With fisheries in decline worldwide, aquaculture has the potential to provide the world with healthy seafood products. During the next decade, more seafood will be produced than beef, pork, or poultry, making aquaculture the fastest growing food production sector in the world. But managing this growth comes with a big sustainability challenge.
Shrimp farming is an important part of aquaculture and is valued at around 9 billion USD. It’s seafood number one in the USA. In recent decades, shrimp production has shifted from traditional, small-scale businesses into a global industry.
Although large-scale, intensified shrimp farming uses coastal land more efficiently than traditional shrimp culture, it does so in ways that damage nature and society.
Shrimp, typically a luxury export product, is ten times more damaging to the climate than beef according to some estimates. Its massive expansion, notably in Asia, has wiped away mangroves, rendering coastal areas more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In addition, the sector is highly dependent on fishmeal-based feeds, linking it to unsustainable fisheries and slavery, and contributing to pollution if the effluent isn’t managed properly.
Fish farming involves raising fish in tanks, ponds or floating enclosures. The most important species are carp, salmon, tilapia and catfish. Fish culture potentially offers an alternative to widespread overfishing of ocean species.
However, farming carnivorous fish, such as salmon, does not always reduce pressure on wild fisheries, since they are usually fed fishmeal and fish oil extracted from wild fish. Moreover, effluent from farms that use a lot of feed, containing fish feces, unused fish feed, and chemicals, reduce the amount of oxygen in the water and harm the aquatic environment, sometimes creating dead zones.
At Solidaridad, we are hopeful that the culture of low-trophic finfish, such as tilapia, can go a long way in reducing negative impacts. Thanks to their low feed conversion rate they can help fulfill aquaculture’s promise to produce affordable, high-quality proteins with a small environmental footprint.
Other examples of environmentally benign seafood with a strong potential to improve livelihoods through better income and nutrition include farmed mollusks, such as mussels and oysters, as well as seaweed.
Mangrove forests are extremely productive ecosystems that provide essential services to support life. They protect coastal zones, purify water and air, provide nursery areas for fish, and are instrumental in mitigating and adapting to climate change.
With 75% of the human population expected to live in coastal areas by 2050, mangrove forests are a crucial part of our future. At Solidaridad, we partner with knowledge institutes to develop concepts that integrate the interests of coastal communities and aquaculture in ways that benefit society across the board.
Fisheries and aquaculture provide incomes for almost 55 million people worldwide, with a particular concentration of smallholder fish farmers in Asia. In China alone, almost 14 million people work in the sector. There are also many jobs in processing, packaging, marketing and distribution. In total, fish production supports 10% of the world’s population.
Yet unfair employment practices in the sector—including exploitation of local labour, gender discrimination and child employment—are undermining trust in the sector and jeopardizing markets for farmed seafood. Even worse, the sector has been unable to rid itself of slave labour.
Farmers are often left out, too. Certification-oriented sustainability initiatives tend to exclude smallholders, even those who produce shrimp in a sustainable way, and fail to address real needs, such as knowledge and quality inputs.
With an estimated 50 to 60% of shrimp farms occupying cleared mangroves, shrimp farming has had a terrible impact on biodiversity, has left vast swaths of coast vulnerable to extreme weather and sea level rise, and has catapulted shrimp’s carbon footprint to potentially 10 times that of beef.
But maximising productivity on existing shrimp farms is not a solution if it further erodes the ecosystem services upon which coastal resilience depends. Countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia have the potential to build resilient coastal communities by combining extensive shrimp culture with ecosystem restoration.
Extensively cultured black-tiger shrimp is also gastronomically superior to intensively cultured shrimp and could support a business case for coastal ecosystem restoration. Unfortunately, the shrimp sustainability improvement systems that currently dominate the market largely fail to differentiate between intensive and extensive shrimp, driving production towards highly intensive, low-quality, large-scale systems. This not only threatens indispensable coastal ecosystem services, but also local livelihoods.
Solidaridad built on the Seafood Trade Intelligence Portal and the food security programme in Bangladesh to increase transparency in seafood supply chains and promote good practices. We also created partnerships with producers, input suppliers and buyers to pilot innovative solutions. For example, we took 15 European companies on a trade and investment mission to Myanmar, which led to two investment pilots for tilapia and shrimp. In addition, a partnership with Wageningen University, Deltares and Pur Projet set out to redesign shrimp-farming polders in coastal Bangladesh.
Over 60 EU-approved factories in Bangladesh and Myanmar shared in-depth performance and compliance information with regard to traceability, food safety, and social and environment sustainability for the Seafood Trade Intelligence Portal.
Over 25,000 fish and shrimp farmers joined our training programme in Bangladesh.
Although millions of fish farmers in Asia produce a significant volume of seafood that meets high standards, they are often not capable of meeting international requirements. This is not necessarily because their products are not good enough, but because the verification and certification systems endorsed by European and American markets have been designed for large-scale operators.
These systems often do not enable smallholders to be part of the solution. In general, Solidaridad realizes that dominant certifications systems have done too little to build on Asian initiatives, such as the national standards developed in countries like Thailand and Vietnam. Building on these efforts creates local ownership and will lead to faster uptake and essential spin-offs, such as the upgrading of national legislation and improved cooperation.
An issue of particular concern to Solidaridad and its stakeholders is that the dominant shrimp certification systems fail to differentiate between intensive and extensive shrimp, driving production towards highly intensive, low-quality, large-scale systems. This not only threatens indispensable coastal ecosystem services but also local livelihoods. For business, it’s a missed opportunity to bring high-quality cultured shrimp to their markets.
Solidaridad addresses this issue in three ways. First, Solidaridad has decided to support the work of Seafood Watch and the Asian Seafood Improvement Collaborative (ASIC) in developing continual improvement systems that differentiate between intensively and extensively produced shrimp. Second, Solidaridad actively engages with market players in order to carve out the potential for differentiation of their shelves. Third, Solidaridad supports producers with the development of high-end supply chains.
"I am motivated to assist small-scale shrimp farmers with getting access to high-end markets."
Mr. Anis Manager Gazi fish farm in Bangladesh
Solidaridad believes that sustainable seafood starts with transparency. In many sourcing countries, seafood supply chains are characterised by comparatively small companies that tend to operate in relative anonymity.
As a consequence, it is difficult for ambitious companies to find matching business partners and jointly develop roadmaps leading to less complex and better-organised chains. The Seafood Trade Intelligence Portal, originally a Solidaridad initiative, enables seafood companies to create a more sustainable seafood industry.
"At Solidaridad we build alliances with producers, buyers and certifiers, in order to devise tailored solutions that will pay off for producers and market players alike."
Daniel Knoop Internation Programme Manager, Aquaculture Solidaridad
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