Fisherman Lance Nacio patiently answers questions about wild Louisiana shrimp as if he were explaining the most obvious thing in the world.
“Well, of course, they taste bettah,” Nacio says in his bayou-thickened South Louisiana accent. “They have a sweet, clean, natural flavor. They’re so clean, most of the time, you don’t even have to devein ’em because they don’t have the sandy grit in the vein like other shrimp have.”
And, well, of course he thinks so. Nacio may be just a little biased because he makes a living catching wild brown and white shrimp off the coast of Louisiana.
But there’s also a genuine explanation for why wild-caught Louisiana shrimp have a more mild or “sweet” flavor profile compared to farmed shrimp, or even the same species pulled from the waters of other Gulf coast states. Jon Bell, professor of food science at the LSU AgCenter, says it all boils down to the old adage “You are what you eat.”
Diet Makes the Difference
Wild shrimp and farmed shrimp will have their own distinctive flavor profile simply because their diet is different, Bell says.
“Wild shrimp have a more varied diet — they feed on marine organisms, different types of plankton, organic matter,” Bell says. “The fish meal pellets that farmed shrimp are fed contain a lot of grains.” The wild diet naturally gives wild shrimp a more robust flavor profile than a farmed shrimp raised on a bland, unvaried diet.
Nacio says the flavor is unmistakable. “One tastes like shrimp, the other tastes like textured protein — it takes on the flavor of whatever sauce or seasoning it’s served with.”
Haley Bittermann, corporate executive chef of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group in Louisiana, says she only uses wild-caught Gulf shrimp in the restaurants because of its “much sweeter, delicate” taste.
At just one of the group’s restaurants, the chef says, she goes through roughly 32,500 pounds of Gulf shrimp per year.
“We definitely prefer the wild caught,” says Bitterman. “We are very spoiled living in south Louisiana to have access to such a great local wild product. I can’t remember the last time I have had anything other than wild-caught Gulf shrimp.”
Why So Sweet?
The sweetness that many associate with wild Louisiana shrimp compared to deepwater Gulf shrimp is attributed to the two rivers that run to the coast of Louisiana — the massive Mississippi and the Atchafalaya. These rivers pour untold billions of gallons of fresh water into the estuaries and marshes along the coastline of Louisiana, creating brackish, less saline water and a silty bottom where shrimp hatch and feed.
The salinity of the water also impacts the type of plankton and marine organisms that are present where shrimp feed. Bell says Texas researchers have traced the strong iodine flavor in some Gulf shrimp to an organism found in the deep waters farther out in the Gulf.
“The brackish water makes Louisiana wild shrimp unique — no other state in the country has that mixture of fresh and salt water,” Nacio says.
Shrimpers as Stewards of the Wild
Protecting this unique shrimp and the natural resources that make it possible is one of Nacio’s biggest priorities as a shrimper.
For Nacio, this means reducing the amount of bycatch — the unwanted marine life that gets caught in his nets and tossed back in the water — with a Bycatch Reduction Device (BRD). A BRD is an engineered opening in a shrimp net that allows top-swimming finfish and other marine life bycatch to escape the net.
Bycatch is bad for business because it damages delicate, wild shrimp as it thrashes in the same net, but Nacio isn’t only looking out for himself by using BRDs, which are not mandated by law.
“I’ve always shrimped this way, because when you make a living on the water, you want to be a good steward to the environment,” Nacio says. “Sustainable shrimping makes a better product — good, clean shrimp — and it minimizes my impact on the environment.”