Shell Game: The Environmental and Social Impacts of Shrimp Aquaculture

Shell Game - PDF Version

Shell Game:
The Environmental and Social Impacts of Shrimp Aquaculture

A special report by Public Citizen’s Food Program

(For a PDF Version of this report click here.)

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Aquaculture is the farming of aquatic organisms, including fish, mollusks, crustaceans and aquatic plants. Like all farming, it involves some form of intervention in the rearing process to enhance production, such as regular stocking, feeding, and protection from predators.[1] Aquaculture can be done in inland freshwater environments and in or adjacent to the sea. Done for the right purposes and in the right manner, aquaculture offers the potential to bolster local food security and livelihood opportunities for many of the one-billion people in the world who suffer greatly from the lack of both.

Many consumers in the U.S., Japan, and Europe want to understand more about the effects their consumption is having on others around the world. The story of farmed shrimp is also one that health conscious consumers might want to hear, because if they knew more about what might be lurking in the flesh of farmed shrimp, they might think twice about eating too much of it, or about eating any at all. Consumers have a right to know all about the health risks and environmental and social costs associated with the food they eat.

Shrimp aquaculture is also a story that the seafood trade and marketing industry doesn’t want consumers to know. Naturally enough, companies engaged in the seafood marketing industry have been making fortunes off of cheap farmed-raised shrimp and they don’t want any negative publicity. Some companies have formed a well-funded shrimp task force of corporations who are “fighting for America’s #1 seafood”.[2] But, cheap shrimp is bad shrimp. The reason why shrimp is cheaper today than it has ever been is because the true costs of producing it has been and continues to be paid for by the environment and the rural communities in the Global South, not by the consumers.

Environmental Costs

Diverse natural landscapes have been, and are still being, radically transformed into vast monoculture cropping systems called "shrimp farms" laid out for as far as the eye can see. The wide array of negative environmental impacts created by shrimp aquaculture expansion has been well documented in an exhaustive list of studies spanning two decades.[3] Aside from the well-documented environmental impacts, the industrialized production of shrimp imposes socio-economic costs on communities as their traditional means of food production and livelihoods are displaced.[4]

All forms of aquaculture - such as shrimp and salmon - affect biodiversity by degrading habitat, disrupting trophic systems, transmitting diseases and reducing genetic variability.[5] The best-known example of habitat alteration is the impact of shrimp farming on mangrove ecosystems. These coastal forests encompass very high species diversity both in the water and on adjacent lands. In Southeast Asia they contribute about one-third of yearly landings of wild fish.[6] From the late-1970s, an estimated 2.5 million to 3.75 million acres (1 to 1.5 million hectares) of various types of coastal wetland environments, including salt flats, marshes, and mangrove forests,[7] were cleared away by bulldozers to construct shrimp production complexes, along with additional lands used for subsistence agricultural purposes, such as growing rice.[8]

Because of the need for brackish water and the grave misconception that mangroves are wastelands of little economic value, shrimp farm investors predominantly settled in these coastal forests to cut costs. But, mangrove ecosystems provide an abundance of services to communities that have been fulfilling their needs for centuries.[9] In addition, mangroves support the functioning of other ecosystems in the seascape,[10] such as coral reefs ecosystems further offshore. Shrimp farming development that destroys mangroves, and other related wetlands, therefore translates into environmental and social costs, which are not paid for by the industry, nor by consumers of shrimp in foreign markets. Several studies have addressed the environmental and social values of mangroves,[11] but those values are never accounted for when calculating the true costs of shrimp farming; thus, short-sighted and narrow economic analyses make it appear that shrimp farms provide more economic worth than mangroves, which, as in Thailand, is not the case.[12] (See Box 1)

Box 1: The Case of Thailand

An analysis of a mangrove ecosystem in Thailand revealed that conversion for aquaculture made sense in terms of short-term private benefits, but not once external costs were factored in. Summing all measured goods and services, the total economic value (TEV) of intact mangroves exceeds that of shrimp farming by around 70% ($60,400 compared with $16,700 per hectare (2.5 hectares equal 1 acre) respectively).[13]

Converting tidal wetlands for shrimp farms and building roads, dykes, and canals to service the farms threatens biodiversity in the tropics, particularly in Latin America and Southeast Asia.[14] Tidal marshes and mangroves that serve as nursery grounds for marine life are lost through the conversion process.[15] The destruction of wetlands has caused dramatic declines in biodiversity, with impacts felt far beyond the immediate targeted area, for example, on migratory birds that use the ecosystems at various stages of their life cycles. Wild populations of fish and shrimp decline. Such impacts on fish stocks and other sea creatures, even wild populations of shrimp, inevitably lead to reduced fish catches for local fisherfolk.

