Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: What scientists found out is that, for those species that have been extensively researched, there is very good evidence that they’re sentient. What they say is the evidence in some other species is not as strong, but it’s only because they haven’t been researched for sentience purposes as much as other species — like, for example, crabs and octopuses, as you said.
Rob Wiblin: What sort of criteria are they using? When they study a species to try to figure out whether it’s sentient, what sort of things are they looking at to try to reach an evaluation?
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: Yeah. That’s a good point, because it’s very difficult to have a smoking gun that tells you that an animal is sentient. So in this specific case, what they did is they looked at eight different indicators of sentience. Those included whether they had nociceptors, so the right body parts to detect noxious stimuli; whether they had protective behaviours, adaptive behaviours, if anaesthesia was applied to certain body parts — whether their reaction changed, which would indicate that it’s not a reflex, things like that. Then they ranked whether the evidence was very high, high, to moderately low, et cetera, for each individual species. Then they came up with an overall assessment that all cephalopods and decapods should be protected by UK animal welfare law and eventually they did. This was a report that was commissioned by the UK government to the London School of Economics. It was very independent research.
Rob Wiblin: OK, so shrimp respond to injuries. They probably learn from negative experiences that they have. Did they respond to anaesthetic? I know that’s one of the tests that people sometimes use.
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: There’s a paper that shows the responses that different decapods have to anaesthetics, as you said. With shrimps in particular, what they do is they pinch one of the antennas. They see how they behave: they flick their tails, they jump out of the water, et cetera. And then in the second stage, they apply anaesthetics and repeat the experiment, and the behaviour changes significantly. The time that they rub their little antenna is much, much lower. They probably swim normally, quicker, and things like that.
Rob Wiblin: I see. They are tending to injuries, and they tend to them less when they’re given anaesthetic. As an aside, it’s remarkable to me that anaesthetics that we’ve presumably developed for humans also work on shrimp. They’re so far away in the phylogenetic tree of life, and yet so much of the basic machinery of feeling seems to be similar enough.
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: That’s true. One of the arguments that some people made used to be that opioids don’t necessarily work the same in some of the animals. As you’ve said, not necessarily all of the anaesthetics need to work the same. But researchers have found anaesthetics that do apply and do have an effect on animals, and it changes behaviour.
What shrimp farming looks like
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: For a shrimp to get to someone’s plate, it goes through 20 different hands. Let’s imagine it’s a shrimp that was raised in India. Someone in India who works at a hatchery — which is the facility where the babies are hatched — would have had to buy a sexually reproductively mature animal from somewhere in the US. Texas or Hawaii, typically — they’re the dominants in the market. They would have brought the animals to India, put them in maturation tanks, held them for a few months.
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: Typically, the females would go through this eyestalk ablation practice, which essentially is cutting or slicing or crushing one or two of the eyes to induce egg laying. Then they would lay the eggs. They would spawn, typically, in these plastic-lined small circular tanks. They spend about 30 days there.
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: When they’ve become juveniles — which is a stage at which they call postlarvae, at day 30 or 40 — they would scoop them out and either take them to the grow-out ponds, where they spend the rest of their lives. Or — if it’s a system where they’re using nurseries — they might go to a separate intermediate pond, where they grow another month in similar plastic-lined tanks to get them to a later stage in their lives, which makes them more resilient.
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: Eventually, they all get to these grow-out ponds, which are just large tanks, somewhere close to a coast, most likely in Asia. There, they spend another 50 to 120 days, depending on the size of the prawn that a farmer wants to get to. Then there’s the whole issue of slaughter, processing, selling, et cetera.
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: There are several different systems, and the intensity of the production systems vary wildly. In Latin America, for example, they use mostly what they call “extensive” methods. It’s in earthen ponds — very, very large ponds: a couple of hectares, maybe, of water, about one metre and a half in depth. In those systems, there’s maybe five to 10 animals per square metre. They’re typically not fed, and there’s no mechanical aeration. Then you have all the way up to the super-intensive systems, where they’re tiny ponds, maybe just a few metres in diameter, plastic-lined, indoor, highly managed water aeration everywhere, and several hundred animals per cubic metre, as you say.
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: The profitability really increases, but the level of investment that’s required to get to those other systems also increases dramatically. One of the things that we work on, which you correctly said, is crowdedness. Depending on the system, there are levels where the water just cannot sustain the biological demand that the animals place on the water, so they become sick.
How do farmers feel about their shrimp?
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: That’s something that surprised us. When we did a survey in India, it’s a small sample, but we asked whether they felt that their shrimps could feel pain and stress, and 95% of them said yes. One of them actually had a very endearing answer saying that he spent more time with his animals than he did with his family and that, if his friends suffered, he said, “I also suffer.”
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: It’s very interesting. On the other hand, I think it’s unsurprising, because these people spend a significant amount of time seeing the behaviour of the animals. They’re much less skewed than consumers, who never see them alive. I’m almost betting that you or your audience have very rarely ever seen an image of a shrimp that’s alive and swimming. Most of them will have just seen them in cocktails.
