Rainforest Shrimp

America has grown to love shrimp. But in Asia and Latin America, the shrimp industry threatens mangrove trees and coastal villages.

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At Girasole, a fine Italian restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, my antipasti dish, “Gamberi e Fagiolini,” arrives with a flourish: a dozen blushing white shrimp in a chilled nest of baby green string beans topped with a vinegar dressing. Tender and tart, the shrimp are as large as hooked pinkies; I devour each one down to the last tail.

The chef assures me the shrimp are the best on the market, from Ecuador. I tell him what I have just heard: that an Ecuadorean environmental group has called for a worldwide boycott of its nation’s shrimp. The plate of shrimp on which I have just feasted was the end product of an international industry embroiled in a conflict so virulent that it’s caused people to kill one another.

A third of the world’s shrimp are now raised in ponds, an aquacultural enterprise that in the past 20 years has grown from nothing to a $4 billion industry. Shrimp, often described as the “miracle export,” have also spawned intense environmental, economic, and political problems.

“One of the worst environmental problems in Southeast Asia and Latin America today is also one of the least well-known: the damage resulting from the expansion of shrimp aquaculture in coastal areas,” says Peter Riggs of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in New York City, who has spent 10 years working on Asian issues. He hopes, somehow, to raise public alarm over farmed shrimp the way the Rainforest Action Network made a pariah out of “rainforest beef” in the late 1980s.

Twenty years ago, Midwesterners ate shrimp from cans. Other Americans, if they enjoyed this expensive delicacy at all, generally nibbled on breaded shrimp or cold shrimp cocktail. Today, as we know from Forrest Gump, shrimp is a democratic luxury. Thanks to the tremendous growth of the global shrimp catch and the rapid rise of shrimp aquaculture in South America and Southeast Asia, the U.S. supply has doubled over the past decade to almost 1 billion pounds per year, making shrimp our second-favorite seafood after tuna fish.

Our new hunger for shrimp is a timely combination of the increasing popularity of Asian cuisine, seafood as an alternative to red meat, and plummeting prices. A pound of medium-sized shrimp that cost upwards of $14 a decade ago today sells for $5.99. In other words, Americans can eat so much shrimp because of the tremendous growth in the shrimp-farming industry; conversely, this new form of intensive aquaculture has grown because of our increased demand.

The idea of farming shrimp on a small scale isn’t new. Southeast Asian villagers have raised shrimp in ponds for centuries. Shrimp hatch in the ocean, drift with the tides into mangrove forests for safety as they grow into juveniles, and then return to the open water. Taking advantage of the shrimp’s natural life cycle, the villagers catch the tides, holding the shrimp in ponds until harvest.

By the late 1970s, commercial shrimp farmers learned they could supercharge this process by adding more postlarval shrimp caught in the wild or raised in hatcheries. They turned to fish feed and chemicals, pumps and aerators, and other tools of factory farming. In Asia, especially, they boosted the production of shrimp, from the 4,000 shrimp per acre found in traditional ponds to upwards of 121,000 per acre in new intensive ponds.

The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and other foreign aid programs from the United States and Europe promoted the new enterprise, loaning hundreds of millions of dollars in the 1970s and 1980s. Private investors also flocked to the industry, encouraged by governments eager to attract this new source of foreign revenue to their debt-burdened countries. Commercial shrimp ponds now provide 783,200 tons of shrimp per year, roughly 30 percent of all shrimp consumed.

This harvest is spread over more than 50 countries. The top producers are Thailand, Ecuador, Indonesia, China, India, and Vietnam, says Bob Rosenberry, publisher of the industry newsletter Shrimp News International. In Thailand, which became the world’s leading producer by 1993, “literally hundreds, if not thousands” of small farmers jumped from earning $2,000 with rice paddies or traditional fish ponds in one year to making $20,000 to $40,000 on shrimp the next.

Shrimp has become an economic mainstay for these countries. In Ecuador, which furnishes nearly 10 percent of the U.S. supply, shrimp is the third-leading export after oil and bananas. When the shrimp-farming boom hit Ecuador, between 1979 and 1983, shrimp exports rose from $31 million to $185 million. In 1994, the industry earned $539 million and employed 260,000 people at roughly 525 square miles of working ponds and more than 400 hatcheries, processing plants, and other facilities.

The Muisne River–its water the dull green of old Army surplus–flows along Ecuador’s northern coast. Mangrove trees fringe the muddy riverbanks. Standing on their tangled roots as if someone had yanked the trunks several feet up from the ground, the trees don’t hide the black, earthen banks of the huge shrimp ponds that now cover upwards of 90 percent of this estuary. Grim and functional, the shrimp farms resemble settling ponds at sewage treatment plants. Large pipes snake stiffly over embankments, pumping fresh water into the ponds. Small white houses for the guards stand along the dikes.