Environmental Costs Create Social Costs, Too

The relationship between mangroves and other wetlands with coastal fisheries is complex and not precisely understood. There is, nevertheless, a large and growing body of evidence that many marine species use these habitats as nursery areas and for shelter during early development. Their loss has been shown to negatively impact coastal fisheries resources and the livelihoods of coastal communities.[16] Thus, asthe removal of mangroves devastates coastal biodiversity, coastal communities are also hurt, economically and socially, as the underpinnings of their society begin to disintegrate.

As wetland areas are destroyed, coastal communities lose their access to areas that provided small-scale, sustainable economic activities such as fishing, agriculture and the local production of forest-related products. In areas where limited access is still available, resources have been severely degraded and the limited amounts of available food may pose a potential health risk linked to high levels of pollution and toxic compounds from the shrimp farms. Unfortunately, little scientific study has been focused on this.

Mangroves also play a key role in coastal protection. Without them, the coast erodes and changes occur in patterns of sedimentation and shoreline configuration. The mangroves serve as a buffer against storms and strong winds; when they are destroyed, communities along the coast are exposed to dangerous threats such as cyclones.[17]

Ecological Footprint in the Sand

The millions of acres of wetlands and agriculture lands converted to shrimp farms reflect only part of the negative environmental impacts and damage done to subsistence-based communities. Each acre of a shrimp farm can require as much as 200 additional “shadow acres” of ecosystems for absorbing the ecological costs of factory farming of shrimp.[18] For example, researchers investigating shrimp farming in Columbia found that a “farmed” acre required the productive and/or assimilative capacity of as much as 187 acres of additional ecosystems per year.[19]

These "shadow acres" make up the “ecological footprint” of factory-style shrimp farming. This is the area required to supply resources to and absorb the waste from shrimp farming. A shrimp farm requires a vast array of inputs, such as shrimp fry to “seed” the farm, fishmeal to feed the growing shrimp, fertilizers, chemical compounds, and enormous amounts of saline and fresh water. Then, there’s the problem of how to dispose of the tons of polluted water and waste products created by shrimp farming -- pollutants that are simply discharged onto surrounding lands and into nearby waterways.

How the industrial shrimp aquaculture industry handles feed requirements provides a good example of the ecological footprint left by factory shrimp farming. To grow quickly in captivity, shrimp are fed fishmeal made from fish caught by factory fishing fleets at sea. It takes several pounds of wild fish to produce enough fishmeal to grow just one pound of shrimp for the market – a highly wasteful practice with serious implications for the preservation of marine biodiversity. In fact, this type of fishing practice is a global phenomenon; annually, 30 to 35 million tons, about one-third of the entire global marine fish catch, is reduced to fishmeal and fish oils that is fed to farmed shrimp and salmon, cattle, pigs, chickens and the like.

… and In the Water

One of the most devastating aspects of the enormous ecological footprint of shrimp aquaculture is left on water. If water is life, then shrimp farming is the grim reaper slashing its deadly scythe into the very wellspring of life that sustains human communities everywhere. The impacts on water resources, especially on freshwater supplies, in areas where shrimp aquaculture dominate the landscape are staggering in terms of their extent and magnitude. Depletion, salinization, and chemical pollution of drinking water directly affect villages in areas where shrimp farming dominates the landscape. What it does to water through pollution and massive water use makes shrimp aquaculture a deadly threat to the survival of communities in regions of the world where obtaining clean, potable water is already an overwhelming challenge.

