Pakistanis peel shrimp at a shrimp farm in Karachi, Pakistan, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016. Photo credit: AP Photo/Fareed Khan

We’re well into the 21st century, and yet somehow we still find ourselves living in a world where animals are subjected to some of the most insane forms of abuse imaginable. And while there seems to be an endless list of such examples to bring up, here’s one that you probably haven’t seen before: shrimp farmers chopping off the eyes of female shrimp, without anesthetic, in an effort to help them breed.

Female prawns are being subjected to eyestalk ablation: having their eyes cut open, broken and squeezed out. The process is considered to be the most effective way to facilitate maturation, and is even encouraged by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; the FAO’s training manual details exactly how to go about cutting the eyes off of live shrimp:

“Ablation is done by using a razor blade to cut/open the eye, then squeezing out the eyestalk from the base to the tip with the thumb and forefinger or using the fingers alone to break and squeeze the eye.”

In an e-mail to Project Earth, an ex-prawn Farmer from Australia who wished to remain anonymous, wrote “I have seen them chopping eyes off prawns, it is grim and happens all over the world.”

Why Are We Cutting Off Shrimp Eyes?

The short answer is to make more shrimp. In the wild, prawns need to migrate to deeper waters with low-level light and stable temperatures in order to spawn; these environmental cues trigger glands located behind the shrimp’s eyes, which leads to prawn maturation and gonad development. Think of it like mood-lighting for the shrimp.

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But in captivity, it’s difficult to create the right conditions for the shrimp to get it on. And so, instead of dimming the lights, farmers just cut shrimp’s eyes out. Sounds crazy, but that’s what goes on. According to the Australian Prawn Farming Manual the best way to replicate these stress free low light conditions is “destruction of the gland at the base of the eyestalk.”

“Across the world, we understand this is happening and it doesn’t need to,” said Animals Australia CEO Gleny Oojges, in an interview with ABC news. “It’s horrific and it causes them pain.”

As surprising as it might sound, it seems like shrimp don’t really like having their eyes cut open, broken and squeezed out. Scientists have found that during eyestalk ablation prawns express various genes related to immunity and stress response. In fact, a study from Pukyong National University showed that as well as the genes for maturation they were able to identify 105 differentially expressed genes during the cut, a large amount of which were related to stress.

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Other studies have illustrated various pain related behaviors which are expressed during eyestalk abolition. The traumatic process led prawns to flick their tails as an escape reflex and rub the affected areas, as well as exhibit further behaviors related to discomfort, such as non-sheltering, disorientation, recoil and stooping. “People care about animal welfare, they understand that prawns can feel pain and suffer trauma” said Oojges to ABC.

Is It Necessary?

Although the FAO advocates for the practice, there are ways to encourage prawns to spawn that don’t entail cutting their eyes out. Seajoy, one of Latin Americas largest producers of farmed shrimp, has stopped the practice at their farms and is currently working on a non-ablation spawning technique. The farm demonstrates that with “a demanding selection program, managed using the highest quality feed, animal welfare management and negative disease records” they were able to phase out ablation and have a “greater and more sustainable production at all phases”.

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Oojges pointed out to ABC that “Changes to stocking density, to lighting, temperature in the breeding ponds can also bring the prawns into sexual maturity and so they don’t need to do what is a terribly brutal, gruesome practice of cutting the eyes out of prawns.”

Shrimp is one of the most popular seafoods in the world, and are consistently ranked as the top seafood consumed by Americans. But, we generally don’t think about where shrimp come from, or what they went through to get onto our plates.

“I think a lot of people, when they go into the supermarket and look at the prawns on display, they really need to be sending a message that they’re concerned about the ethics of the industry and whether they should support that industry,” said Oojges to ABC.

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