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The rise and fall of the Blue Revolution

Alfredo Quarto discusses the state of the global aquaculture industry and its environmental and economic impacts.

The author is Executive Director of the Mangrove Action Project and co-editor of the MAP Quarterly News.

Over half the world’s human population is concentrated in coastal areas at risk from sea level rise and other hazards. Coastal zones also support a vast array of other life dependent upon healthy ocean ecosystems. Yet, today, our oceans are beleaguered by overfishing, pollution, and mass destruction of coastal resources via unsustainable forms of modern development. Serious declines in wild fish stocks amid increasing world consumer demands for more fish products have combined to present a dilemma on how best to meet these new challenges.

One proposed solution — aquaculture — is being highly lauded today by governments, world lending institutes and industry. Many see it as the next logical step towards solving the above problems, and offering a revolution in modern fisheries — the “Blue Revolution.” Following on the heels of agriculture’s “Green Revolution,” modern aquaculture has promised to turn the tide on food production from the seas and waterways, delivering into the world’s eager hands the key that unlocks the door to “farming the sea.”

Aquaculture might be broadly defined as the establishment of human-made enclosures to raise aquatic life forms such as shellfish, fish, and sea weeds for human consumption. The aquaculture process itself is quite ancient, having appeared in traditional, less-intensive forms nearly 2000 or more years ago in Asia and other parts of the world. The gei wais of Hong Kong, or the tambaks of Indonesia, offer striking examples of traditionally-derived forms of aquaculture that still exist today. Unfortunately, since the advent of more intensive modern industrial aquaculture, serious environmental and social issues have developed. Millions of indigenous coastal people are being adversely affected, many losing their livelihoods, homes, and cultures to unsustainable aquaculture development.

Meanwhile, in the cities and towns of the wealthy consumer nations, where imported fish products are sold in great volumes, little is known of the great hardships created by these “revolutions” in farming the land and the sea. Few consumers of aquaculturally-raised products are aware of the many serious problems caused by the incoming tide of the aquaculture industry, where ruin and riches run simultaneously like two parallel, but opposing, sea currents.

The last Shrimp Cocktail

Modern industrial shrimp aquaculture is a case in point. In the past 15 years, the rapid and largely uncontrolled expansion of the shrimp aquaculture industry has led to immense environmental and social problems which have only recently been brought to light. Among the most serious problems is the degradation and loss of natural coastal resources. Unsolved pollution problems still plague the industry, despoiling once fecund waters of nearby estuaries and inshore coastal bays. Formerly rich fishing grounds are being impacted, and vital fish breeding and nursery habitats are being lost to the encroaching shrimp farms.

The overall setup, processes and operations of industrial shrimp aquaculture are tremendously disruptive to the delicate and complex balance of coastal ecology. Vast stretches of invaluable mangrove forests are cleared to make way for shrimp ponds. Shrimp farms replace a diverse, multiple resource environment with large-scale monoculture operations. Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of hectares of valuable mangrove forests have been destroyed by shrimp farming alone — and this in only the past two decades.

Other important coastal habitats, such as mud flats, sea grass beds, and coral reefs, have been degraded or ruined. Also, once productive farmlands have been left fallow, and important waterways and underground aquifers have been dangerously contaminated. For many, the shrimp industry has been aptly labelled a “slash and burn” enterprise, leaving in its wake both pain and loss.

One tragic irony of industrial shrimp aquaculture is that the process requires clean water, yet it has become a source of severe water pollution, oftentimes fouling its own “nest,” in its bid for ever higher shrimp production. The often unrestricted use of chemical inputs, such as antibiotics, pesticides and water additives, when combined with the build-up on the pond bottoms of unused feeds and faeces, has led to epidemic shrimp diseases and many early pond closures because of harmful accumulation of toxic effluents. Some of the antibiotics used in shrimp aquaculture are closely related to those used in human medical treatment, and the question remains as to the development of resistant strains of human pathogens.

Shrimp farming, along with other forms of aquaculture, poses a real danger of genetic contamination and lowering of biodiversity. Accidental and incidental release of farm-raised shrimp or fish can have tremendous repercussions on the native species which may come in contact with them. Competition for territory, genetic drift, disease spread, and excess demand on available resources are genuine concerns today. For example, in Norway, it is believed that the number of escaped salmon exceeds the total number of wild salmon migrating into Norwegian waters. Not much is known about the effect that accidental releases of shrimp will have on local wild species, but further study is urgently needed.

Besides the above problems manifest in the industry, shrimp aquaculture also affects essential food production processes. Both agriculture and fisheries are adversely affected. Salinization and pollution of both land and waterways by the shrimp farms ruins both fisheries and crop production. In some areas, severe rice production losses have caused local agricultural economies to begin importation of what was once the region’s staple food crop.

