Tropical Shrimp Farms

Those who eat shrimp in the world, they are eating the blood, sweat and livelihood of the poor people of the Third World. -- Banka Behary Das, India

For many farmers one acre of land means the difference between life and death. -- Jacob Raj

We've lost our rice lands, our incomes and our buffaloes, what do we have left? -- Kantamma, elder and community leader, Nellore, India

What is tragic is that we are the victims and were arrested for defending our rights. Each shrimp is a teardrop that belongs to one of us. That is how much we suffered. -- Azmi Jalil

It is a brutal process by which the protein is extracted from the poor people and the land which is owned by the poor people and this extraction is to feed the bloated stomachs of the rich. This is certainly a violation of the right to life. -- Jacob Raj

If there are no mangrove forests, then the sea will have no meaning. It is like having a tree with no roots, for the mangroves are the roots of the sea. -- Fisherman on the coast of the Andaman Sea, Trang Province, Southern Thailand

When Yadfon first told me about the importance of seagrasses, I thought they were crazy. Now I'm telling others that seagrass, coral, mangroves, crabs and turtles are all very important. You can't have rich corals without the mangrove forest. You can't have crabs and fish without seagrass. -- Bung Hed Hawa, village leader, Ban Chao Mai, Thailand

There were cyclones, but not like there are now - the waves were usually stopped by the forest. After the 1960s, the deforestation increased, and so did the intensity of the cyclones. -- Mohamed Ibrahim, village elder, Bangladesh

Tropical shrimp farming is the latest get-rich-quick scam to hit the Third World. There are two easy ways to riches in Ecuador - cocaine and shrimps. People suffer, communities are devastated, ecosystems destroyed.

Shallow coastal waters are important ecosystems, especially mangrove swamps. Mangrove swamps are some of the world's most important ecosystems, only exceeded by tropical rain forests and coral reefs. Mangrove swamps are inhabited by migratory birds, sea turtles, manatees, and dolphins. 75% of the tropic's commercial fish species spend part of their life cycles in mangrove swamps. Loss of the mangroves has ironically led to a drop in the wild population of shrimp as their nurseries are lost. Mangrove swamps act as a buffer for large waves, the impact of cyclones on the coastal regions of Bangladesh has been devastating following the large-scale destruction of mangrove swamps.

In 1991, thousands of people were killed when a tsunami (large wave caused by an underwater earthquake) hit the coast in an area of Bangladesh where shrimp farms had destroyed all the mangrove swamps. In 1960, when a tsunami of similar magnitude hit the same area, there was not a single fatality.

Several endangered species use mangrove swamps during part of their life cycle - Olive Ridley Turtle, White-Breasted Sea Eagle, Tree-Climbing Fish, Proboscis Monkey, Dugong and Bengal Tigers. Mangroves perform all the Gaian functions of a tropical rain forest, they absorb more carbon dioxide per unit area than ocean phytoplankton, a critical factor in global climate stability.

Mangrove forests help to protect offshore coral reefs. Their roots filter out the silt flowing seawards from the land.

Destruction of mangroves leaves local people without the basic resources for life - food, water, medicine, firewood, building material. Ancestral plots used to grow rice, millet and other crops is destroyed through salinization, wells dry up and are polluted. The local fisheries in the mangrove swamps are destroyed.

Each acre of mangrove forest destroyed leads to an estimated 676 pounds loss in marine harvest.

Mangroves are one of the world's most threatened habitats. More than half the world's mangrove forests have already been destroyed. FAO attributes more than half the losses to shrimp aquaculture. Less than 1% of the remaining mangrove forests have any form of protection. Mangroves once covered more than 3/4 of the tropical coastline, it is a habitat now threatened with extinction, as too are the communities that live in and depend upon mangroves for their livelihood.

In the Muisne region of Ecuador, within the space of 10 years, 20,800 hectares of mangrove forests were reduced to 650 hectares by clear-cutting for shrimp farms.

Tropical shrimp farming operates the same rape-and-run policy of logging companies. Tropical fish farming is non-sustainable. The life cycle of the farms is a maximum of two to five years, the ponds are then abandoned leaving behind toxic waste, destroyed ecosystems and displaced communities. The whole cycle is then repeated in another pristine coastal area. Economic losses due to the shrimp farms are approximately 5 times the potential earnings.

The lessons of salmon farming in Scottish lochs has not been learned. Salmon are kept overstocked in large cages. Unable to move they become lethargic and disease prone. Toxic chemicals and antibiotics are needed to help keep down the incidence of disease. Detritus and toxins from the cages contaminate the lochs.

Shrimp fry are raised in ponds of between 1 and 50 hectares. The fry are caught in the wild, for every kilo of fry caught, 20 kilos of 'waste' organic matter is dumped back into the sea. In Bangladesh, for every shrimp larvae caught in the wild, over 1500 larva of other crustaceans, fishes and zooplankton are thrown away. The stocking densities require high inputs of pesticides and antibiotics. The shrimps supplied to the world market have high pesticide residues. To maintain the appropriate brackish conditions, fresh water is extracted from ground water leading to salinization and shallow wells drying out, waste overflow is pumped untreated into the sea. Toxic overflows and spills from the ponds leads to contamination of local drinking water and destruction of coastal ecosystems. Eventually a toxic sludge builds up at the bottom of the pond forcing it to be abandoned.

A typical large shrimp aquaculture farm requires between 250-500 litres of sea water per day.

