Shrimp farming is often criticized for its environmental impacts. But millions of small-scale producers in the world’s poorest countries, who produce 99 percent of the world’s farmed shrimp, depend on it for their livelihoods. Consumer demand in northern markets is at record highs, and shrimp exports from the developing world run to the tune of $8.7 billion a year.
It’s a problem that has bedevilled policymakers for decades now.
Last week that knot unravelled a bit, when a group of 50 countries attending an FAO meeting on fish farming welcomed a series of non-binding international principles for responsible shrimp farming which offer guidance on how to reduce the sector’s environmental impacts while boosting its contribution to poverty alleviation.
While not slated for formal adoption by national delegations participating in the 3rd meeting of the FAO Sub-Committee on Aquaculture (New Delhi, September 4-8), there was general consensus that the principles should be relied upon as a global point of reference for aquaculture policy and development.
The principles touch on a number of environment-related issues, including the siting of farms and their design, the use of resources like water and feed, as well as the social impacts of aquaculture on local communities.
Proliferation of standards causes confusion
Drawn up in a five-year consultative process involving several partner organizations, including the Network for Aquaculture Centres for the Asia Pacific, WWF, the World Bank and the UN Environmental Programme, the new principles represent the first-ever attempt to provide an overarching international framework for improving the sustainability of the shrimp farming industry.
A number of similar, less ambitious frameworks are already being used by governments and private-sector buyers and impose standards aimed at ensuring that farmed shrimp are raised in an environmentally friendly way and that shrimp culture operations do not have negative impacts on local communities.
However the proliferation of such schemes has posed a number of challenges. They are not harmonized, which means that exporters in the developing world often must struggle to adapt to new and changing rules as they try to bring their farm-raised shrimp to different overseas markets.
“We hope that these new principles will help pave the way for a more common vision of how we should define responsible shrimp farming, globally,” said Rohana Subasinghe, a senior aquaculture expert at FAO and Secretary of the Sub-Committee.
“They can also serve as a point of reference for governments, non-governmental organizations and private industry who are developing systems to certify farm-raised shrimp as eco-friendly or sustainable, or who are looking to harmonize systems that are already in place,” he added.
According to Subasinghe the challenge for the next decade is to develop specific recommendations for better management practices that will allow producer countries to implement the new principles in the field.
“FAO will be giving a lot of attention to this in the coming years, with an eye to seeing management practices put into place around the world that are grounded in these principles and therefore all on the same page,” he said.
FAO’s future workplan on aquaculture
Countries participating in the Sub-Committee also made a number of other recommendations to FAO that will now drive the agency’s work on aquaculture over the next two years.
These include holding meetings of experts to review the various certification systems currently being used for farmed shrimp and other aquaculture products, analyze their comparative benefits, and explore their possible harmonization.
They also asked the Organization to come up with new statistical indicators to better measure the social and economic impacts of fish farming.
Additionally, the promotion of sustainable aquaculture in sub-Saharan Africa was identified as a “high priority” for FAO in the coming years, and the Sub-committee members called for the creation of some sort of special programme to improve access to credit and investment capital for aquaculture development in the region and promote the transfer of know-how and technology related to fish farming.
Shrimp culture: pros and cons
Shrimp is the most valuable fish product traded internationally, with over US$11 billion of exports per year, and represents a major source of employment, tax revenues and foreign interest earnings for developing nations -- which produce 90 percent of all shrimp worldwide and 99 percent of all farmed shrimp.
At the same time, shrimp farming has been criticized for polluting coastal waters, destroying mangrove ecosystems and spreading diseases and invasive alien species.
Yet just around 13 percent of aquaculture comes from large-scale, export-oriented 'industrial aquaculture' operations involving species like shrimp or salmon. The bulk of production involves plant-eaters low on the food chain, like carp, and occurs on small-scale farms in developing countries -- particularly in Asia -- where it meets pressing food and nutrition needs. [Source: FAO Rome]