06 Aug 2012: Report

Shrimp Farms’ Tainted Legacy
Is Target of Certification Drive

As shrimp aquaculture has boomed globally to keep pace with surging demand, the environmental toll on mangroves and other coastal ecosystems has been severe. Now, conservation groups and some shrimp farmers are creating a certification scheme designed to clean up the industry and reward sustainable producers.

by marc gunther

Carlos Perez, a well-to-do businessman, has been farming shrimp in Ecuador since 1979. He has seen the industry boom: Ecuador exported about $1.2 billion worth of shrimp last year, and its shrimp farmers employ about 102,000 people. He has also watched as shrimp farms have played a major role in the destruction of two-thirds of the country’s mangrove swamps — rich ecosystems that serve as buffers against storms, store carbon, and support fish, birds, and small mammals.

There’s got to be a better way, Perez says, and so he is working closely with a global alliance called the Aquaculture Stewardship Council to develop, test, and deploy new standards for shrimp aquaculture. The Aquaculture Stewardship Council, or ASC, hopes to do for fish farming what its sister organization, the Marine Stewardship Council, or MSC, has done for ocean fishing: Reward the most responsible producers. “It is the most demanding standard that has ever been produced for shrimp and fish,” Perez says.

Click to enlarge
Shrimp Farming near Mangroves

Sebastien Blanc/AFP/Getty Images
Shrimp farms encroach on mangrove swamps in Indonesia.
 
Perez, who is 59 and grew up in the Galapagos Islands, has environmental credibility. A Georgia Tech-educated engineer, he was one of the inventors of a patented system to filter the water that flows out of fish farms. But the ASC standard for shrimp, which will be rolled out later this year, has run into resistance in the U.S. Big buyers of fish like Walmart and Darden, the restaurant chain, are instead working with an industry-led organization called the Global Aquaculture Alliance that has its own, less stringent certification standards. “With shrimp,” Perez says, “there’s going to be a huge battle.”

If this sounds familiar, it should. In industries ranging from forestry and food to electronics and apparel, U.S. and European companies — sometimes but not always working in concert with environmental groups — have set standards and established certification systems that are intended to improve environmental and social practices. Typically, they are designed to muster the power of consumers, retailers, and brand owners who want to deploy their buying power to drive change.

But settling on a standard is never easy. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), for instance, has since its beginnings in the early 1990s certified 160 million hectares (395 million acres) of forest in 80 countries; FSC approval assures buyers that certified wood and paper products come from well-managed forests where worker and community rights are respected. But while some timber companies embraced the FSC, others formed a rival association called the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which promotes its own less-stringent standards and consumer-facing label. Such battles are confusing, and not uncommon.

Indeed, so many eco-labels have sprung up — would you like organic, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance-certified, or Bird-Friendly coffee? — that the Consumers Union has built a website to help people find their way through the thicket of competing claims. The Ecolabel Index, a global directory, tracks 433 eco-labels in 25 industry sectors.

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council, formed in 2009 by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and a Dutch coalition of businesses and nonprofits
Americans eat four pounds of shrimp per person per year, more than any other seafood.
called IDF, is developing standards for 12 species of farmed fish and crustaceans. None is more important — or controversial — than shrimp. Global demand for the pink crustaceans has outstripped the supply of wild-caught shrimp, with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) describing shrimp stocks in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans as depleted, overexploited, or fully exploited.

Aquaculture has stepped in to fill the gap. Increasing appetites, faltering ocean stocks, and technological advances have set off a 30-year-long shrimp boom in Asia and Latin America. Today, shrimp aquaculture generates an estimated $17 billion to $20 billion in annual revenues. China, Thailand, and Vietnam are the big producers, and the U.S. is the leading consumer: Americans eat about four pounds of shrimp per person, per year, more than any other species of seafood and three times as much as we ate back in the 1970s. (Canned tuna used to be No. 1.)

Falling prices have fueled shrimp’s appeal. In New York, frozen farmed shrimp from Ecuador, Thailand, and Indonesia recently sold for $4 to $5 per pound. Low prices enable the Darden-owned restaurant chain Red Lobster to offer an all-you-can-eat promotion called “Endless Shrimp” that invites diners to feed on unlimited servings of sweet and spicy shrimp, parmesan shrimp, garlic shrimp scampi, and hand-breaded shrimp for $15.99. “Twenty five years ago, shrimp was a deluxe item,” Perez says. “Now it’s everywhere.”

No one expects governments to deal with the environmental costs of shrimp farming. Jose Villalon, who leads WWF’s aquaculture program and is chairman of the ASC, says local authorities can’t be counted on to regulate fast-growing industries that create jobs. “The farms are out in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “Sometimes there’s no regulation. Sometimes there’s great regulation but no enforcement.” Villalon, 55, knows the industry well: He was trained as a fisheries biologist, and he worked as a shrimp farmer for 27 years in the Caribbean, Ecuador, and Mexico before joining WWF.

