White Gold

The Social and Ecological Consequences of High-Intensity Shrimp Farming

Lider G?ngora knows this part of the Pacific like the back of his hand. The founder of the environmental organization Fundaci?n de Defensa Ecologica (FUNDECOL) stands stoically at the back of the boat, gripping the handle of the 75-horsepower Yamaha outboard motor and wiping salt spray from his face. The motor roars, we mount a wave and almost surf into the calm of the estuary.

On the riverbank, pelicans adorn shady trees, herons stalk amongst the reeds, and bright red crabs scuttle across muddy flats between green shoots of young mangrove trees. But the peace and tranquility are an illusion, as are the few mature mangrove forests that line the river. Behind this thin veil of trees, chainsaws, mechanical diggers and gold-rush fever have taken their toll. The farmers call the shrimps that grow in huge man-made ponds “white gold.”

It has taken Ecuador 20 years to develop an industry of this magnitude, and today, this small South American country is the world’s second-biggest producer of shrimp. One in five inhabitants of the coastal provinces lives from shrimp aquaculture. But the boom is not only an Ecuadorian phenomenon. White gold-rush fever has spread through other countries of Latin America (Mexico and Honduras) and Asia (China, Thailand, India and Bangladesh). The industry produces 930,000 tons a year at a current value of $5.6 billion.

Consumers have benefited. What was once a luxury, confined to fine restaurants and specialty shops, is today available in the local supermarket. Shelves are packed with bags of frozen shrimp of all sizes as well as shrimp rings, breaded shrimp, stir-fried shrimp and other prepared foods. Even fast-food chains offer low-priced shrimp meals for the whole family.

© Clive Shirley

Giant shrimp pools crowd out environmentally important mangrove forests, but provide a livelihood to many in Ecuador, a top shrimp producer.
Clive Shirley

Muisne, a small coastal town in northwestern Ecuador, is a living example of the worldwide struggle between socio-economic and environmental priorities and corporate tycoons infected with white-gold fever. This is where G?ngora founded FUNDECOL to fight the continued expansion of shrimp farms by patrolling the remaining green areas and documenting illegal clearing of mangrove forests.

On a moonless night, the desolate landscape of shrimp pools the size of football fields, separated by retaining walls of mud, reflect only the halogen spotlights that form perimeter security. A single spotlight on the sluice gate attracts the shrimp. They gather at the end of the huge pool, leaping out of the water toward the light. As the shrimp collect in the net, workers standing up to their waists in rushing water scoop the animals into deep plastic trays. A sea of tiny red eyes shines bright in the artificial light for the last time before the trays are immersed in ice and sodium metabisulphate to preserve the delicate meat.

When Eric Notarianni describes his harvest, it’s with love for this 10-footed sea creature with its long head and plump little body. He is the president of Sociedad Nacional de Galapagos (SONGA), one of the biggest shrimp producers in Ecuador. He rhymes off the stats without pause: Ecuador has 2,000 shrimp farms occupying 500,000 acres, an area the size of the Aruba or the Channel Islands; last year they produced 150,000 tons, 80 percent of which was exported with more than half going to the U.S. and the rest to Asia and Europe. The trade in white gold reaped $900 million. Prospects for the industry look good. North Americans and Japanese eat between five and nine pounds per year per person.

The industry frequently sets up shop in areas that have traditionally grown rice, as in Guayaquil, Bangladesh and India. With every new shrimp pond, rice paddies are lost and with them, food for local inhabitants. For example, in the Krishna-Godavari Delta, the breadbasket of the Indian province of Andhra Pradesh, 15 percent of the rice fields are now producing shrimp for export.

The biggest problem with higher density production is the increased susceptibility to bacteria, fungus and viruses. Epidemics are common. In 1988, Taiwan’s production was annihilated by a virus, and in 1992 and 1993, another destroyed harvests in China and Thailand. Notorianni sees “no danger whatsoever for consumers or the environment.” But the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warns of increasing use of antibiotics in agribusiness.

“I used to find 350 shells a day. Today, I’m lucky if it’s 100,” complains Gladys Cort?z Castillo. The president of the shell gatherers association of Bolivar stands mired knee-deep in mud, searching for those scarce shells. From the backdoor of her wooden hut, Castillo looks directly across the river to a waste pipe of the neighboring shrimp farm. The owner dumps his cocktail of chemicals, antibiotics, fishmeal and shrimp feces directly into the river—standard practice along the entire coast of Ecuador.

Castillo will fight to protect her livelihood. That is why she takes the time to plant mangrove shoots on mudflats that have been donated by aid organizations. But the aquaculture industry is gearing up and marching ahead, despite the resistance of environmental organizations and local people. Worldwide, five percent of mangrove forests have been lost in the past 10 years. It is clear that the shrimp boom will continue. Opponents have few resources to fight the partnership of vast capital and huge profits.

© Clive Shirley

What would be sensible, environmental organizations agree, is an industry that operates only in properly licensed areas with control in the hands of independent agencies. But G?ngora sees no sign of change. This leaves the success of the opposition in the hands of the export countries. If consumers buy the cheapest products—eating shrimp as if it were chicken—they encourage the industry to continue its current course and ignore social and ecological consequences.

Perhaps the choice for the consumer should lie somewhere in between: accept a higher price, one that reflects the real cost of this luxury, by consuming only shrimp produced on ecological farms. Although western buyers and shrimp producers are discussing an environmental label, there is still no mechanism in place. And questions remain: Who will control the label and the farmers to make sure they conform? And, who will control the controllers in countries like Ecuador, which are rife with poverty and corruption?