By its very nature, aquaculture generally requires considerably more water than any other industrial process.[20] Shrimp are grown in brackish water ponds in which the water must be continuously renewed and the salinity constantly adjusted in a suitable range. Up to 40% of the water in shrimp ponds are flushed out on a daily basis. The volumes of water used – sea, brackish, and fresh water -- are of staggering proportions. Altogether, shrimp farming requires between 8 and 16 million gallons of salt, brackish, and fresh water in varying proportions to produce just one ton of shrimp, or an average of 20 Olympic size swimming pools per ton.[21]

Of great concern is the enormous and unsustainable demand on freshwater supplies that shrimp aquaculture places on communities – the water they need for domestic use and food production. Freshwater must be mixed with highly saline sea water, because shrimp grow best in brackish water at certain stages of their lives. For example, an investigation of shrimp farming in Vietnam done by the Vietnamese Institute for Economics and Marine Planning offers compelling evidence that shrimp aquaculture is not sustainable because of its high demand on freshwater supplies. According to the research report, freshwater is used at a rate of about 5.3 million gallons a year per acre of shrimp farm in the area of Vietnam studied (50,000 cubic meters per hectare). Extrapolating from this, Vietnam’s 1.25 million acres (500,000 hectares) of shrimp farms,[22] would consume 210 billion barrels (25 billion cubic meters) of freshwater annually. The report emphasized that tapping fresh water resources in this way is not sustainable, particularly along coastal sandy areas where fresh water resources are limited,[23] which means that the local communities in surrounding areas that depend on the same water for their daily water needs and agricultural production are doomed.

Groundwater extraction of such magnitude for shrimp production not only depletes the resource directly, but as the aquifers are pumped dry, saltwater seeps in from the nearby sea causing salinization. Waste water pumped out of the shrimp farms back into the environment also causes salinization, in addition to pollution of ground water and local lakes and waterway.[24] Saltwater seepage from unlined shrimp ponds adds to the salinity of underground aquifers. Altogether, through direct extraction coupled with salinization, water supplies for domestic needs are destroyed and, to compound the misery, surrounding agricultural lands become salty, making any alternative cropping (such as rice) virtually impossible. Thus, water and food are jeopardized.

Adding to the problems created by the direct extraction of water for shrimp ponds and salinization of surrounding land and waters are pollutants generated through shrimp farming that end up in the surrounding environment. To maintain the overcrowded shrimp population in farms, and to attain higher production efficiency, copious amounts of artificial feed, pesticides, chemical additives, and antibiotics must be continuously added to the aquaculture systems – all eventually end up being purged from the farms and dumped onto surrounding water and land areas. Such wastes include solid matter (eroded pond soils), organics (uneaten, rotting shrimp feed, shrimp feces, dead shrimp, dead plankton) and dissolved metabolites (ammonia, urea and carbon dioxide).[25] Unfortunately, for the many chemical compounds, antibiotics and other therapeutants, some quite toxic, which are widely used in large-scale shrimp farming, accurate statistics on usage are almost non-existent due to the lack of government monitoring and controls.

These compounds together make the solid and liquid wastes from the ponds potentially quite hazardous to people living in surrounding communities. The polluted liquid wastes are pumped back into the surrounding environment. Any solid wastes remaining at the bottom of the ponds, are dredged out and hauled away to be dumped in other areas where they poison coastal waterways, estuaries, bays, fresh groundwater supplies, native flora and fauna, and adjacent human communities. The recent study in Vietnam by the Vietnamese Institute for Economics and Marine Planning found that each hectare of shrimp farms (1 hectare = 2.5 acres) produces eight tons of solid waste per year. Almost all Vietnamese shrimp farmers dump these solid wastes directly into the ocean, polluting the sea water along coastal areas. Altogether, Vietnam’s 1.25 million acres of shrimp farms are adding to the pollution burden of coastal areas by some 6.7 million tons of solid waste annually, according to the Institute’s report. In addition, it described how shrimp farmers commonly discharged their polluted waste waters straight into surrounding areas, causing the supplies of potable underground water, creeks and ponds to become brackish and polluted. The report noted that shrimp diseases are also spread from pond to pond this way throughout Vietnam.[26]

