Epistemic status: Low resilience. Quick writeup from an amateur with no background in welfare research. Publishing this because I can't find a basic writeup of this case anywhere.
- Acetes japonicus are potentially the most common species of animal killed for food production today, by number of individuals.
- They are used to create akiami shrimp paste, a product used predominantly as a flavoring base in Southeast Asian and Southern Chinese cuisines.
- There’s some reason to believe shrimp paste could be easier to create plant based substitutes for, compared to other shrimp products, and that the alternative proteins market might not naturally have the right incentives to create excellent substitutes very quickly.
- [edit: although see Michael St. Jules's comment on why substitutes might not be welfare-improving on net]
- I’m unsure if anyone has done targeted welfare research on these animals, to answer basic questions like: Do they suffer? How much?
- This seems like a huge gap in the effective animal advocacy space: I’d be really excited to see more work done here.
There are a lot of individuals here:
- A recent Rethink Priorities survey of shrimp killed in food production, concluded tentatively that:
- There are 3.9–50.2 trillion wild caught A. japonicus individuals killed every year for food production
- A. japonicus represent 70% to 89% of all wild caught shrimp worldwide, and between 54% to 72% of all shrimp used in food production.
- This implies that A. japonicus are currently the most common species killed for food production.
Below I have adapted a figure from the authors to include A. japonicus (although note the error bars on both of the shrimp estimates are very wide).
It seems plausible we should care about these individuals:
I’m not really sure what evidence we have on the welfare capacity of A. japonicus (although note this report on shrimp sentience more generally). But it seems hard to rule out the fact that we care about these shrimp without further research.
I think this argument from another Rethink Priorities post probably applies:
Small invertebrates, like shrimp and insects, have relatively low probabilities of being sentient but are extremely numerous. But because these probabilities aren’t extremely low—closer to 0.1 than to 0.000000001—the number of individuals carries enormous weight. As a result, EV maximization tends to favor actions that benefit numerous animals with relatively low probabilities of sentience over actions that benefit larger animals of more certain sentience.
In general, not spending a ton of time investigating to what extent the animals most killed for food production matter morally seems potentially like a big mistake.
You might expect that Shrimp Welfare Project would be working on this problem, but they are explicitly not planning to do this. Here is what they say about A. japonicus:
The majority of wild-caught shrimps are a single species - A. japonicus - and are crushed and used to produce “shrimp paste”, a salty, fermented condiment used in Southeast Asian and Southern Chinese cuisine. We believe the shrimp paste market is very different to the contexts in which we work (i.e. the international import/export market for L. Vannamei / P. Monodon shrimps). It’s often made by fishing families in coastal villages, and production techniques can vary from village to village. We think a new project focused on shrimp paste in particular could potentially be very high impact.
We do have a volunteer who has recently started researching shrimp paste for us, which we plan to write-up and publish when finished. We’re working on this because we believe it could have significant informational value to the movement at relatively low cost to SWP, rather than because we anticipate SWP directly working on shrimp paste in the future
I’m super excited SWP is going to do some preliminary research on the matter, but it seems like there’s still a strong need for people to actually own making tangible action happen here!  See also this follow up comment from one of their cofounders.
I asked around a bit (click ‘see in context’), and I’m not sure if anyone is trying to e.g. make plant based shrimp paste alternatives happen. It seems totally possible to me that no one has made this a priority — shrimp paste seems to be a relatively commercially unimportant product, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the alternative protein industry hasn’t prioritized work in this area.
My main argument for tractability is, it doesn’t seem like anyone has tried very hard to claim this space, and maybe someone should try, given the above two sections.
Anecdotally, some people seem to believe making shrimp paste is potentially tractable to create a substitute for, and in general, my intuitive sense is that ‘paste’ like products are easier to produce (i.e. it’s easier to create a realistic mock beef patty than it is to create a steak). There are also existing simple vegan substitutes for shrimp paste that some recipe makers recommend (h/t Aaron Boddy for this point).
I'd love to see someone do more basic research here, e.g.:
- What is the literature like on the welfare capacity and sentience levels of A. Japonicus?
- Are there viable interventions targeting the welfare of these animals in fisheries?
- How big is the akiami shrimp paste market? Has anyone tried to make an actually convincing shrimp paste product? What are the market barriers to adoption for a good product in this space?
I'm really not an expert here, so if you wanted to actually work on this, you could probably get feedback on better research directions by contacting someone more knowledgeable.
Who should work on this? I don't know. I could imagine this being an interesting project for Good Food Institute, Charity Entrepreneurship, Rethink Priorities, or maybe someone else I am not tracking.
If you have ideas or are interested in doing work in this area, I'd be happy to chat!
Thank you very much to Aaron Boddy for giving me some quick feedback on this post.
Although it seems possible this could change / might already be outdated if insect farming takes off. It doesn't seem very important for the overall point that shrimp paste causes literally the most animal deaths of any food product — it's mostly relevant that there are a lot of lives at stake here, and this issue seems really neglected.
In an email, Aaron from the Shrimp Welfare Project tells me that a few people have started conducting some preliminary research on the welfare of wild caught shrimp and/or shrimp paste specifically. That is great, although I think this space is still very very small and could use a champion to make this a research / advocacy / market priority.