Initially, shrimp aquaculture seemed to be the wise alternative to the destruction of the wild catch, which peaked worldwide in 1993 at 4.4 billion pounds and declined by 200 million pounds in 1995 to 4.2 billion pounds. Shrimp trawlers are among the most wasteful fishing boats in the world–they produce less than 2 percent of the world’s seafood, but are responsible for a third of the wasted fish bycatch. They also drown up to 150,000 sea turtles per year.

Shrimp aquaculture, however, has merely traded the problems of modern fishing for those of modern farming. Shrimp farmers have clear-cut huge regions of invaluable mangrove trees and disrupted thousands of traditional fishing villages along tropical coastlines. Deepening the irony, the loss of those mangroves threatens the future of farmed shrimp: The mangrove ecosystem provides essential filtration that keeps the estuaries–and the ponds–clean.

Few Americans have heard of mangrove trees, let alone understand their ecological value. These gnarly, tangled giants grow throughout the tropics along estuary banks. The trees’ unique roots absorb both salt and fresh water and anchor one of nature’s most productive ecosystems. The roots, which look like crazy footstools propping up smaller trees, provide safe nurseries for thousands of species of fish, shrimp, and other marine life that may also inhabit nearby sea grass beds and coral reefs. For generations, coastal village communities have supported themselves thanks to the mangrove ecosystem, thriving on ample catches of fish, mollusks, and crabs, as well as by harvesting its lumber. The ecosystem has other benefits that are harder to count. These trees buffer the land against hurricanes, collect sediments and other pollutants from rivers, and sustain habitats for alligators, sea turtles, manatees, dolphins, and even monkeys.

Mangrove trees also are more efficient photosynthesizers than almost any other plant, creating a steady supply of nutrients for the tiny creatures at the bottom of the food chain. One study found that for every acre of mangroves lost, wild harvests of fish and shrimp drop by 676 pounds per year.

Yet mangroves are disappearing around the world. The Philippines, for example, had only 540 square miles of mangroves left by 1991, compared to about 1,700 square miles in the 1920s–a loss equivalent to the size of Rhode Island.

Thailand has lost more than half of its mangroves since 1960, almost 800 square miles, or an area twice the size of Los Angeles, much of it to shrimp farms.

Ecuador has lost 162 square miles out of 788 square miles of mangroves from 1969 to 1991. The clear-cutting has been so concentrated in a handful of estuaries that they have lost most of their trees. The tallest mangroves in the Americas, wearing long, flowing Rip Van Winkle beards of olive moss, stand across the road from miles of shrimp ponds, their shallow gray waters lifeless except for the few white egrets patiently stalking a free meal.

By 1985, says Acción Ecológica, a local environmental group, the Ecuadorean government recognized the spreading damage to the mangroves. Since the trees stood on intertidal zones, traditionally considered public land by governments around the world, the ecosystem could be protected by decree. Ecuador issued laws forbidding shrimp farmers from clearing any more trees without a government concession. But these efforts were paper-thin. According to Acción Ecológica, from 1987 to 1991, almost 85 more square miles of mangroves vanished to make room for shrimp ponds, despite appeals from village environmental groups to the government.

Last March, Acción Ecológica called upon consumers in the United States and Europe to stop eating Ecuador’s shrimp. But even activists in the group’s own country are not united in that call, some fearing a boycott will cause more, not less, environmental destruction, and might hurt the poorest people the most (see sidebar).

Coastal villagers in Malaysia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Honduras, Ecuador, and elsewhere have clashed with the shrimp industry, but the conflict has reached its hottest pitch in India. In 1993, villagers in Kurru, angered by poisoned wells, attacked a shrimp pond, uprooting pumps and breaching dikes. In January 1995, the police in Bhadrakh killed two farmers during a protest. And last May, in a case filed by the country’s top environmental lawyer, India’s supreme court issued a temporary ban on new shrimp farms in three coastal states. Alfredo Quarto of Earth Island Institute’s Mangrove Action Project, predicts, “India will be a precedent for a worldwide movement.”

The movement has been slow in coming. Few Americans know about the conflicts surrounding shrimp ponds. Even such groups as Greenpeace and the Environmental Defense Fund have only begun investigating shrimp aquaculture in the past year or two. They were led to it, says Matthew Gianni of Greenpeace International, by the calls for help from local Asian and South American environmental groups.

The solutions are as varied as the countries affected–in part due to the fragmentation of the industry itself. “Maybe there are 100 corporations involved and none of them controls more than 1 percent of the production,” Rosenberry says. In 1993, some 25 importers split 55 percent of the U.S. market, according to John Filose, vice president of sales and marketing for Ocean Garden Products, the country’s largest importer.

