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Shrimp on Film: A Review of Two Documentaries

Do you like food? Do you like movies? Do you like movies about food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might enjoy Eater at the Movies, a column by Joshua David Stein. Today: Raising Shrimp and Head On.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Don't believe Red Lobster. There's no such thing as Endless Shrimp. Just as there is a bottom to the bottomless cup of coffee and the ever-set table is a fairy tale, shrimp too has an end. And yet, we eat shrimps as if they're eternal. Pacified by Cheddar Bay Biscuits, we hoover the little forgettable fuckers like they were fried crustacean cocaine and we're a bunch of Bret Easton Ellises. For $15.99, it would be foolish not to. That's a cheap-ass meal in the first place and for something that's endless, forget about it.

If you wish to continue your shrimp-eating untroubled, stop reading and certainly do not see two newly available documentaries about the shrimp industry. The first, Head On: Shrimping in the Low Country, is a short film made by George Motz, the mutton-chopped author of Hamburger America. Essentially it's a 12 minute elegy for the withering shrimping industry on the South Carolina coast.

The second, a much longer and less poetic film, is Raising Shrimp, a documentary produced by and starring a fire-and-brimstone environmental engineer named Ted Caplow. It's about as straightforward and dry a film as the title suggests. 60 minutes on raising shrimp. But even if you don't think you care about raising shrimp, and I don't intrinsically, I recommend it for it makes a first rate horror flick anyway.

The Red Lobster approach to shrimp: the false idea that there exists a giant spigot from which great cataracts of shrimp endlessly flow.

Both movies, in different ways, deal with the disastrous aftermath of what I'll call the Red Lobster approach to shrimp: that there exists in the world a giant spigot from which great cataracts of shrimp endlessly flow. Taken individually, each is hampered by a certain type of doctrinaire tunnel vision. When thought about as companion pieces, however, the pair illuminates just how jumbo the shrimp problem is.

First the facts: Americans love shrimp. Each of us eats nearly four pounds of the little guys every year. Shrimp is the most commonly eaten seafood in America. Cut open the belly of the national psyche and hundreds of shrimps will spill out squeaking, "Free at last!!" But for an animal so devoured, I'd wager few Americans know where those shrimps came from.

As both Motz and Caplow show in their respective documentaries, it's not pretty.  Over 90% of the shrimp eaten in America is imported from foreign shrimp farms. Many of these farms are filthy aquaculture hovels in places like China, Vietnam and Bangladesh, countries which have little or no regulation as to what gnarly chemicals one can throw in with the shrimp to boost yield. Shrimp eat shit anyway, which seems a little gross, but when you think about it, is kinda beautiful too. Shrimp turn shit delicious like Jesus wine'd his water.  But when the shrimps are also ingesting chemicals like Chloramphenicol, an antibiotic toxic to humans, and a bunch of other unregulated feed, it's pretty dangerous.

Both Motz and Caplow rightfully vilify imported farmed shrimp. Caplow does so for environmental and health reasons. When shrimp farms release their effluent into the nearby estuarine ecosystems, as nearly all of them do, it kills lots of things, things both big and small, from mangrove trees to microorganisms.

shrimp boat

George Motz / Head On

Motz's main truck, on the other hand, is how imported shrimp puts South Carolina's shrimp men out of business. Naturally the increase in cheap product drives domestic shrimp prices down which forces the Lowcountry shrimpers onto longer and longer trawls with tighter and tighter margins in the hopes of catching, as one shrimper says, at least 300 pounds of tails a day just to break even.

Motz spends a lot of time on the deck of fish boats like the Winds of Fortune, as weather beaten men with sun faded tattoos empty their nets. We're all suckers for authenticity and rooters for the underdog. These men with their accents and ancient ways seem heroes against lapping waters and lavender sunsets. But I couldn't help but watch in horror as what is called the "non-economic bycatch" is left dead or to die on the decks. Mounds of sharks, kingfish, drum and crab are left on the deck as a crouching shrimper picks out the relatively few shrimp among them.

Such a large bycatch is a product of bottom trawling, a technique common off the coast of South Carolina since at least 1940's.  Motz doesn't even mention the clear environmental disaster bottom trawling is. Instead he focuses on another tragedy: the sorry plight of these struggling men and, briefly — though the entire film is brief — on the gustatory pleasures of wild caught head on shrimp.

Though the practice of trawling wreaks havoc on the ocean floor, the death of an industry wreaks havoc on land.

Mainly Head On is a sad film, not quite as sad as the 2004 German-Turkish drama of the same name but almost. Though the practice of trawling wreaks havoc on the ocean floor, the death of an industry wreaks havoc on land.

But if Motz is concerned for the land-lubbers, Caplow, in Raising Shrimp, is more concerned about the waterborne.  For Caplow, the solution of foreign shrimp farms isn't, as is implied by Motz, a protectionist return to the days of domestic wild-caught shrimp orgies. Instead Raising Shrimp focuses on building ecologically sustainable shrimp farms in the United States of America. The case he makes is a tremendously strong one, even if the movie he made is a little slapdash and even a touch self-indulgent. Caplow may be — nay, is — a brilliant scientist, but no one needs so many minutes of him wandering around a shrimp farm in Belize looking intrepid.  The solutions are concrete and actionable, and actually being done by a handful of shrimp farms. So though Raising Shrimp is hair raising it's also hope-raising too.


George Motz / Head On

If I had to choose which film presents a more viable, sustainable, and morally cogent argument, clearly it is Raising Shrimp. South Carolina's shrimpers have long known about bycatch. Now they are bycatch themselves. But it would have made Caplow's film much stronger too if he didn't completely ignore the human cost of rendering an entire industry obsolete.

In the end, both films do exactly what good documentaries should: they stuck with me and made me change. This morning I had breakfast at Genuine Roadside, a vaguely Southern restaurant in Manhattan's Gotham Market West with a shrimp and grits entree. I asked where the shrimp came from. The clerk paused then said, "Sysco?" I ordered the breakfast burrito.

Head On: 3 out of 5 stars

Raising Shrimp: 3 out of 5 stars

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