Local communities are being forcibly removed to make way for the shrimp farms. In Andra Pradesh, India, 48,000 people have been forcibly removed, millions displaced. At Chilika Lake, India, the largest brackish water in Asia, four protesters have been killed and thirteen injured by rampaging police. In Thailand, one shrimp company forcibly displaced 4,000 rice paddy farmers. In Bangladesh armed guards are stationed to protect the ponds from local people, more than 100 people have been killed resisting shrimp farms, bombings, kidnappings, rape and assault are common place. In Nellore, India, local people have lost their paddy fields and buffaloes. The local water is so contaminated that any one who comes into contact with it gets skin diseases, drinking water and land is contaminated.

Children suffer the most, often being forced to stand for up to 16 hours a day in salt water to collect the shrinp fry.

A typical Indian paddy field employs 50 people, a shrimp farm occupying the same land employs five. Indian activist, Vandana Shiva, has estimated that for every shrimp farm created:

In Thailand, children can earn 300 baht ($8) in an afternoon catching crabs with simple wooden traps or hand-held nets in seagrass or mangroves. They have to work a whole day chopping mangrove trees to earn the same amount.

Some countries have legislation to control tropical shrimp farms, but on the ground corrupt officials turn a blind eye. In Ecuador it was Greenpeace who came to the aid of local people protesting against mangrove forest destruction, not the corrupt government.

Chilika Lake is a large brackish inland lake in India, one of the largest areas of brackish water in Asia. Declared a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention it is an area of great ecological diversity and importance, home to migratory birds and dolphins. A small victory was won, when in a ruling by the Indian Supreme Court, Tata House were prevented from using the lake for large-scale industrial shrimp farming. This proved to be a hollow victory when smaller, even less scrupulous operators moved in, to which the corrupt local politicians and bureaucrats turned a blind eye.

Local people gave an ultimatum to the illegal operators, destroy all illegal fish farms or we destroy them for you. 10,000 villagers then destroyed 11 of the illegal shrimp farms. Police subsequently went on the rampage in a local village, throwing tear gas, beating and shooting villagers - four people were killed, 13 seriously injured.

In a little over a decade, shrimp farming has changed from a small-scale, peasant activity to a major commercial industrial operation. It is now a $9 billion industry, having grown tenfold in the last 15 years. Shrimp consumption in North America, Japan and Western Europe has increased by 300% within the last ten years. In Canada, the consumption of shrimps went up by 200% between 1990 and 1995. The price of shrimps has fallen from $14 per pound in 1986 to $5 per pound in 1996.

The World Bank is a major financier of these schemes. It is seen as a quick fix for hard currency. The schemes are mainly in Latin America and Asia. To date an estimated 2.5 million hectares of coastal ecosystems have been destroyed by tropical fish farms.

In 1996, Thailand earned $2 billion from the export of 'pink gold'.

Industrial trawling offers no alternative. Shrimp trawling discards 5.2 pound of marine 'waste' for every pound of shrimps caught, trawling gear destroys the ocean floor, endangered sea turtles are caught and drowned, the discarded organic 'waste' decomposes on the ocean floor upsetting the delicate oxygen balance.

Consumers worldwide are being urged to take a 'shrimp break' and to ask stores not to stock shrimp unless they can be shown to have come from sustainable sources. Only by denying the shrimp farms a market can we hope to save the world's last remaining mangrove swamps.

Web Resources


Robert Allen, How to Save the World: Strategy for World Conservation, Kogan Page, 1980

Ashash Ambasta, Wetlands: The Endangered Ecological Bridge, Journal, October 1998

Jonathan Atkinson, The blue revolution, Ethical Consumer, June/July 1999

Marcus Colchester & Larry Lohmann (eds), The Struggle for Land and the Fate of the Forests, World Rainforest Movement/The Ecologist/Zed Books, 1993

Catherine Caufield, In the Rainforest, Picador, 1986

Susan Cunningham, A Raindrop Cleans the Wetlands, Journal, October 1998

Susan George & Nigel Paige, Food for Beginners, Writers and Readers, 1982

Edward Goldsmith, Global Trade and the Environment [in Jerry Mander & Edward Goldsmith (eds), The Case Against the Global Economy, Sierra Club Books, 1996]

Greenpeace, Shrimp: The Devastating Delicacy, Greenpeace, date unknown

Greenpeace, Greenpeace Flagship Detained in Ecuador after Action Against Illegal Shrimp Farm, Press Release, Greenpeace, 28 July 1998

Greenpeace, Rainbow Warrior Freed and Judge Dismissed Following Greenpeace Action to Restore Destroyed Mangrove Forest, Press Release, Greenpeace, 30 July 1998

Greenpeace, Ecuador Environment Minister Agrees to Act on Illegal Shrimp Farms, Press Release, Greenpeace, 31 July 1998

Eva Hernadez, Langostino tropical, Greenpeace España, Revista Trimestral IV/99

Norman Myers, The Primary Source: Tropical Forests and Our Future, Norton, 1984

Vandana Shiva et al, Biodiversity: Social and Ecological Perspectives, World Rainforest Movement, 1991

Sierra Club of Canada, various leaflets on shrimp farming, Sierra Club of Canada, undated

Alex Wilks, Prawns, Profits and Protein:: Aquaculture and Food Production, The Ecologist, Vol 25, No 2/3, 1995

WRM, Rainforest Destruction: Causes, Effects, and False Solutions, World Rainforest Movement, 1990

Gaia index ~ Globalisation - the human cost ~ Chilika Lake
(c) Keith Parkins 1999-2000 -- March 2000 rev 2