All that fragmentation makes it extremely complicated to pressure the industry to clean up its act. There’s no single corporation against which a government can apply economic pressure. If one shrimp farmer spends the money to grow shrimp more sustainably, then it’s likely that either his shrimp will be too expensive for the market or he won’t recoup enough of his investment to stay in business. And if one country imposes higher environmental standards, the industry is likely to move elsewhere. Moreover, once the shrimp moves into the export system, it all becomes part of a single supply stream. A consumer has no way to differentiate distribution of wild-caught shrimp from farmed shrimp, let alone to make finer distinctions among farming techniques.

More effective than any boycott, however, may be nature itself. Nature has retaliated against the intensive shrimp farms. Shrimp diseases and floods, formerly prevented in part by the natural filtration and buffering of the mangrove ecosystem, are rampant–making environmentally sustainable farms a better long-term economic investment.

After the first, glorious, get-rich-quick days, the industry has been plagued by the kind of spectacular crashes that tend to dog this intensive form of mono-culture. In his 1995 Shrimp News International annual report, Rosenberry’s account of the world shrimp industry reads like a disease almanac. Shrimp farmers in Western countries battled Taura Syndrome, and Asian ones fended off the yellowhead virus and the whitespot virus, which attacked India’s ponds just as the villagers were protesting. Last May, when Taura Syndrome, a virus from Ecuador, reached three big shrimp farms in Texas, it rapidly killed a $10 million crop. “This thing spread like a forest fire,” one farmer told the New York Times. “I just sat there and watched it, and in a matter of three days, my shrimp were gone. Dead.”

Blights like these have changed the shrimp industry. Shrimp production in the Philippines, for example, peaked in the late 1980s, but fell by half to 27,500 tons in 1993, brought low by typhoons, power outages, diseases, and unclean pond water. The industry in Taiwan, which led world production in 1987, plummeted by 80 percent by 1989, as a virus spread through Taiwan’s ponds.

“Combining the fear of a short-lived phenomenon with a too-good-to-miss attitude, shrimp farmers have been prompted to stock their ponds at extremely high densities,” writes C. Kwei Lin of the Asian Institute of Technology in the World Aquaculture Society’s book Swimming Through Troubled Water. “This typically results in either admirably high production and quick wealth, or miserable failure.”

The industry’s critics liken this “slash and trash” aquaculture to the destruction of the rainforest by cattle ranchers who overgraze an area then move onward after the soil loses its nutrients. Abandoned ponds can leave behind a “mud desert” where nothing green may grow for years.

In Ecuador, 42,000 acres of ponds now lie fallow, and illegal clear-cuts scar some estuaries for ponds that never got built. But the industry says it’s learning from experience. “A shrimp pond is like the canary in the coal mine. It needs a healthy estuary,” Rosenberry says.

To prosper over the long haul, the ponds need good clean water rich with nutrients, and they need mangroves to filter pollutants and nurse the wild shrimp postlarva that many farmers still stock in their ponds. Industry literature has grown thick with scientific papers that, in essence, blame the fast-buck ponds of the past for fouling waterways and causing the spread of shrimp diseases.

Smart farmers now install water filters, stock fewer shrimp, and even recycle their own water to become almost completely self-contained. In Thailand, some ponds clean and reuse their own water in order to avoid dipping into estuaries contaminated with viruses. In the United States, entrepreneurs hope to develop high-tech indoor ponds detached from the natural world. Unlike the critics, who contend that every commercial pond must someday crash, Rosenberry says the industry is outgrowing its rampaging youth. “All of aquaculture is plagued by diseases,” he notes. “It’s a management problem. It won’t close the industry.”

Others don’t share his optimism. In the 1980s, the World Bank strongly promoted shrimp ponds in China. The bank loaned China $300 million for projects along the entire coast, says Joseph Goldberg, chief of the bank’s China rural development division. By 1991, the country had developed into Asia’s largest producer. But the ponds crashed in June of 1993 when a disease spread over the course of a few nights. Goldberg believes such crashes are inevitable. “When we get project loan proposals now, I look for sea fish, crabs, turtles–anything but shrimp,” he says. “This industry is roulette, and we don’t finance roulette.”

The shrimp boom reached northern Ecuador’s Muisne estuary in the mid-1980s, led by farmers from the southern region where Ecuador’s shrimp industry began. Touring the river and side channels in a wooden launch with members of Fundecol, a local environmental group, I survey the empty landscape that is the boom’s legacy. At first, the farms showered the poor villagers of Muisne with cash, for better or for worse. (“Before, there was one whorehouse. Now there are four and the women are very cheap,” says Fundecol’s Lider Gongora, who wants to establish an AIDS education program.)

