Is Something Fishy?

This article is from last week, but I’ve had it bookmarked because I really wanted to talk about it. It needed some thinking first though, some pondering. I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

I stopped eating imported shrimp many years ago after reading one of the many books by Dr. Vandana Shiva in which she details how shrimp farms in India and Thailand are destroying the local ecosystems.

To operate effectively, shrimp farmers destroy mangrove swamps to create a flat, shallow area underwater – conditions in which shrimp thrive. This allows them to harvest the shrimp by trawling.

However, the mangrove swaps are home to many sea creatures whose habitats are destroyed and trawling is indiscriminate – anything in the way of the trawler – including thousands of sea turtles – gets scooped up.

The removal of the mangrove swamps also removes a layer of protection against tidal waves caused by tsunamis. It is widely believed that the Tsunami of 2004 would have done considerably less damage were it not for the shrimp farms that lined the coast of Thailand. Shrimp farms also cause seawater to leach into nearby groundwater, ruining other crops, such as rice.

More details on the specifics of shrimp farming here.

Last week, Wal-Mart announced that they would begin selling only sustainable shrimp.

The company is requiring shrimp farms that have been ravaging the coast of Thailand to change their aquaculture practices or lose the retailer’s business. Under the company’s new rules, the shrimp farms must be certified by Global Aquaculture Alliance or Aquaculture Certification Council as being farmed in environmentally sound ways, he said.It’s no hollow gesture — Wal-Mart sells more than 50 million pounds of shrimp a year (most of it from Thailand), which is about 40 percent of all the seafood it handles, Redmond said.

Wal-Mart is also turning more toward wild, domestic shrimp, even though it’s more expensive, he said. The company has stopped selling some overfished species entirely, although he didn’t name them. – San Francisco Chronicle

As the article says – it’s no hollow gesture. This is HUGE. Not only does it mean that massive amounts of shrimp harvested via previously earth-stripping methods will have to now be harvested sustainably, it will alert millions of people to an issue they didn’t even know existed.

The conundrum is in trying to determine how much of this gesture is good conscience on the part of the retailer and how much is a publicity grab.

Because really, it costs Wal-Mart nothing to force their suppliers to make the changes. I once took a business class where my instructor had written a business plan for a small business person who made a product sold at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart dictated how many he would make, what the wholesale cost would be (less than his cost to make the item – he lost money selling to Wal-Mart) and when they were to be delivered. They controlled every single aspect of the transaction, including the right to not accept the items should the weather not co-operate (the product was a kit for a backyard skating rink).

So I can’t help but look at Wal-Mart’s great announcement as terribly self-congratulatory and a prime opportunity to self-promote. People who already shopped there have no reason to buy their shrimp elsewhere, and certainly there will be enough people with knowledge and concern over shrimp farming that they’ll attract some new customers in the process.

Is it good for the environment? Absolutely. But it’s also very, very good for Wal-Mart. And that factor had to play a really major role in the decision.