Friday, May 6, 2011

Roger Berkowitz & Vietnam Shrimp Farms

Can Roger Berkowitz be trusted?

Back in January, Berkowitz hosted a controversial dinner at Legal Sea Foods, showcasing "blacklisted" seafood. Clearly, the dinner was intended to be provocative, and it accomplished that purpose, garnering much criticism and publicity prior to the event. Yet it also placed a burden on Berkowitz, to provide a sufficient rationale for why seafood that was being served was actually sustainable. His failure to do so could have significant negative ramifications for Legal Sea Foods.

At the end of the dinner, after listening to everyone speak and discuss the issues, I came away with a general trust for Berkowitz and his desire for sustainable seafood.  As I stated then: "He comes across as sincere in his advocacy of sustainable seafood, desirous of promoting the best scientific evidence." Even as far back as 1999, Berkowitz had given a speech in support of sustainability.

But, that didn't mean I accepted everything Berkowitz said at face value, and planned to follow up and further investigate the issues.  One of the items on the blacklisted menu was black tiger shrimp from Vietnam, which is controversial because many claims that Asian farmed shrimp is not sustainable. The two main complaints about such aquaculture are that it often leads to mangrove swamp destruction and also creates significant pollution.

Berkowitz admitted the industry has had its share of serious problems, but that there were Asian shrimp farms trying to be sustainable. Berkowitz said that he had instituted strict requirements for the Vietnamese shrimp farm he dealt with, and that he planned to visit the farm some weeks after the dinner. I planned at that time to follow up with Berkowitz after his visit, to ascertain his thoughts about the farm.

What is the current and actual status of Asian farmed shrimp?  If you only look at the Seafood Watch wallet card, you will see that "Imported Shrimp" is listed as "Avoid."  But the wallet card fails to tell an accurate picture as, even by their standards, not all Imported Shrimp is an Avoid. If you look at their expanded website entry for Shrimp, you will note that shrimp from Thailand, farmed in fully recirculating systems, is listed as a Good Alternative. This was a significant change to the Seafood Watch website in January 2011. Seafood Watch makes significant revisions to their website every six months. 

Of the shrimp imported into the U.S., about 35% comes from Thailand, making it the primary exporter of shrimp to the U.S.  Obviously, they are making strides in transforming their shrimp farming into a more sustainable industry, though there is still much that needs to be done.  Only 25% of their farms are considered to be "fully recirculating" and the rest of the farms remain on the Avoid list. This though indicates that we cannot generalize that all Asian farmed shrimp is unsustainable. It is probably best to look at it on a case by case basis. 

Efforts to improve sustainability at shrimp farms in other Asian countries have also been occurring.  For example, the WWF has been promoting sustainable shrimp acquaculture in Vietnam. The "WWF has been promoting Better Management Practices (BMPs) and the establishment of farmer groups and cooperatives in several provinces including Soc Trang, and especially Ca Mau, which accounts for 32% of the total shrimp production in the Mekong Delta." And Vietnam is where Berkowitz recently visited.

Berkowitz spent three days in the Soc Trang Province, in the Mekong Delta, visiting the Nam Anh shrimp farm (which you can see pictured at the top).  He was accompanied by the Assistant Director of Food Production, who is Vietnamese, and translated for Berkowitz.  Overall, Berkowitz was very impressed with the high quality of the shrimp. In addition, he noted that the ponds were clean, the farm seemed immaculate, and that everyone from the owners to the staff were very professional. His conclusion was that the farm was sustainable and the farm has even applied to be certified sustainable by the Aquaculture Certification Council

This council seems to have extensive guidelines for shrimp farms to be certified by Best Aquaculture Practices. The guidelines include topics such as Mangrove Conservation and Biodiversity Protection, Microbial Sanitation, Worker Safety, and Effluent Management. I also noted that other Vietnamese shrimp farms have already acquired this certification, including some which garnered 3 Stars.

So, this seems very positive and there appears to be more hope for sustainability in Asian shrimp farms. Kudos to Berkowitz for traveling to Vietnam to inspect the farm, which is more than many others probably would do. Does anyone know any other local chefs or restaurant owners who have traveled out of the country to check out the source of their seafood? 

We now know the exact source for the black tiger shrimp served at Legal so there is traceability on its origin. Does anyone out there know anything more about the Nam Anh farm?  I did some online research but really came up with nothing.

Some may say that Legal should only be serving local or U.S. shrimp. But, Legal does have Maine shrimp on their menu as well as the imported black tiger shrimp.  In addition, by Legal buying imported shrimp, but also requiring sustainability, they are helping to transform the entire Asian shrimp aquaculture industry. That industry is moving towards more sustainability and needs encouragement, which partially comes from having a sufficient customer base.   

Stay tuned, as I will soon be posting a follow-up on the issue of Ocean Acoustic Waveguide Remote Sensing (OAWRS), which was also raised at this dinner.

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