or stuff are stuck in nets they will throw kids that they have purchased over to get them out. So either they get the shark out and make it back on the boat or they die. It's cruel. But I would never buy their shrimp. Only domestic. Couldn't support that. SUPPORT DOMESTIC SHRIMP!!!
  15. genevieve manson- hing
    Horrendous. I do not buy shrimp from Thailand or China or from anywhere else where I know use slave labour or toxins. Such tragedy that greed trumps everything.
  16. David
    WoW slave labor on asian fishing boats, but what does that have to do with the asian Shrimp industry 95-99% of which is grown and harvested on land and with Thailand now having an enforced minimum wage almost triple that of 4-5 years ago your story is full of holes and vacant of real supportable facts. I guess you should next go after Indonesia and Burma because their people get paid less? why don't you offer to send them some of your monthly salary??? BTW 65% of Thai land based shrimp farming is a cottage-like industry where small communities and families get together and work their buns off to try and cash in on the USD$1-200,000 per harvest they can earn with a relatively small shrimp farm. Now that's even decent money in your ignorant cafe-late shipping world where you are overpaid for an uninformed opinion and ignorant attitude.
    • Maximillian
      Sorry David, sorry for disillusioning you. I live in a Thai fishing town since 8 years. Some of your statements are plain wrong.
      1st, Slaves on fishing boats are fact, unfortunatelly.
      2nd, Minimum wages are roughly 300 Baht/day or 10 $/a day... for Thai workers, not for migrant workers.
      3rd. Check out the shrimp farm around Pranburi, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Suratthani and others in the area. They are huge, I mean really very huge. You can easily take a look at their sizes by using Google Earth. There may be some cottage-like industries but to a very small extend only.
  17. Sheila Misuda
    I never buy Shrimp from Thailand or China. Only buy from Argentina. Shrimp from the US is not available in Canada unfortunately.

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