Impacts on the health of people living around shrimp farms who are exposed to the chemicals, antibiotics, and other potentially hazardous compounds in the waste water and sludge are evident. Community leaders have for years been reporting how local people, especially children, typically complain about unexplained, unusual symptoms showing up, including sore throats, burning eyes, and skin rashes. Unfortunately, the precise causes of these symptoms and how they might be related to shrimp farming pollution remain undetermined, because no long term studies have been done. The pollution of freshwater wells and aquifers from shrimp farming has other severe side effects for local people: it impacts their food supplies and subsistence economies. The intrusion of salt-water and pollution into local ground water and agricultural areas degrades local supplies of fresh, potable water and the soils used for agricultural food production. In addition, the dumping of vast quantities of polluted solid waste sediments that accumulate in the bottoms of shrimp ponds contributes to the salinity and toxicity in receiving soils and waters. As a consequence of this pollution and salinization, essential food crops - such as rice and vegetables - that need healthy soils and fresh water often become impossible to grow and when they do are contaminated.

2: Shrimp Refugees

In the Nellore district in the Andhra Pradesh state of India, more than 2,000 families in five coastal villages living near a large shrimp farm complex became "shrimp refugees" within a few short years after rich investors moved into the area and started converting the landscape into shrimp farms. Life became a nightmare for these villagers from the time construction of the 15,000 acre shrimp complex began in 1992 until it was shut down in 1995 after a deadly viral disease killed off the shrimp crops. Unfortunately for the villagers, after just three years of shrimp farming operations, groundwater supplies used for drinking, household purposes, and crop irrigation had become unusable due to saltwater and chemical contamination of effluents discharged from the shrimp ponds. The Andhra Pradesh State government had to evacuate more than 10,000 inhabitants of these fishing villages because the water was poisoned. The removal beginning in 1998 of the five coastal villages forced the inhabitants to move to other areas many kilometers from the seashore. Village fishermen are now walking more than 10 miles daily to get to the coast and back in order to fish in the sea that once lay at their doorsteps. Entire families were ripped asunder because local land shortages made it impossible to relocate everyone altogether in one location. [27]

The excessive water use by shrimp farms creates numerous other problems. For example, the over-extraction of groundwater by shrimp farmers has contributed to coastal land subsidence, with land sometimes sinking as deep as six feet.[28] Abstraction of freshwater for shrimp culture also uses a lot of energy for pumping and leads to conflicts with other energy and water resources users.[29] As fresh water supplies, energy and other resources for community needs are siphoned away, local people lose what they need for domestic purposes, especially for rice farming.

This happened in Thailand during the 1990s when, because of self-generated pollution and spreading shrimp disease infestations, shrimp farms covering almost a quarter of a million acres along the coast of Thailand collapsed. With no more mangroves left to occupy after having destroyed most of them, shrimp investors pulled up stakes and moved further inland into the country’s rice-producing areas where they took up ‘low-salinity’ shrimp farming. This type of farming was particularly thirsty for fresh water, and soon a fight between traditional rice farmers and the invading shrimp entrepreneurs had begun.[30]

To illustrate the degree of competition for water, a team of Canadian researchers[31] found that in the case of Thai shrimp farming in rice producing areas it takes almost twice the amount of fresh water to produce a pound of shrimp as it does to grow a pound of rice -- 660 gallons per pound of rice compared to 1,125 gallons of freshwater for a pound of shrimp. Since shrimp is far more profitable, the traditional rice farmers lose out to the new wave of shrimp entrepreneurs. When shrimp farms replace rice fields there is an absolute decrease in the number of jobs available in that area, but perhaps even more devastating, local food needs are denied.[32] In India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Malaysia, and other rice dependent countries lands that once produced rice enough to feed thousands of families each year, have been either taken over or destroyed by shrimp farms.