As chair of the ASC, his challenge is working with the industry, scientists, and other environmentalists to write rules for shrimp farms that are tough
Those who favor certification say there’s no guarantee that sustainably raised shrimp will fetch a higher price.
enough to make a meaningful difference, but not so stringent that they will be ignored. The 105-page draft standard published by the ASC focuses on farming and covers a long list of impacts: conservation of critical habitats and biodiversity, water pollution, disease prevention, predator control, energy efficiency, labor conditions, community impacts, stakeholder relations, and the critical fish-feed issue. “The standards are rigorous,” Villalon says. “They’re tough.”

Those who favor the ASC’s stringent standards acknowledge there’s no guarantee that sustainably raised shrimp will command a higher price. An independent study in the UK showed that frozen pollock bearing the MSC ecolabel fetched a price premium 14 percent higher than uncertified pollock. Stores also sold more of the MSC-labeled pollock. Villalon argues that major retailers should support high standards to protect the long-term health of fisheries, which are important to their business. For his part, Carlos Perez believes that shrimp farmers in Ecuador may be better able than their competitors in Southeast Asia to comply with tougher rules, giving them an edge in the market. Still, if certified seafood is unable to command a higher price from customers, the incentive for retailers is to adopt weaker rules, argues Rebecca Goldburg, director of the ocean science division at the Pew Environment Group.

This may explain why the Global Aquaculture Alliance-Best Aquaculture Practices standards — they’re known as the GAA-BAP — have been widely adopted in the U.S. The GAA-BAP standards are broader, covering shrimp hatcheries, feed mills, and processors, as well as farms. They are also easier to meet. In a comparison of marine aquaculture standards published last year by the Seafood Ecology Research Group at the University of Victoria in Canada, the GAA-BAP standard was ranked in the bottom half of 20 aquaculture standards, behind, for example, standards set by Whole Foods Market. Even so, the GAA-BAP rules are better than having no standard at all, some environmentalists say. “It can certainly help screen out products that are from particularly bad producers,” says Goldburg.

Peter Redmond, a former seafood buyer for Walmart who is now vice president for development at the Global Aquaculture Alliance, says the GAA-BAP standards are designed so that most shrimp farms will be able to achieve certification if they improve their practices. The standard emphasizes
One expert says the use of forage fish for feed is the most important global impact of shrimp farming.
food safety, a key concern among retailers. “It’s not a weak standard by any stretch of the imagination,” Redmond says. But it does require reading the fine print. Because the GAA-BAP certification applies to processors, as well as shrimp farms, companies like Darden, which buys about $750 million worth of seafood a year, can claim that “100 percent of the aquacultured shrimp processors that supply Darden are certified.” Note the reference to processors, and not farms, where the environmental footprint of aquaculture is greater.

One clear and meaningful difference between the two standards is that the ASC requires farms to limit the use of fishmeal derived from wild fish that is fed to farmed shrimp. It sets what is called a feed fish efficiency ratio (FFER) of 1.35 to 1 for L. Vannamei, or white shrimp. Villalon says that when he started in the industry the fish in-fish out ratio was about 3 to 1, but now it’s closer to 1.6 or 1.7 to 1. By adding soy-based meal to the feed mix, farmers can lower costs and ease the pressures on the forage fish like anchovies, herring, and menhaden that are caught to make fishmeal. Goldburg says the use of forage fish is the most important global environmental impact of shrimp farming. “When you take that many small fish out of the ocean, you are undercutting marine food chains,” she says. The GAA-BAP standard does not limit the use of fishmeal.

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Still, a standard can have an impact only if it is widely adopted, and the ASC is the underdog in this fight. Most of its support, so far, comes from the European Union, where a host of big companies including the Heiploeg Group, a Dutch firm that is the leading shrimp supplier in Europe, have signed on as supporters. In the U.S., Kroger and the Dutch firm, Ahold, which owns the Giant and Stop & Shop chains, are among the few companies to sign on. Many more — Walmart, Target, Supervalu, Food Lion, Harris Teeter, etc. — are working with GAP-BAA. “In the U.S. there’s been a very slow uptake,” Vilallon says. “We have an uphill battle.”

Unless consumption patterns change, one thing is certain: As the human population soars this century, fish farming will only become more important. As Brandon Tidwell, manager of sustainability for Darden, puts it: “The demand for seafood is going to grow exponentially, and wild seafood stocks are going to remain flat. So we are going to need aquaculture to fill the gap.”

POSTED ON 06 Aug 2012 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Oceans Oceans Policy & Politics Sustainability 

COMMENTS


A very interesting article. It highlights that there are different standards and metrics that may or may not have meaningful impacts on sustainability. Good to know that there websites that can be used to find out more about the various standards.

I am uncertain why the forestry example is included. I help to manage forestland under both FSC and SFI. I disagree with the statement that FSC is more stringent.

Both FSC and SFI have helped to improve forest management practices.

Posted by Kenny Fergusson on 09 Aug 2012


"Those who favor the ASC’s stringent standards acknowledge there’s no guarantee that sustainably raised shrimp will command a higher price."

Likewise, there's no guarantee that ASC can deliver anything close to what it claims. The grassroots and communities close to/depending on mangroves are in complete opposition.

