Americans hold a special place in their hearts for shrimp.
Consumption of shrimp outpaced that of longtime favorite canned tuna in 2001, and has been the most heavily consumed seafood per capita in the U.S. through 2004, according to National Marine Fisheries Service figures. Data for 2005 are not yet available.
"Thanks to growth in aquaculture [or fish farming], shrimp has become more readily available at prices affordable for all families and it's low in calories and has no saturated or trans fats," said Stacey Viera, spokeswoman for the National Fisheries Institute, McLean, Va.
Unlike other types of seafood, shrimp also hasn't suffered the fallout from the negative publicity related to mercury and other pollutants found in some species.
Retailers find it pays to offer shrimp from a wide variety of sources, including American waters. At the same time, the sustainable-seafood movement is gaining traction with environmentally aware shrimp lovers, and that's led some retailers to adjust their purchasing.
Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores gave the sustainable-shrimp movement a big boost when it partnered with Global Aquaculture Alliance and Aquaculture Certification Council last year to certify that all of its foreign shrimp suppliers adhere to Best Aquaculture Practices standards.
"With this new certification, when customers buy shrimp in our stores, they can be assured it is farmed in a way that is sustainable and helps protect the environment," said Peter Redmond, vice president and divisional merchandise manager, deli and seafood, Wal-Mart, in a statement.
Following that announcement, Wal-Mart outlined its plans to source all of its wild-caught seafood from sustainable sources earlier this year.
"Our goal is to procure all of our wild-caught seafood for North America from fisheries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council within the next three to five years and we have introduced several new items in our stores with the MSC certification," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Karen Burk.
As part of a company objective, Wal-Mart strives to meet local market demand.
"The core selection remains the same in most stores but we take regional preferences into consideration," Burk said. "The majority of our shrimp is headless but we have stores in Texas that carry farm-raised, head on, Texas shrimp because customers in those communities request that. In the Northwest we have stores that carry wild Oregon shrimp when in season. In the Gulf states we have stores that carry fresh gulf shrimp when in season."
Last month, Wal-Mart made the decision to scale back a portion of its imported raw shrimp selection to make room for Penguin Frozen Foods' certified Wild American Shrimp at nearly 300 Gulf state seafood counters, including those in all Florida stores and select stores in Texas and Alabama.
In promoting its shrimp assortment, Schenectady, N.Y.-based Price Chopper focuses on the freshness and quality of the selection and backs it up with a satisfaction or 200% money-back guarantee.
In the retailer's stores, there's nothing shrimpy about the selection. Price Chopper offers seven sizes of cooked shrimp and two sizes of shrimp rings sourced from Thailand and Vietnam. They range in size from 70-90 count to 13-15 count. The retailer also plans to introduce raw and cooked organic shrimp from Ecuador.
The raw shrimp selection includes 25 varieties ranging from 51-60 count to one to two count of white and tiger shrimp. Five different sizes of raw shrimp are sourced domestically.
"We've really been on the cutting edge of creating shrimp-merchandising programs for the last 20 years," said company spokeswoman Mona Golub. "We've formed strong relationships with shrimp suppliers in many parts of the world allowing us to source the highest-quality product available. We tend to promote a larger, higher-quality shrimp than many of our competitors and its movement lets us know that consumers appreciate the larger, higher-quality product."
Price Chopper's ready-to-grill marinated shrimp on skewers with fresh vegetables - part of its "House of Barbecue" promotion - was a popular choice this summer.
Elsewhere, sustainability concerns have prompted retailers to make changes in their lineup.
New Leaf Community Markets started a dialogue with shoppers after receiving negative feedback about its shrimp selection subsequent to the installation of a sustainable-seafood program in 2003.
"When we began our sustainable-seafood program, all the shrimp we carried was coded 'red' for unsustainable," said Sarah Miles, marketing director for New Leaf, based in Santa Cruz, Calif.
"There are problems with both wild and farmed shrimp as most farming of shrimp can also 'clearcut' the bottom of the ocean," she said. "As our program matured and our customers continually asked us to stop carrying the red-coded unsustainable options, sourcing sustainable shrimp became really important."
The retailer educates consumers using the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Guide, which lists fish and seafood that are "best choices" - those most abundant and captured in environmentally friendly ways; those that are good alternatives, having some concerns; and those to avoid because they are over-fished or their capture harms other marine life or the environment.
