Over at Shifting Baselines, there’s an interesting discussion of a question that economist Steven Levitt asks: why are we eating so much shrimp? Unfortunately, the way the question is phrased–is it supply or demand–ignores the history of another crustacean craze. Lobster.
It’s hard to believe, in an era where lobster is a gourmet delicacy, that it was once viewed as equivalent to eating vermin (think ‘sea cockroach’). In seventeenth and eighteenth century Maine, enlightened legislators passed laws prohibiting the provision of lobster to slaves, servants, and wards. Consequently, lobsters were so common that a simple drag of the subtidal zone could net many lobsters. In fact, the primary use of lobster was as crop fertilizer–they would be ground up and added to soil.
Over time, and several industrial age recessions later, the taboo against lobster gradually receded; lobsters were, after all, incredibly plentiful (and edible). Ultimately, at around the turn of the twentieth century, wealthy people vacationing in the Northeast started to like eating lobster as a bit of ‘local color.’ A gastronomical fad was born. In fact, lobster became so popular that the stocks were essentially fished out by the late 1920s–”Darling, everyone is having lobster. It’s what one does.” Fortunately, for lobsters, and unfortunately for their human predators, the Great Depression came along and gave the lobster populations an opportunity to rebound.
So why do I bring the lobster up? Because I think Levitt’s question is poorly phrased. Most natural resources are first utilized because they are cheap and plentiful. Given the long and sad history of overexploitation of virtually every natural resource, at some point, there are other options, that solely from an economic perspective, are better options. At this point, it’s safe to say that demand, not supply, is driving consumption. In terms of seafood, it’s hard to say if this applies to shrimp. Relatively speaking, harvesting shrimp is economical, but, given the overexploitation of virtually every seafood stock, I’m not sure we have an economic model to deal with that situation. In other words, what happens when the potential replacement stocks are also inefficient to harvest?
Before I end, two completely unrelated points:
- Cod went through the same treatment as lobster. At one point, it was seen as a poor person’s fish. So were several other fishes.
- Has any ecologist ever tried to figure out what the devastation of the lobster populations did to local ecosystems? Removal of a major crustacean predator certainly didn’t make species invasions harder.