For four of the six winters I’ve weathered in Maine, the local shrimp fishery has been locked up tight. I was introduced to the lovely pink ladies by a true fan late in the 2013 season. He seared them on a piping hot plancha for only seconds a side, and we stood around his stove eating them straight off the grill. Since that cold February night, I’ve been unable to score even a pound of the coveted cold water crevettes. The only ones available these days are hauled in for research purposes. Once the scientists have counted them, they are released for sale, but only the lucky few cooks standing at the fish counter at the very second they land in the shop seem able to get their hands on those. I am not that lucky.

But I’ve not stopped eating shrimp. Yes, I typically serve them as part of my family’s Christmas Eve fish feast as a point of tradition. But frozen shrimp, typically larger, unpeeled ones so I can use the shells for seafood stock, routinely wait in my freezer for those inevitable but slightly less celebratory evenings when I need good, healthy food on the table fast. I’m not alone. Shrimp holds the top spot on the list of Americans’ favorite seafood. The USDA says each American eats about four pounds annually.

Finding sustainable shrimp in grocery stores can be difficult because over 90 percent of the shrimp consumed in the United States (that’s 3.6 pounds of the aforementioned per capita average) comes from China, Indonesia and Thailand.

In that region of the world, shrimp farms have long been tied to the destruction of critically important mangrove forests and have been plagued by veterinary drug residues, salmonella and high levels of “filth” – in other words rejected by FDA inspectors as having too high levels of rat feces, parasites, illegal antibiotics and glass shards. Additionally, as recently as 2015, press reports uncovered human rights abuses inflicted on workers in the shrimping industry in Southeast Asia.

Yarmouth resident Colles Stowell grew up in New Orleans. So his memories of shrimp involve piling into the family car and heading down to Plaquemines Parish to get shrimp whose tails were still flapping as they were pulled out of the water. And as founder of One Fish Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on educating average eaters about the food web that connects them to their seafood, he says that frozen, wild shrimp caught by American fishermen are the most readily available, sustainable source for Maine residents. “These fishermen have to follow quotas and use gear that minimizes bycatch like sea turtles,” Stowell explained.

And while he still prefers fresh shrimp with their heads attached when he can get them, he concedes that individually quick-frozen, headless but shell-on shrimp are high quality enough to do justice to his mother’s Louisiana BBQ Shrimp recipe.

Raw, wild Gulf of Mexico shrimp. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the Environmental Working Group’s Food Scores point consumers toward U.S. farmed shrimp as a growing green option. A few larger-scale shrimp farms operate in Louisiana, Florida and Texas, but production at those farms is dwarfed by the amount of farmed shrimp from Asia in the U.S. market, so finding them at your supermarket or fishmonger can be difficult.

Likewise, smaller farms raise Gulf-born shrimp in closed saltwater tanks in Indiana, New York and Massachusetts, but those outfits are young and still working to feed the demand for fresh shrimp in their immediate locales; they don’t ship them out of state – for now.

Grocery stores in Maine stock more imported shrimp than domestic shrimp. If it’s imported, the only indication of its source is a single line placed under the nutrition label that reads, for instance, “Produced in Thailand.”

But if the shrimp is domestically caught, companies distributing it know the value of that proposition and advertise the fact prominently on their packaging. They may not be caught in Maine; still, wild-caught American shrimp (or domestically farmed if you can find them) are well worth the effort it takes to locate them in the freezer case.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer and tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Christine Burns Rudalevige’s Lousiana BBQ shrimp with butter, garlic, lemon and three types of pepper. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

LOUISIANA BBQ SHRIMP

Christine Burns Rudalevige’s recipe for this classic New Orleans dish is adapted from one that One Fish Foundation’s Colles Stowell learned from his mother, Joe Ann Stowell. Spread the table with newspaper to contain the happy mess of eating it and offer crusty bread to soak up the sauce.
Serves 6-8

6 ounces (11/2 sticks) unsalted butter
3-5 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon thinly cut lemon peel, plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 pounds frozen, shell-on large shrimp (16-25 count per pound), thawed
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

In a large cast-iron skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Add the Worcestershire sauce, lemon peel and juice, paprika, assorted ground peppers and salt. Stir and bring the mixture to a simmer.
Add the shrimp and cook until they are just pink, about 4 minutes. Cover the skillet, turn off the flame (or move off the heat if you have an electric stove) and let the residual heat finish cooking the shrimp for 10-12 minutes until they are just cooked through. You can tell they are done when the shell separates slightly from the backs of the shrimp. Sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately with crusty bread.