The seeds of the Blue Revolution

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, industrial processes were widely introduced into aquaculture to encourage commercial production. Then, in the early 1980s, major improvements in hatchery production and feed processing allowed rapid advances in shrimp farming techniques, making it possible to produce dramatically increased yields.

This “Blue Revolution” has in many ways retraced the steps of the “Green Revolution” in agriculture. The latter contributed to the growth of large-scale export-oriented agribusiness enterprises in developing nations, but it also generated widespread criticism for its environmental and social impacts. The new aquaculture techniques resulted in an explosive expansion of coastal shrimp aquaculture throughout developing nations in Asia and Latin America.

Over 85 per cent of worldwide farmed shrimp is produced in Asia. Approximately two-thirds of it is exported to Japan and the United States, with the remainder divided among other foreign markets and luxury domestic markets. Though trawler-caught shrimp still dominate two-thirds of the world shrimp market, the rate of growth in farmed shrimp production will allow that sector to overtake, and even surpass, the wild-caught production by the year 2000. Farmed shrimp production has truly skyrocketed, rising from just 26 thousand metric tons of production in the 1970s to 100,000 metric tons in the early 1980s to over 700,000 metric tons in 1995.

Bankrolling a bankrupt system

Shrimp aquaculture has become a global industry that has an annual farm-gate value of over US$6 billion dollars, and an annual retail value of over US$20 billion dollars. It has great profit potential for the astute investor and entrepreneur. Spurred on by governments eager for increased export dollars, shrimp aquaculture development has been aided by generous support and incentives from international lending institutes, including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.

One high profile rationale used by international lending agencies to justify the investments in aquaculture has been its assumed importance as a tool to help meet food needs in developing countries, that is, to “feed the poor.” Ironically, the shrimp produced from these investments have been channelled exclusively to luxury consumers in domestic and international markets, and have never become a food source for those who are truly hungry. Meanwhile, the coastal poor are being robbed of their once sustainable food sources as their traditional agriculture and fisheries are being steadily despoiled by the shrimp industry’s operations.

The global economic figures and the allure of quick investment returns belie the fact that the shrimp aquaculture industry is a young giant with dramatic problems. The spread of deadly infectious viruses has ruined once thriving shrimp aquaculture industries in Taiwan (1988), China (1993), and Vietnam (1995), causing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of losses. Despite these setbacks, the industry remains quite strong, and the market quite alluring. Japan’s import of shrimp products increased from  29 per cent of the total imports of seafood in 1986 to 46 per cent in 1991. In the United States, which contains the largest shrimp import market, shrimp consumption reached 2.5 pounds per capita.

An important factor contributing to local fisheries declines is the selective harvesting process to catch the wild shrimp larvae for stocking the ponds. In fact, while the world is grappling with global fisheries declines due to the rate of by-catch and the number of vessels on the sea, it is useful to know that the shrimp fry fishery for aquaculture has the highest by-catch rate in the world, up to 20 pounds of fish lost for every one pound of shrimp larvae caught. Worse, the shrimp larvae by-catch consists mainly of other fish larvae which then never reach the reproductive stage. This certainly contributes to declining wild fisheries, including decreases in wild stock of the very shrimp larvae required by the industry which once thrived in the now-vanished mangrove forests. Vital habitats have been permanently lost for fish, molluscs, and crustaceans, as well as numerous birds, migratory species and endangered species.

Photo: Sarah Granich/TIEMPO

A castle built on sand

In Asia, the average intensive farm has been found to survive only two to five years before serious pollution and disease problems cause early shrimp pond closures. Overstocking and indiscriminate use of feeds and water additives are still being widely practised today. In Thailand, where nearly 85 per cent of the shrimp ponds are intensive systems, over half of the shrimp ponds have closed down in the first decade of Thailand’s entry into the great race for world dominance in the shrimp export market. It is a fact that industrial shrimp aquaculture is being practised on a wide-scale production basis while still really in its research and development phase. It is still attempting to solve very grave and life-threatening problems in the field, rather than in a closed test facility where failures will not be so ruinous.

Indiscriminate expansion of the shrimp aquaculture industry might be likened to taking unsuspecting passengers on board a still untested prototype commercial jet on its maiden flight. The reason test pilots are paid their high salaries is because of the uncertain risks they must take in putting their aircraft through its rigorous tests. However, with the rapid spread of shrimp farming, we are all being forced to fly this dangerous mission with great prospects of an industry crash endangering all of us and the very planet on which we live.

Even the shrimp product itself, which is widely marketed and in popular demand in consumer nations, is questionable with regard to health risks. The often indiscriminate use, or misuse, of antibiotics, pesticides, and other water and shrimp feed additives has raised some serious questions for consumers. Some antibiotics used in shrimp production are similar to antibiotics used to treat human diseases. Studies are currently being conducted by a team of scientists in the United States and the Philippines to determine whether antibiotics used for shrimp production could create a resistance to these antibiotics in the humans who consume farmed shrimp. Due to escalating public concerns over health risks, Japan has identified over 20 antibiotics used in the farmed shrimp industry and has banned shrimp farmed with these antibiotics. Meanwhile, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only looks for residues of between just two to six antibiotics, and as yet, bans no shrimp cultivated with their use.