By the late 1980s, fear began to mount as the villagers sensed the fisheries, their source of food and livelihood, were collapsing along with the mangroves. Now, tensions run high, pitting the new entrepreneurs against the villagers who have watched their way of life vanish. Those who haven’t won jobs related to the new industry wonder how their families will survive.

“Ten years ago, 60 percent of the people [in Muisne] lived from the mangroves…. Today 20 percent use them,” says Bernardo Reuter, who helped start Fundecol in 1989. Reuter makes his living partly by repairing the bicycle rickshaw taxis that boys drive around the sandy and grassy streets in this island village, which has no cars. The tricycleros, he says, may be the only ones in their families with jobs.

“It was very easy 10 years ago,” agrees Fanny Mina, the head of a group of 23 concheras, women who collect shellfish. “In six or eight hours, we would catch 1,000. Now…we catch 100 to 150.”

The government has responded to this crisis by forbidding farmers from clearing any more mangroves without government permission. But the shrimp farmers simply took advantage of the country’s conflicting laws and agencies–which left the trees in a bureaucratic gray zone between the departments regulating forests, fisheries, tourism, and naval defense–and shopped around for the permits they needed.

“The law says that for each tree you cut, you go to prison for three to 30 days,” says Lourdes Proaño of Fundecol, as we tour the river. “But the government has not put the law into practice.”

“With this issue we have one of the highest sources of corruption in Ecuador,” agrees Teodoro Bustamante, executive director of Fundación Natura, the country’s largest conservation group. “This has destroyed our capacity to be good managers of our environment. We need to restore the capacity to have good administration of these resources.”

Ecuador’s shrimp farmers, recovering from a $200 million loss caused by an epidemic of the Taura Syndrome in 1992 and 1993, are beginning to agree. Chastened by this mysterious blight, which may be due to a virus or to water polluted by fungicides used on banana plantations upstream, the industry now preaches the value of healthy estuaries, including preserving the mangroves that help clean the water.

Joaquin Orentia owns 500 hectares of ponds and serves as a director of the industry’s trade association in Ecuador. He rails against the government for allowing renegade farmers to cut the mangrove trees. Eighty percent of the industry, he says, abides by the laws. But, he complains, “In this country we don’t have one single government armed guard to protect the mangroves.”

Fundecol now patrols the estuary, hunting for new illegal cutting. It duly reports it to the government–with few results. Fundecol president Nisvaldo Ortiz recently found a farmer destroying mangroves. When Ortiz challenged him, the farmer aimed a pistol at Ortiz’s chest, said he would “die like a dog,” and finally fired over his head. “Fundecol has denounced this gentleman 30 times in several years,” Ortiz says, adding that the government ultimately fined him “10 minimum salaries”–about $400. “It’s laughable,” he says.

At times, Fundecol members have even waded into the mangrove waters and directly blocked the cutting, but men with machetes simply return at night. It can take an hour for a man to hack through all the roots of a tree.

Yet Fundecol is having some success. We pull ashore at two hectares of mudflats, where the group has planted hundreds of mangrove seedlings in sticky ground pocked with tiny crab holes. The tallest saplings stand four feet high with kickstand roots firmly supporting their thin trunks. Reforesting mangroves is a new art in Ecuador. Ortiz explains that the group lost one crop to little red crabs that clipped the stems in their claws to bring down the tasty leaves. The group now plants seedlings sheathed in bamboo stalks or plastic bottles.

Next we visit Fundecol’s high platform dock, built like a balcony alongside the last big grove of mangroves in the estuary. The group has applied for government permission to manage this land, following the same procedures the shrimp farmers use. If Fundecol gets this right, it can finally enforce the laws itself, rather than simply denounce the illegal cutters to the government.

I travel farther north, across bays and along rivers, admiring an unbroken mangrove forest that rises from the wooden grillwork of roots. We pass an occasional tree laden with egrets, like a green chandelier with white candles. Standing in dugout canoes, fishermen use pole paddles to navigate along the fringe of the forest.

Finally, we dock at the tiny village of Santa Rosa. Its buildings stand entirely on stilts. Several times a year, the river floods the dirt streets, so people ride their dugout canoes to the doors of their wooden houses. Over 500 people live here, enduring the decline of the marine life in the mangrove ecosystem. Waving his hand over the small pile of silvery fish that reflects his morning’s work, one of the local fishermen tells me, “When we go out, we catch something, but it’s nothing like it used to be.”

Ironically, the women who collect shellfish have had to turn to aquaculture themselves. The concheras have planted a shellfish bed across the river, marked by stakes in the water. They hope it will work.

Will Nixon is a freelance writer based in New York City.


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