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The VICE Channels

    Big Shrimpin'

    Written by Peter Hess

    Jurgenne Primavera came of age in the shrimp farming industry, where she worked as a researcher for over 30 years. But by 1990, when she earned her PhD, she started to feel pangs of guilt about her profession, and in particular the damage that shrimp farming was doing to the environment. “I would observe some trees near the ponds, strange-looking trees, and eventually realized these were mangroves,” she said.

    She also realized that the industry that gave her a livelihood was damaging this coastal ecosystem. “I didn’t feel very good about it because I loved trees. I grew up with trees. So I had some kind of shift and I became critical of what was happening to the environment.”

    Primavera now devotes her energy to protecting coastal mangroves in her native Philippines, focusing on restoring green belts, the borders of vegetation that grow along the coastline. “For those countries that don’t have storms, green belts are interfaces for fisheries,” she said. “For those that have storms, they are protection.”

    These green belts are made up of mangroves, which occupy much of the Philippines’ 36,289 kilometers of coastline. They function as nurseries for economically and ecologically valuable marine life, and they provide protection against storm surges. “They’re nature’s protective barriers,” Primavera said.

    Shrimp farming ponds are often abandoned after a few years due to contamination, which has contributed to the destruction of mangroves

    But voracious human appetites for shrimp—in some cases, all one can eat—are endangering these important trees.

    Coastal shrimp farmers grow the animals in large, constructed ponds, located on the water’s edge so that their water can be exchanged regularly. The water must be exchanged to discharge the animal waste that accumulates, as well as the hormones that are used to encourage rapid growth and antibiotics that are used to treat and prevent infections. Because the ponds are located on the coast, mangroves must be ripped out. Over time, antibiotics accumulate in the soil, a pattern that has been linked to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

    Farming ponds are often abandoned after a few years due to this chemical and biological contamination, which has contributed to vast destruction of vital mangrove habitats in Southeast Asia and Latin America over the past few decades. Alfredo Quarto, executive director and co-founder of the international advocacy group Mangrove Action Project, estimates that there are 450,000 hectares of abandoned shrimp farms worldwide—the equivalent of nearly half a million baseball fields. These abandoned farms stand in the former homes of mangroves, leaving the land riddled with such diseases as the shrimp-specific infectious hypodermal and hematopoietic necrosis virus, as well as hormones and antibiotics used in shrimp farming. The land is worse than useless for local people to pursue agriculture in the future, said Quarto.

    Some see these environmental consequences as acceptable collateral damage of a profitable industry that provides people jobs. The World Wildlife Fund estimates per capita shrimp consumption in the United States at four pounds annually, and though shrimp prices have dipped in the past few months, they are generally on the rise. In 2014, the US was the world’s top shrimp importer, and the top five exporters, China, India, Ecuador, Indonesia and Thailand, exported over one million tonnes of shrimp. This massive market should indicate that shrimp farming is a profitable venture for people who work in the industry. But these numbers don’t tell the whole story of shrimp farming, Quarto said. “It creates wealth locally, but it does not work its way down to the community. The few jobs it creates are not skilled jobs. Women stand in wet places for hours peeling shrimp.”

    He says that not only does the local wealth not make it into the pockets of most local people, but the shrimp rarely even makes its way onto their tables. “Ninety-five percent of shrimp are exported from developing nations and not consumed there,” Quarto said.

    Mangroves like these in Bulacan are being destroyed by shrimp farming. Image: Judgefloro/Wikimedia Commons

    This dynamic has long been at the heart of large-scale shrimp farming. Global demand for shrimp continues to grow, and environmental degradation is the price that local communities pay for it. This is nothing new, Quarto said. “So much has been published on this, but people have short memories. The desire for tasty shrimp is still there.” And that’s the problem: Demand for shrimp in industrialized nations has continued to support questionable practices in developing nations.

    As a Philippines citizen, Primavera has the perspective of both a researcher and a local. She understands what local people stand to lose when mangroves are destroyed for farming: coastal protection, water quality, erosion control, and fish for local consumption. To the shrimp industry, the value of converting land that had previously not been profitable is huge, while the value of subsistence-level harvesting is comparatively small. But to individuals living in the shadow of massive shrimp operations, this meager living is their whole world. “This loss is overshadowed by companies’ profit motives,” Primavera said. “But they do not put a value to the loss of food and services that the low income people experience, because these people are voiceless.”

    Even those who support mangrove preservation do not agree on how it should be done. Primavera criticizes western nongovernmental organizations for advocating conservation policies that would make it so mangroves are completely off-limits, which she argues is unproductive. “It’s all emotion. This is dangerous for nongovernmental organizations when they do not have the solid facts.” Instead, Primavera advocates a moderate approach that protects mangroves without prohibiting responsible resource use.

    So what would it look like to farm shrimp sustainably? Primavera says it’s just a matter of following more moderate practices: let ponds lay fallow between seasons, don’t stock too high of a density, and don’t use too many chemicals or antibiotics. She also emphasizes that mangroves should border shrimp ponds, not be replaced by them. But Primavera says that she has not seen corporate growers employing these better practices.

    And while these moderate practices may not be the norm yet, some producers say they are changing for the better. “The industry has learned its lessons and found that mangrove areas are not the best sites for shrimp culture,” said Celia Pitogo, a researcher at Integrated Aquaculture International, a company that implements projects for shrimp producers all over the world, including in Asia, Latin America and the United States. She says that newer shrimp ponds are located behind mangrove zones, a practice that is more in line with Primavera’s vision for healthy shrimp farm management. Reuters recently published a story about Thai shrimp farmers who are replanting mangroves on deforested coastlines to farm organic shrimp in less intensive, more ecologically-friendly operations.

    “The few jobs it creates are not skilled jobs. Women stand in wet places for hours peeling shrimp.”

    Another new trend in shrimp farming might make a difference. Shrimp farmers in the American Midwest are raising tropical shrimp all year round using recirculated water. Farms such as RDM Aquaculture in Indiana are growing shrimp in indoor facilities. They employ bays filled with bacteria to digest the shrimp waste products, eliminating the need to discharge wastewater into the local environment. Because of their bacterial bays, RDM’s system does not require discharging or replenishing water to keep animal waste from accumulating to toxic levels.

    Karlanea Brown, co-owner and vice president of operations at RDM, is confident that their way will be the way of the future. “The US imports 90 percent of its shrimp. But why? I’m growing shrimp in the middle of Indiana,” she said. “We use no antibiotics or hormones, and we do not discharge water.” Facilities like Brown’s are becoming more common as US aquaculture farmers hear about their success. In fact, RDM is even setting up an indoor farm in Vietnam, a nation whose mangrove destruction mirrors that of the Philippines. “If that one works, it’ll turn the shrimp industry on its ear,” said Brown.

    Tzachi Samocha, an aquaculture researcher at Texas A&M University, says that this bold claim may not be farfetched. “Although there are still a few issues to make this industry work on a large scale in inland sites, we strongly believe that this cutting-edge production technology is the way to go.”

    It seems unlikely that our appetite for shrimp will subside, but fortunately, international pressure has forced sectors of the shrimp farming industry to develop in ways that the mangroves will appreciate. In addition to moving some shrimp operations behind the mangroves, Pitogo notes that producers are using fewer chemicals. “For example, the use of probiotics is now favored instead of antibiotics,” she said, describing the biological robustness conferred by a diverse bacterial population. For now, these better practices are non-binding, but perhaps, if more producers follow suit, we can eat our shrimp and have our mangroves too.