The impending threat in Africa

According to a 1995 Food and Agriculture Organization report: “During the remainder of this decade the absolute gap between the average salary of people in Africa and those in Asia will continue to grow. As a partial result, Asian aquaculture entrepreneurs will find it increasingly commercially attractive to develop aquaculture production units in Africa, using a favourable physical environment, African labour, Asian technology and capital from Asia or elsewhere... the present international mobility of capital makes it plausible that fish processing facilities producing primarily for export markets will be established — in economies with cheap labour and surplus fish.” (Food and Agriculture Organization, The State Of The World Fisheries And Aquaculture, 1995, p. 38).

And, sure enough, the shrimp aquaculture industry has come to Africa. Already, small “pilot” shrimp farm projects exist in Madagascar, and a huge shrimp culture facility is being readied for Tanzania. The future of Tanzania’s richly diverse Rufuji Delta region now hangs in the balance between bank loans and the wisdom of government decision makers. The Delta contains the largest contiguous block of mangroves in East Africa. Over 53,000 hectares of mangrove forests fringe its coast. Against the recommendations of its own environmental advisors and despite heavy international non-governmental organization opposition, the Tanzanian government officials gave the green light to this ambitious plan submitted to them by the East African Fishing Company Ltd., a subsidiary of TANNOL Holdings. A massive 10,000 hectares or more shrimp farm venture is now planned, slightly down-scaled from a previously more ambitious proposal.

However, there are many serious flaws in the present industry proposal. According to Dr F B Kilahama, a Farm Forestry Advisor, at the East Usambara Catchment Forest Project: “The developers did not seek foresters’ concerns and views before sending their proposal to higher authorities.” Nor did they follow the recommended guidelines clearly spelled out in the Mangrove Management Project being implemented with support from the Norwegian agency, NORAD. This plan was meant to be the basis for undertaking any development project, whether commercial or service oriented.

At the non-governmental organization workshop held in Mombasa last February, attending East African delegates drew up the Mombasa Declaration which strongly opposes the establishment of industrial shrimp farming at either Rufiji Delta in Tanzania or Tana Delta in Kenya. A growing awareness among African non-governmental organizations holds hope for implementing effective controls on an otherwise runaway industry.

In search of solutions

In August of 1996, the government of Honduras declared a one year moratorium on shrimp farm expansion, which was extended another six months. During this time, careful monitoring of water quality and other environmental factors took place near existing shrimp farms to better assess the sustainability of mariculture in the Gulf of Fonseca.

In December of 1996, the Supreme Court of India passed a landmark ruling calling for a moratorium on all industrial-style aquaculture operations. Over 100,000 acres of existing shrimp farm facilities were mandated to be dismantled by the end of March, 1997. Though this decision represents a great victory for both the Indian and international non-governmental organization movements against unsustainable shrimp aquaculture, the Indian central government interceded on behalf of the industry forcing an indefinite halt to planned pond closures. Nevertheless, such moratorium moves by more progressive decision makers are vital in ensuring the health of our planet’s coastal zones and protecting the rights of coastal communities for integrated sustainable resource management.

Current methods of modern industrial shrimp aquaculture are in serious need of reform. One of the first steps toward sustainable solutions that the Mangrove Action Project and many of its member non-governmental organizations propose is a worldwide one year moratorium on further shrimp aquaculture expansion, with the exception of small-scale pilot projects for sustainable systems.

During this time the international community, including industry, non-governmental organizations, and development institutions, must jointly support studies to map coastal resources in areas of significant present or proposed aquaculture activity, and to assess the impacts of different users so that the record of the shrimp aquaculture industry can be fairly judged. The moratorium is needed until proposed shrimp aquaculture developments can be adequately proved to be sustainable.

Methods of economic valuation of coastal ecosystems, in particular mangroves, are essential if ecologically-sound and socially- equitable shrimp aquaculture is to take place. In this context, it must be recognized that the economic value of the shrimp exports cannot take precedence over the broader social, economic, and environmental value of the coastal zone.

Further information

Alfredo Quarto, Mangrove Action Project, PO Box 1854, Port Angeles, WA 98362-0279, USA. Fax: 1-360-4525866. Email: mangroveap@olympus.net. Web: www.earthisland.org/map/map.html.

Isabel de la Torre, ISA Net, 25415 70th Avenue, East Graham, WA 98338, USA. Fax: 1-253-8475977. Email: isatorre@seanet.com.

On the Web

The mangrove ecosystem in this issue of Tiempo lists relevant sites.


A version of this article, entitled The Blue Revolution, has been published in the East African Wildlife Society’s SWARA magazine in the October-December 1998 issue (pp.16-21).

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