The Rise and Fall of the Blue Revolution

The Rise and Fall of the Blue Revolution

by Alfredo Quarto

published in the East Africa Wildlife Society’s magazine SWARA, October-December 1998 (pp.16-21)

Over half the world’s human population is concentrated along coastal areas. These important 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 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 man-made enclosures to raise aquatic life forms, such as shellfish, fish, and sea weeds for human consumption purposes. 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 which 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

shrimp drawingModern industrial shrimp aquaculture is a case in point. In the last 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 habitat 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 last 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 labeled 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,often times 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 buildup on the pond bottoms of unused feeds and feces, 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% 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 2/3 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 $6 billion dollars, and an annual retail value of over $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, Asian Development Bank, and 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, i.e. to “feed the poor”. Ironically, the shrimp produced from these investments have been channeled 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% of the total imports of seafood in 1986 to 46% 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 lbs. of fish lost for every one lb. 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, mollusks, and crustaceans, as well as numerous birds, migratory species and endangered species.

A Castle Built on Sand

In Asia, the average intensive farm has been found to survive only 2 to 5 years before serious pollution and disease problems cause early shrimp pond closures. Overstocking and indiscriminate use of feeds and water additives still are being widely practiced today. In Thailand, where nearly 85% 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 practiced 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 in regards 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 FAO 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 favorable physical environment, African labor, 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 labor and surplus fish…” (FAO, “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 ha of mangrove forests fringe its coast. Against the recommendations of its own environmental advisors and despite heavy international NGO 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 ha or more shrimp farm venture is now planned, slightly downscaled 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 (EUCFP). “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 Mangroves Management Project (MMP) being implemented with support from NORAD. This plan was meant to be the basis for undertaking any development project, whether commercial or service oriented. At the NGO workshop held in Mombasa last February, attending East African NGO 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 NGOs 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 farm operations. These studies were meant 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 NGO 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 NGOs 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, NGOs, 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.

The Mangrove Action Project

Mangrove forests are one of the most productive and biodiverse wetlands on earth. Yet, these unique coastal tropical forests are among the most threatened habitats in the world. They may be disappearing more quickly than inland tropical rainforests, and so far, with little public notice. Growing in the intertidal areas and estuary mouths between land and sea, mangroves provide critical habitat for a diverse marine and terrestrial flora and fauna. Healthy mangrove forests are key to a healthy marine ecology.

However, in many areas of the world, mangrove deforestation is contributing to fisheries declines, degradation of clean water supplies, salinization of coastal soils, erosion, and land subsidence, as well as the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In fact, mangrove forests fix more carbon dioxide per unit area than phytoplankton in tropical oceans. Mangrove forests once covered 3/4 of the coastlines of tropical and subtropical countries. Today, less than 50% remain. Many factors contribute to mangrove forest loss, including the charcoal and timber industries, urban growth pressures, and mounting pollution problems. However, one of the most significant causes of mangrove forest destruction in the past decade has been the consumer demand for luxury shrimp, or “prawns”, and the corresponding expansion and production methods of export-oriented shrimp aquaculture. Vast tracts of mangrove forests have been cleared to make way for the establishment of coastal shrimp farm facilities. The failure of national governments to adequately regulate the shrimp industry, and the headlong rush of multilateral lending agencies to fund aquaculture development without meeting their own stated ecological and social criteria, are other important pieces to this unfortunate puzzle. The great earnings of shrimp culture are short-lived, while the real costs in terms of consequent environmental ruin and social disruption are long-term and astronomical! While the immediate profits from shrimp farming may satisfy a few, vast numbers of coastal residents, once dependent on healthy coastal ecosystems for fishing and farming, are being displaced and impoverished.

Founded in 1992, The Mangrove Action Project is dedicated to reversing the degradation of mangrove forest ecosystems worldwide. Its central tenet is to promote the rights of local coastal peoples, including fishers and farmers, in the sustainable management of coastal environs. MAP provides four essential services to grassroots associations and other proponents of mangrove conservation: 1) It coordinates a unique international NGO network and information clearinghouse on mangrove forests.; 2) It promotes public awareness of mangrove forest issues; 3) It develops technical and financial support for NGO projects; and 4) MAP helps publicize within the developed nations the basic needs and struggles of Third World coastal fishing and farming communities affected by the consumer demands of the wealthy nations. (This we do through our online newsletter, action alerts, and published articles, as well as planned public forums and presentations.)

MAP’s international network has grown to include over 350 NGOs and over 200 scientists and academics from over 50 nations. We are currently expanding the effectiveness of our coalition work by solidifying our ties with other major environmental and activist groups in both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres. Through its wide network, MAP hopes to stimulate the exchange of ideas and information for mangrove forest protection and restoration. Also, MAP will work to promote effective regulations and enforcement to ensure sustainable shrimp aquaculture practices which include participatory coastal resource management, responsible consumer choices, and strategies for the implementation of these and other solutions. For example, MAP wishes to create a dialogue on certification of shrimp products, which may help in forming a template for possible introduction.