Jobs are Washed Away

The reality is that the benefits of shrimp farming are for the most part confined to a limited number of entrepreneurs, government officials and foreign experts. Local people suffer due to the loss of traditional livelihoods, such as fishing and wood cutting, to be replaced by substantially fewer, low wage employment on shrimp farms and in shrimp processing facilities. In elaborating on the advantages of shrimp farming in China, Southeast Asia and Latin America, the president of the Global Aquaculture Alliance, Dr. George Chamberlain, remarks that a laborer in the shrimp industry in rural China earns just $40 a month.[33]

On balance, while providing some with low-wage jobs, shrimp aquaculture destroys more opportunities for livelihoods than it creates. Critics of shrimp aquaculture, such as Indian activist Dr. Vandana Shiva, have documented the fact that the average shrimp farm in India during the 1990s provided perhaps 15 jobs on the farm and 50 security jobs around the farm, while displacing 50,000 people through loss of land and traditional fishing and agriculture. In its ruling to ban shrimp aquaculture within India’s coastal zone, the Indian Supreme Court concluded that shrimp aquaculture caused more economic harm than good, with costs outweighing benefits by a factor of four to one in Andhra Pradesh state, and 1.5 to one in Tamil Nadu state.[34]

An economics study conducted by researchers at Chittagong University in Bangladesh also found that shrimp farming displaced more jobs than it created. The researchers showed that cultivating 100 acres of land with rice employed 50 workers, while cultivating shrimp on the same land employed just five workers. As a result, aquaculture drives urbanization. The researchers concluded that overall shrimp farming in Bangladesh's coastal Satkhira region displaced 40 percent of the area's 300,000 inhabitants to the country's overcrowded cities, the university study found.[35]

3: Rice – One to Two

Rice farmers producing for local markets cannot compete economically with shrimp farmers and succumb to pressures to either convert to shrimp farming themselves (assuming they have sufficient capital) or sell their land to those who want to turn it into shrimp farms. Many shrimp ponds have been constructed on ex-agricultural land, especially rice paddies. Here, although land is often privately held, a transfer of land-use (if not ownership) has occurred from the former small-scale farmers to larger private shrimp farming concerns. Land transfers occurred by legal sales; forced sale through harassment, sale following degradation of the land by shrimp farm pollution, sale after inundating and degrading the land with salt water, and evictions of tenants. The effects are much the same as for mangroves – an established livelihood support system is broken down as land with multiple agricultural uses is turned over to mono-crop production.[36] Local water supplies reflect the impact of switching from rice crops to shrimp crops, as well. Twice as much water is needed to grow one pound of shrimp than for one pound of rice.

After Abandonment, What’s Left Behind?

The longer term environmental, and hence, economic and social aspects of abandoned shrimp farms centers on whether such conversion – be it from mangroves or rice producing lands -- is reversible. If not, once shrimp production has finished, often in very few years, the land will be unable to support any natural or agricultural productivity. Projects aiming to regenerate vegetation that previously covered the landscape, like mangroves, often end in failure, or never get off the ground because they’re just too costly. The issue of abandoned shrimp ponds is becoming increasingly important. It has been estimated that 37,000 acres of ponds were abandoned by the top four producing countries in 1994, for example,[37] largely in response to collapses related to viral diseases. The problem is only going to increase with further disease outbreaks in shrimp aquaculture and as world production capacity adjusts to demand. While some natural regeneration of mangroves might take place, and ex-agricultural land might eventually recover productivity, considerable effort and finance will be needed if these degraded areas are to be returned to pre-shrimp, natural productivity levels in a reasonable time.

Informed observers have speculated as to the extent to which the shrimp producers and the shrimp consuming countries – that is, the major beneficiaries of shrimp aquaculture – might be willing to finance this undertaking.[38] Perhaps another way to put the question is: how much more would shrimp loving consumers be willing to shell out to the major American restaurant chains promoting “all the shrimp you can eat” campaigns to pay for the true cost of the environmental and social damage being done? While such questions desperately beg answers, the people in fishing and rice producing communities, who are struggling to survive in areas destroyed by shrimp farms, must continue to suffer greatly until they too, like the mangroves and biodiversity that once thrived there before the shrimp invasion, are completely eradicated.

The expropriation and degradation of ecological (and hence economic) resources over vast areas by one industrialized production process means hardship and insecurity for communities living traditional lifestyles, which depend on the natural resources of the land and sea for food and livelihood. Little wonder, then, that the expansion of the shrimp industry along the tropical coastlines of Asia and Latin America has caused endless conflicts over resources between communities and the invading shrimp entrepreneurs. Those who’ve stood up to confront these invaders have often become the victims of violence at the hands of armed goon squads and corrupt police charged with protecting the interests of the shrimp tycoons. This was the case when four fishermen were killed as they protested against the commercial shrimp operators called the "shrimp mafia" in the Chilika Lake in Orissa, India on May 29, 1999.

