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.
transformed by shrimp boom
By John McQuaid,
BAN LANG THA SAO, Thailand
| DAY 2
| DAY 3
| DAY 4
| DAY 5
| DAY 6
| DAY 7
| DAY 8
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 Dulahs, 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
peoples 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.
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'
Aquaculture has turned
thousands of square miles of coastline in Thailand and
other countries into humming engines of shrimp
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.
farming I only made enough money to feed my family, and
it was very hard work, he said.
But I didnt worry much about it. Shrimp
farming isnt such hard work, but Im 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.
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 worlds
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
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.
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.
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
But many are run by
cooperatives or individuals without concern for long-term
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.
Theres 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 stones 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.
health problem, he said. And
after it dries in a couple of weeks, you wont smell
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 countrys 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 theyve 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
Disease already has been a
devastating problem: In several countries, such as China
in 1994, it has wiped out almost the years 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.
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 theyre also deeply in
debt to banks and large corporations. They must adjust to
often-baffling changes as they trade one way of life for
villages are now under stresses they have never had
before, Somsak said. They
dont think about sustainability. They just want to
earn some more money and send their children out to get
an education, because theres no future for them
there. But many are falling into debt, and if farming
goes, they will have nothing.