Mike the Mad Biologist

Shrimponomics and Lobsternomics

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Comments

  1. #1 Phil
    September 4, 2007

    At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious:
    Shrimp are farmed. Lobsters are not. In fact the problem of antibiotics in asian farmed shrimp are well known. Lobster populations , on the other hand…are quite healthy. Lobsters are not over fished, despite being notoriously slow growing ( being the reason why they aren’t farmed ). This is because lobster trapping is notoriously inefficient. Unlike drift netting which basically vacuums the ocean dry, a lobster in only caught if he is in the trap when the lobsterman pulls him up and is dumb enough not to escape. This is all easily googled, being the reason of course why the “journalist” didn’t bother doing it.

  2. #2 Coin
    September 4, 2007

    Shrimp are delicious.

  3. #3 richard
    September 5, 2007

    “Lobster populations , on the other hand…are quite healthy. Lobsters are not over fished,..”

    Attempts are made to regulate lobster catch via permits and quotas, but that has not stopped overfishing in some areas. Some lobster grounds have been closed due to overfishing. Seeding of lobster grounds with juveniles, and the creation of artificial reefs to support lobster habitat is getting close to what one would call farming.

  4. #4 Kaleberg
    September 8, 2007

    The lobster harvest is tightly regulated and a share of the harvest is more or less private property. The lobster industry has a set of rules on the size of what lobsters may be harvested, and they enforce them. There is no gray lobster market. Lobster prices are relatively high, and people don’t eat all that much lobster.

    Wild shrimp are relatively expensive when compared to farmed shrimp, but most of them taste a lot better. Farmed shrimp are cheap. They are generally produced by mining the protective coastal mangroves stands, however, I have seen better managed shrimp farms. In Queensland, they actually used the shrimp farm to process sugar cane waste and get a less harmful effluent, but this is in the highly automated first world. (They also had a neat looking sugar cane harvesting machine that just trucked along).

    As for cod. The only place you can get cod is from Iceland. They tightly regulate their waters. If you aren’t from Iceland, and you don’t have a license, and you are fishing in their waters, they’ll give you a warning and sink your ship. The warning is so you can get into a life boat.

    Is any of this making any sense? I’m really sleepy, but my fingers just keep on typing anyway.

  5. #5 gooniebird
    September 8, 2007

    Shrimp tastes good and have you ever had prawns? and lobster is enjoyed by the rich and pass the roast beast