New Leaf also subscribes to Sustainable Fisheries Associates' Fish Wise program, which groups fish into color-coded green, yellow and red groups based on sustainability.
"We surveyed our customers to ask which was more important to them, having more shrimp options or cheap shrimp options vs. supporting sustainable seafood," Miles said. "Across the board, our customers preferred that we carry sustainable seafood. First, we found some options for yellow-coded shrimp, one from Kauai, Hawaii, and another from Georgia, but neither was available to us for very long. We were very happy when we found the sustainable harvested prawns from Ecuador that are labeled organic outside of California."
The prawns can only be labeled organic outside the state. Under California law, retailers cannot use that label on seafood because there is no U.S. standard for organic seafood.
New Leaf carries raw 26-30 count easy-peel and 26-30 count cooked prawns, both from Ecuador, and cooked salad shrimp from Iceland.
The retailer also offers shrimp skewers during the barbecue season. All the shrimp is previously frozen.
"Both of these shrimp received a green rating from Fishwise," Miles said. "We don't have as many size options as we once did, but we are particularly pleased that the sustainable options are actually comparably priced. Our educational program really helped customers understand the reasoning behind the change. Many of them felt like we were responding to a request that they had made, so in many ways it seemed like a great team effort."
As the sustainable-seafood market expands, New Leaf hopes to add to its shrimp offering.
Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets follows similar practices when sourcing shrimp.
"We strive to only work with sustainable-seafood farms when purchasing farmed varieties of fish and we commit to sustainability of fish populations by purchasing nothing on the endangered species list," said Marc Okeon, seafood category manager.
The retailer carries wild, domestic, chemical-free, raw and cooked shrimp as well as raw and cooked farm-raised, chemical-free, imported shrimp from Asia.
"The only regions that will have a preference from one type of shrimp to another is in the Southern or Gulf states, as they will prefer domestic shrimp," Okeon said. "In New England and the Pacific Northwest we source local coldwater shrimp. The rest of the U.S. is looking for an ever-changing selection of high-quality, competitively priced shrimp from various regions, in various forms."
Wild shrimp sales have been gaining at Wild Oats, thanks in part to a partnership with Wild American Shrimp.
The group's members are shrimpers operating in the waters off the Gulf and South Atlantic states. Their objective is to raise public awareness about the health and economic benefits of certified wild-caught American shrimp through grocery promotions, restaurant programs, TV and radio commercials.
The group adopted the slogan, "Wild American, the shrimp you thought you were eating," and its ads inform consumers "you've been tricked. Eighty-five percent of the shrimp you eat is imported and most likely pond-raised."
Indeed, the vast majority of shrimp offered in American supermarkets is imported.
"The tidal wave of shrimp is farmed black tiger shrimp and white shrimp, and the vast majority of it comes from Asia," said industry consultant Howard Johnson, president of H.M. Johnson & Associates, Jacksonville, Ore. "Some people can sense a minor taste differences [in the farmed shrimp] from the wild gulf shrimp. The total quantity of shrimp sourced from American fishermen is relatively small when it comes to overall consumption."
Although costs associated with harvesting shrimp from the Gulf are higher than producing shrimp in Asia, American-harvested shrimp is fresher and meets U.S. environmental standards, but quantities are restricted.
"The supply of wild shrimp from the Gulf is quite limited seasonally," Johnson said. "You can only catch so much of it and then you're done. With farmed shrimp you can have more ponds and keep expanding."
Consumers trolling their local seafood case may soon catch a glimpse of shrimp that offers environmental and social benefits, much like those of fair trade products merchandised at chains like Starbucks.
"In north Sumatra [Indonesia], there are a number of groups working with small shrimp farmers to help them recover from the tsunami and re-establish their farms in a better way" environmentally, said Howard Johnson, a seafood industry consultant who is president of H.M Johnson and Associates, Jacksonville, Ore. "The idea is to form a cooperative of these shrimpers and get their product marketed as a brand. The question I have now is, how much will it resonate with consumers? It'll be interesting to see what happens."
Fair trade products, like coffee sold at Starbucks, guarantee a minimum wage for small producers' harvests and encourage sustainable cultivation methods.
Ironically, the Environmental Justice Foundation contended that shrimp farms contributed substantially to much of the tsunami-related loss of life in Indonesia. In that country, many shrimp farms replaced mangrove habitats, the ocean's natural feeding grounds and nurseries, and in these areas tsunami waves were able to penetrate farther inland, according to the foundation.