Here's the global leader on mangrove forest conservation, decrying the ASC from the beginning:

"Worldwide Protest Against WWF’s Plans to Launch Aquaculture Stewardship Council"

http://mangroveactionproject.org/news/current_headlines/worldwide-protest-against-wwf2019s-plans-to-launch-aquaculture-stewardship-council

Posted by Erik Hoffner on 13 Aug 2012


"By adding soy-based meal to the feed mix, farmers can lower costs and ease the pressures on the forage fish like anchovies, herring, and menhaden that are caught to make fishmeal."

I'm concerned that the soy beans used in new feed mixes will be genetically modified, which adds a new consumer safety problem.

JFD

Posted by John Doyle on 14 Aug 2012


Certification has become a perverse tool in the hands of big corporations that are using it like a “green seal” to impose intrinsically damaging systems of production that become a menace to valued ecosystems. This is happening now to a highly biodiverse ecosystem like mangroves.

Several Conscientious Objectors — NGOs working with local communities in the Shrimp producer-nations and consumers in the shrimp-importing nations — have rung the alarm bell regarding the proposed standards and the whole fault-ridden WWF-ShAD (Shrimp Aquaculture Dialogue) process. Having participated themselves in one of the so-called “shrimp aquaculture dialogues,” these opposing NGOs have verified a worse case scenario whereby a predetermined end product-certification standards for farmed shrimp- is overriding any fair and inclusive stakeholder or resource user involvement in that process, Instead, the majority of those attending these “dialogues” were shrimp industry representatives, and local resource users, the vast majority of those affected by shrimp farming were noticeably absent from the entire three year process. This lack of local community input into the “dialogue” brings the whole effort to certify farmed shrimp into serious contention especially contradicting WWF’s stated claims that its standards represent the affected local communities.

Mangrove Action Project, along with other Conscientious Objectors to the whole flawed “aquaculture dialogue” process have tried unsuccessfully to convince WWF and its allies to not release irs standards under the banner of “social and environmental standards,” as this is just not fairly representative of their mainly technical standards which at most might be labelled Best Management Practices (BMPs) only. However, the big argument we have with WWF, in addition to our contention that there is no local community input to the standards, is that WWF has not tried to directly alert its wide membership to just stop eating so much shrimp. If consumers of farmed shrimp would simply reduce their demand for the product, there would be an immediate reduction in expansion of he industry, and consequently a reduction in the damage done by these resource hungry shrimp farms, thus greatly lessening the adverse effects of this ever expanding industry encroaching upon new and unspoilt grounds.

Industrial shrimp farming today is largely an unsustainable and destructive process that should
not be condoned by any existing standards as “more sustainable.” The industry that WWF hopes to certify is mainly an open, throughput system of aquaculture that actually degrades the very ecosystems and resources needed to support it in the first place.

In the last 30 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 such as the mangrove wetlands 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 diverse, multiple resource environments with large-scale monoculture operations. Worldwide, over a million hectares of valuable mangrove forests have been destroyed by shrimp farming alone — and this in only the last three 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.

Industrial shrimp aquaculture first destroys the local means of livelihood and ruins longstanding jobs by removal of the mangroves and salinization of the lands where traditional livelihoods such as farming and fishing are no longer viable options for most.

This $40-$60 billion megalith is itself fed by the gross appetite of unwary consumers in the North that the same industry so cleverly created with its successful promotion of cheap imported shrimp. Industry proponents assume there is no other way but forward with shrimp production in the South because there are no longer other options, while they also assume there is no better way to feed the North's growing appetite for seafood than via shrimp imports from the South. Certification turns into a profitable permit for industrial shrimp farming companies, which find a way of “greenwashing” their image and even find a new market for unsuspecting yet more conscientious consumers in the North.

In an Open Letter addressed to the committee members of the WWF-led Aquaculture Dialogues, activists from more than 100 organizations around the world denounce the intention of the ShAD General Steering Committee (ShAD/GSC) and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council’s (ASC) to establish standards for shrimp aquaculture certification which will mean the perpetuation of “unsustainable and destructive open-throughput systems of aquaculture — with a legacy of 400,000 hectares (and counting) of abandoned ponds in producer-nations- abandoned in just a few years because of pollution and disease problems.

Posted by Alfredo Quarto on 15 Aug 2012


Reducing wild-caught fishfeed inputs is laudable, but soy comes from somewhere too. Those somewheres are increasingly the endangered Chaco and Cerrado in South America. Alfredo Quarto is correct, reducing consumption of a former luxury item rather than turning it into a certified mass-product is the way to address "soaring demand". Leave eating arthropods to the truly refined!

Posted by Fiona Wilmot on 04 Nov 2012


Please give names of companies that are SAFE to consume. Its getting harder every day to find REAL food that is healthy!

Posted by Debi Sisty on 23 Feb 2013


Comments have been closed on this feature.
marc guntherABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marc Gunther is a contributing editor at Fortune, a senior writer at Greenbiz.com and a blogger at www.marcgunther.com. His book, Suck It Up: How Capturing Carbon From the Air Can Help Solve the Climate Crisis, is available as an Amazon Kindle Single. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he wrote about systems being developed to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and how technology can help consumers make greener choices.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

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