1997

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PUBLIC SERVICE

Are the World's Fisheries Doomed?

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Mark Saruna, 3, works on his father's shrimp farm near the coastal town of Talumphuk in southern Thailand. The children follow behind shrimp harversters who drag nets through the draining ponds. The children pounce on the few valuable prawns that escape the nets.
Day Five:
Thursday, March 28, 1996

Gulf shrimpers take a pounding

Farm-raised imports take over

Immigrant shrimper honors family legacy

Shrimpers, regulators often at loggerheads

Thailand transformed by shrimp boom


Thailand transformed by shrimp boom

By John McQuaid,
Staff writer

BAN LANG THA SAO, Thailand

Two years ago, Dulah Kwankha was toiling his life away in a rice paddy on the outskirts of his village, supporting his wife and three children with the $400 he earned each year. Then, in a story worthy of Horatio Alger, he became an entrepreneur and started earning six times that much.
  Dulah, 46, rode the economic wave that has swept up and down the Thai peninsula during the 1980s and ’90s: shrimp farming.
  With a $12,000 bank loan, backed by a Thai company, he converted his rice paddy into a shrimp pond that produces three crops a year, earning him $2,400. He now spends most of his time supervising the two villagers he pays to feed the shrimp, maintain the water flow and circulation, and harvest the black tiger prawns when they reach full size.
  The succulent prawns, produced cheaply by farms like Dulah’s, have flooded the U.S. market in the past 10 years and continue to gain popularity. To cash in, Thailand, Ecuador, China, Taiwan and other developing countries have thrown billions of dollars into shrimp farms.
  The shrimp farming craze illustrates the power of the global marketplace to alter people’s lives on opposite sides of the world, often for the worse.
  Farmed shrimp has undercut the price of wild shrimp caught in the Gulf of Mexico, helping send a once-vital industry spiralling into economic decline. And it has brought the forces of capitalism to the doorsteps of subsistence farmers and fishers for the first time in history.
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Fresh drinking water used to come from wells in the valley, but salt water pumped into the shrimp ponds has contaminated the groundwater, so water for drinking and bathing has to be trucked in from cities and stored in giant urns next to the villagers' huts.

  Aquaculture has turned thousands of square miles of coastline in Thailand and other countries into humming engines of shrimp production.
  But the price of this newfound wealth has been high. Cultures and values have been altered, often with devastating consequences. And in many places, the delicate ecologies that millions of people depend upon for their living are being ravaged by a headlong rush to collect on the world shrimp boom.
  While Dulah has money to spend for the first time in his life, the possibility of disaster haunts him. He is still paying off his initial loan, and he must borrow each year to finance his operation. Diseases frequently wipe out shrimp crops. Maintaining water quality is a constant struggle. Over time, a buildup of waste products from the ponds often renders them useless. When that happens, neither shrimp nor rice farming is possible.
  Dulah, who wears a Thai kilt-like garment wrapped around his legs and a silver ring with a jade inlay on his right hand, regards this state of affairs with more regret than satisfaction.
  ‘‘With rice farming I only made enough money to feed my family, and it was very hard work,’’ he said. ‘‘But I didn’t worry much about it. Shrimp farming isn’t such hard work, but I’m worrying a lot more. When I think about it, I was happier rice farming — there was no debt to pay.’’
  Following the path of many other Asian nations, the Thai government has aggressively pursued growth and foreign exchange. It has seized upon the high demand for seafood in developed countries by offering tax breaks and other incentives to companies to develop shrimp farming.
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The leftover sludge after shrimp are harvested is a difficult environmental problem, but many farmers don't realize it. Large mounds of pond sludge fill the air with a stench resembling that of raw sewage. Many farmers rinse out the sludge and pump it into canals that lead to the sea.

Supply meets demand
  On the balance sheet, it has worked spectacularly well. With farmed shrimp as its most important product, Thailand became the world’s top seafood exporter in 1994. With new shrimp ponds being dug every day, the business has skyrocketed: Exports of frozen shrimp, most of it farmed, rose from $1.5 billion to $1.9 billion, or 27 percent, between 1993 and ’94, the most recent year for which figures are available.
  Investment from several companies, foreign and domestic, has transformed hundreds of miles of Thai coastline into a zone dedicated almost exclusively to shrimp farming. On the coastal highway north of Songkla, a major fishing port, Buddhist temples, dusty shacks, snack bars and lazy, palm-shaded beaches quickly give way to a gray patchwork of shrimp ponds stretching as far as the eye can see.
  Rectangular, with narrow strips of mud dividing them, either filled or emptied and awaiting another crop, the ponds are connected by rickety networks of blue plastic piping that carries fresh water in and waste water out. Spinning water wheels connected to electric generators keep the water circulating and oxygenated. Men and women in small paddle boats toss in feed pellets, provided by the companies, and chlorine and antibiotics to make sure the shrimp stay healthy.
  Harvesting goes on year-round. To collect the shrimp, workers open a drain pipe into channels that run between the ponds and let the water flow out. They set up a net across the channel; the shrimp pour into it. Then the workers pour the shrimp into plastic baskets, which are put on the back of a pickup truck for transport.
  Because shrimp farming visits such radical changes on the environment, it must be managed carefully; otherwise the land eventually becomes useless. Such management is possible, aquaculture specialists say, only if everything from water treatment to waste disposal is meticulously coordinated.
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Where there isn't a hut, there's a shrimp pond. The coastal region of souther thailand was once a green, verdant plain of rice paddies. Now, brown shrimp ponds stretch to the horizon, the whir and clatter of water pumps fills the air day and night, and the farmers have more money than they ever dreamed possible.