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: These farmers just see them all the time. They see them when they’re sick. They see them when they’re feeding, when they’re swimming about — so they really care about them.
Rob Wiblin: I see. So they’re exposed and seeing shrimp all the time. It sounds like their behaviour is moderately complicated, that they’re doing interesting things that make them seem smart enough and reactive and responsive enough to circumstances that it’s very natural to feel that they can suffer or experience pleasure the same way that dogs or pigs do.
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: Exactly. I couldn’t have put it better. It’s very difficult to see them in farms, because the water in which they’re raised typically has high turbidity — it’s very murky. But once you actually see them — sometimes in tanks and in trade conferences and things like that — when they’re fed, they swim, they catch their feed, they take it to a little corner where each of them can eat it in peace. It’s very rare to see them behaving. There’s good research ongoing to understand behavioural issues of shrimps. It’s underway.
How many shrimp are produced for human consumption each year?
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: That’s a very good question, and it’s not one that’s easy to answer because, contrary to many terrestrial species, aquatic animals are not counted as individuals. All we get is tonnage produced worldwide, and even there, the tonnage varies widely. There are some countries that the market sort of estimates that their official figures are not super reliable. But in terms of tonnage, it’s somewhere between 4.5 million tonnes to 6 million tonnes worldwide.
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: When we translate it into individuals, that is somewhere between 300 billion and 400 billion shrimps per year, and that’s farmed shrimps alone. Just to give your audience a bit of context, that’s equivalent to the number of humans who have ever walked the Earth. The numbers are huge, and that’s just farmed. When we look at wild-caught shrimps — the ones that are caught in the ocean by the large fishing vessels — the numbers go into the tens of trillions. I’ve seen some estimates in the range of 30 trillion animals per year. That and the sentience evidence is what made me and Aaron to just say that we need to do this.
Rob Wiblin: I see. What fraction of all shrimp that are consumed by people are produced using farming, as opposed to being caught wild?
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: It’s more than half. I don’t have it in the top of my head, but I believe it’s somewhere between 55 to 60%.
Rob Wiblin: OK, so there are 300 or 400 billion shrimp being raised in these farms, roughly, each year. You said there’s like 30 trillion shrimp, of some sort, being caught wild. How do you make that consistent with the idea that farming is probably a majority of all human consumption?
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: The difference is that the species that are caught in the ocean are typically much smaller animals, so maybe the weight of your typical farmed prawn would be 10 times higher — or, well, the number that would imply these differences that I mentioned. It’s a difference in species.
Rob Wiblin: I see, so the wild ones are kind of those tiny little shrimp that you might imagine.
Shrimp Welfare Project strategy
Rob Wiblin: So is your current primary strategy to basically collect information that helps to support the case that current stocking densities are too high from the shrimp industry’s own point of view — in terms of maximising its bottom line — and basically persuade them from a primarily economic case that they should reduce stocking densities, because it’s both good for the shrimp and good for them?
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: Yes, I think that’s a fair way to say it. We want to start doing some pilot programmes with farmers in both India and Vietnam to try this out, to help them monitor their water quality more frequently and also to stock at lower densities, and show them that that’s a viable alternative. Those are the two things that we’re focusing on the most. And we’re exploring different pathways — some are through large events, with many, many different farmers, some are partnerships with universities — and we’re seeing which one turns out to be more promising.
Rob Wiblin: What is the Shrimp Welfare Project’s relationship with the shrimp farming industry? How do they feel about you, and how do you present yourself?
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: We have decided to position ourselves as collaborative with industry. We definitely considered at the beginning the whole spectrum of being closer to industry or being more antagonistic. We feel that there is space for the whole spectrum, but in order for us to have an impact sooner rather than later — and because there are things that can be done that are not necessarily in huge opposition to industry — we thought that positioning ourselves as working collaboratively would be a safer or a better bet.
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: Influencing legislation we think can be very impactful, particularly influencing trade legislation in the importing countries. Most of the shrimps are produced in Asia — and as we discussed, a little bit in Latin America — and most of them are then exported to the US, the EU and UK, and Japan. So if these countries or regions were to increase or raise the bar of animal welfare for their imports, then that could be extremely impactful. We felt that we were potentially not the best positioned to do that, and that it might be extremely high leverage, but might take longer — and that someone also needed to help these animals today.
Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla: As we grow our team in the future — as you mentioned, we’re less than one year into existence — we’ll potentially consider whether we expand into other areas. We could have also really focused on just campaigning for more awareness with consumers in Europe, US. We haven’t done that yet. We might in the future. I think with consumers, when we speak about the way that shrimps are produced, everyone essentially says that they would’ve liked to know that. It’s the same with most of the way that our food is produced — be it vegetables, but particularly animal protein and aquaculture — I think most people are really completely in the dark.