But what options do affected people have other than to resist? The impacts of the theft of their natural environment and resources by the shrimp industry have hit these communities hard. The destruction of coastal wetlands to establish shrimp farms has profoundly affected their ability to maintain subsistence fishing and farming for basic food and livelihood. Intensive shrimp farms in coastal areas of Southeast Asia and Latin Americahave denied local residents from undertaking traditional activities, such as fishing, gathering construction materials, food collection, fuel gathering and hunting.[39] As coastal habitats for fish and other wildlife make way for shrimp farms, and long-standing access to traditional fishing areas in the sea is cut off by the physical placement of the shrimp farms, the resulting decline in fish catches harms traditional, subsistence communities.[40] When local and foreign trawlers rake up immense amounts of fish to ground into fishmeal to feed the farmed shrimp, local residents are denied a supply of traditional protein.[41]

As mangroves are converted to shrimp ponds, communal land with multi-purpose use becomes private land for single purpose use, controlled by those with political clout and economic capital to gain the land concession from the government.[42] Furthermore, as lands formerly used to produce other staple foods, such as rice, disappear, so do the people’s traditional sources of food and income. Local fresh water supplies for drinking and irrigation are usurped by the shrimp industry which needs vast and unceasing amounts to freshen up the water in their shrimp farms. All the while they are pumping back poisonous water and sludges full of toxic chemical wastes, shrimp feces, antibiotics, and other unsavory compounds that infect the surrounding waterways and freshwater wells and aquifers. Poisoned waters hit the children first who start to display symptoms of un-diagnosable, chronic illnesses and other disease symptoms like unprecedented and inexplicable outbreaks of sore throats, eye irritations and skin rashes.

While the waterways and land that coastal communities have used for centuries to catch fish, gather shellfish, grow vegetables and produce rice are taken over by the shrimp industry to produce shrimp for rich people in far away lands, local needs for wholesome nutrition are ignored. Money and other resources that could have been made available for environmentally sound fish aquaculture to feed hungry local markets have been instead diverted to shrimp farming expansion for export markets. As shrimp culture has gained priority in the planning of government departments and international development assistance organizations,[43] such as the World Bank Group, which claims its purpose is to reduce poverty, communities have lost their sources of clean, abundant food and water, and begun to suffer and disintegrate. Altogether, this is real impoverishment.

This is what happens when governments in shrimp producing countries do a policy U-turn from supporting food production for local needs to an export-oriented production policy to produce high-value luxuries, like shrimp.[44] Ironically, the policy shift is advocated on the grounds that it promotes food security. According to the perverse logic of this theory being pedaled by the World Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the multi-national companies making money from shrimp farming, export earnings are supposed to pay for substitute food imports, which are then supposed to somehow ‘trickle down’ to those in need. In truth, a trickle is about all the nutritionally needy will ever get, since they cannot afford to pay for expensive imported foods. Activists from communities devastated by shrimp farming strenuously reject this imported food substitutes theory. They argue, instead, that export-oriented agriculture reduces food security by encouraging a shift from small-scale, sustainable production to large-scale, non-sustainable industrialized modes of production. It also brings changes in ownership over natural resources and the means of production, from small autonomous producer/owners to large corporate and commercial interests. Peasants are displaced from farming and denied traditional access to land, water and associated natural resources, while commercial interests take over for industrial-scale production of export commodities such as shrimp. These changes are compounded by the negative environmental impacts they generate in production, which cause further hardship for local communities.

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[7] Paez-Ozuna, F. “The environmental impact of shrimp aquaculture: Causes, effects, and mitigating alternatives.” Environmental Management 28:1, 2001, pp. 131-140.

[8] Bailey, C. “The social consequences of tropical shrimp mariculture development.” Ocean and Shoreline Management 11 (1988), 31-44.

[9] Primavera, J.H. “A critical review of shrimp pond culture in the Philippines.” Reviews in Fisheries Science 1, 1993, pp. 11-20.

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