  But the development in most nations has been so rapid and uncontrolled that many farms have almost no safeguards.
  ‘‘The central government has no resources to implement the kind of management needed at the local level,’’ said Somsak Boromthanarat, director of the Coastal Resources Institute at Prince of Songkla University in Hat Yai, just south of a major Thai shrimp farming zone.
  The farms are run by a patchwork of organizations. Some are owned and run by major companies, such as the Thai agribusiness corporation Charoen Pokphand. It has scientists and technicians who constantly check water quality and treatment.
  But many are run by cooperatives or individuals without concern for long-term management.
  Waste is the biggest problem. Every shrimp crop produces a layer of black sludge on the bottom of the pond — an unhealthy combination of fecal matter, molted shells, decaying food and chemicals. It must be removed somehow — by bulldozer, hose or shovel — before the next crop cycle can begin.
  There’s no place to put it. So it is piled everywhere — by roadsides, in canals, in wetlands, in the Gulf of Thailand, on the narrow spits of land between the ponds. When it rains, the waste drains into the watershed, causing health problems. All along the coast, fishers say, the sludge, along with untreated or poorly treated shrimp farm waste water, has killed fish close to shore. Many shrimp farmers seem unaware of the risk.
  Siri Bunkrai, 36, stood outside his house, a stone’s throw from the Gulf, and watched as four workers cleaned the sludge out of his shrimp pond using high-pressure hoses. The muddy liquid flowed into a tube connected to a rattling pump.
  The tube ran from the shrimp pond to a growing slick of jet-black ooze underneath and behind his house, which rested on concrete stilts. Blooms of foam floated on the surface. The sludge was leaking into a nearby canal, where fish were jumping from lack of oxygen. A stench hung in the humid air.
  Siri, a former fisherman who said he has been shrimp farming for four years, leaned against a water urn and said he has $12,000 in the bank. Using hoses, he said, is one tenth as expensive as hiring a bulldozer.
  ‘‘There’s no health problem,’’ he said. ‘‘And after it dries in a couple of weeks, you won’t smell it anymore.’’
  The farms have other costs too, which may not become apparent for years. Nearly every tree in the shrimp farm zone has been uprooted or killed by polluted water. Many of those that remain are dying. There is literally nothing holding the land in place, and coastal erosion has increased dramatically in the past 10 years, residents say. The intrusion of salt water has ruined rice paddies.

Trees under siege
  To make way for the farms, Thais have clear-cut the mangrove forests, the valuable coastal habitats that, like the Gulf of Mexico marshes, provide important habitats for many fish species. On the Gulf of Thailand coast, where most shrimp farming takes place, they have been cut from 920,000 acres to a mere 40,000 in the past 30 years, a loss of almost 96 percent.
  Mangrove cutting has been banned in most of the country, but it continues in some places because the government has granted exceptions to politically connected enterprises.
  On the Andaman Sea coast of the Thai peninsula, Porn Naranong, 38, and his wife, Eed Tangmoe, 37, buzzed on their motorized dugout, piled high with thin logs, through the marshy channel in a mangrove forest near the village of Chao Mai. They tied up to a tree and he stepped over the muddy floor and quickly whacked off the branches of one mangrove, then another, with a few practiced flicks of a hatchet.
  With shrimp farming reaching full capacity on the Gulf of Thailand coast, observers say development pressure is shifting to the Andaman Sea coast, site of the country’s last unspoiled mangrove forests.
  It might be possible to deal with any one of these problems in isolation. But together, in such tight proximity, aquaculture specialists say they are a catastrophe in the making. They think much of the shrimp-farming zone eventually may be a useless wasteland.
  ‘‘People gain a lot from shrimp ponds, but they have not yet realized what they’ve lost. After a few years, they may,’’ said Pisit Chansnoh, director of the Yadfon (Raindrop) Association, an organization based in Trang, Thailand, that helps local villages manage their resources.
  Disease already has been a devastating problem: In several countries, such as China in 1994, it has wiped out almost the year’s entire production, helping drive up the price around the world — a temporary boon to Gulf of Mexico shrimpers. In Thailand, 1993 was a bad year for disease.
  ‘‘Availability of virgin sections of the Thai coastline masked the real magnitude of the problems for a while, but considering the devastating disease outbreaks in 1993, the end seems to be close,’’ said a recent report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
  The effects are hitting Ban Lang Tha Sao. A Muslim village near the southeast coast of the Thai peninsula, its small houses and thatched-roof huts are laid out around a delicate white, green-domed mosque. But its ambiance is now dominated by the whirring of electric paddle wheels in the dozens of shrimp ponds that surround it.
  ‘‘We have more money, but we also have many problems,’’ said Yad Todanya, a local official. ‘‘Shrimp pond waste water flushed into the lake has hurt the fish, so we cannot fish anymore; the fish are small and dying. We cannot do rice farming anymore because of the salty water from shrimp ponds. Then the ponds often fail to produce. Last year the disease started in another village with seven or eight ponds. Soon, everybody had it.’’

Humans affected too
  The cultural effects of shrimp farming also are proving devastating. In many countries, longstanding disputes over land have worsened with the spread of shrimp farming, sparking protests and violence. In Bangladesh, at least two leaders of anti-shrimp-farming groups have been killed.
  In Thailand, subsistence rice farmers and fishers who barely eked out a living even five years ago have become capitalists making tens of thousands of dollars, but they’re also deeply in debt to banks and large corporations. They must adjust to often-baffling changes as they trade one way of life for another.
  ‘‘Families and villages are now under stresses they have never had before,’’ Somsak said. ‘‘They don’t think about sustainability. They just want to earn some more money and send their children out to get an education, because there’s no future for them there. But many are falling into debt, and if farming goes, they will have nothing.’’

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