Once a rare delicacy, aquaculture has allowed shrimp to become a popular and affordable form of animal protein. Emerging economies such as China, Indonesia and Bangladesh view shrimp production as one path towards boosting jobs and exports. The meteoric growth of the global shrimp industry, however, has an ugly side. The increase in shrimp farms worldwide has been tied to environmental degradation and human rights violations. Environmental organizations including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have tied the growth of the shrimp industry to the loss of vital ecosystems and outbreaks of disease.
WWF, however, has recently suggested that improved aquaculture efficiencies could also transform the shrimp sector into one that could allow for more sustainable development. A report the environmental group released earlier this month says that more intensive shrimp farming operations in Vietnam and Thailand could result in higher yields without imposing more pressure on local ecosystems.
Researchers found that across these two important shrimp producing countries, the more intensive aquaculture operations tended to use land far more effectively. More extensive operations tended to have larger surface areas that ranged anywhere from five to 20 hectares in surface area. More intensive shrimp farms, however, tended to have far smaller pond sizes with a range between 0.5 and 5 hectares. While more intensive operations could be subjected to more risk of disease outbreaks, the study also found that amendments such as agricultural limestone and probiotics could mitigate those risks.
Overall, WWF’s researchers also concluded that more intensive shrimping operations often used water, land, labor and energy far more efficiently, to the point at which they often yielded an additional eight tons of shrimp per hectare of space. Furthermore, at a time when wild fisheries have suffered depletion due in the part to the demand for aquaculture feed, these more intensive operations used feed far more effectively.
If all the shrimp farms in Vietnam and Thailand could improve their collective feed efficiency by a factor of 0.1, WWF estimated that over 106,000 hectares of land, 37 billion gallons of water, 468 tons of wild fish and the amount of power needed to electrify 140,000 American homes for a year could be conserved. In addition, shrimp farms, many of which are small family-run operations, would save money: $110 million annually, according to WWF’s figures. That amount equates to about $5,000 per farm, hardly a significant amount in Vietnam and Thailand, where per capita income is $5,690 and $15,210, respectively.
In addition, the more efficient use of land results in savings that are difficult to quantify but impossible to ignore. Land used for shrimp farming is often in coastal zones with a high level of biodiversity – the conversion of these lands to monocultures such shrimp farming often results in habitat loss that cannot be remediated for decades. Keeping more of these coastal habitats intact, says WWF, can help mitigate climate change risks in the long run, as mangroves and other ecosystems within these regions serve a critical role as carbon sinks. Leaving more of these coastal zones untouched also allows wild fisheries and other marine life to thrive. Finally, these habitats can help reduce the costs of infrastructure loss as they are critical in protecting inland communities from weather-related events such as storm surges.
WWF’s recommendations involve more than land preservation, however. The shrimp industry’s global supply chain needs to be completely revamped, as it heavily relies on converting fish meal to shrimp feed. The result is the depletion of fisheries and risk that more people are enslaved on fishing boats. Alternative food sources, such as those derived from algae, could be an option. Transparency and traceability also need vast improvement, the responsibility of which should fall on the various seafood certification programs that are striving to make this industry far more responsible and sustainable.
Finally, retailers and consumers need to drive awareness of the shrimp industry’s current problems, and demand that products meet the standards of organizations such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. “Accountability and efficiency needs to become a pre-competitive aspect of shrimp aquaculture moving forward,” concluded the report.
Image credit: WorldFish/Flickr