The price of cheap shrimp

The readership of Island Tides is, in my experience, among the best informed and most conscientious about our collective and individual ecological footprint of any people on the planet. However, I keep encountering a blind spot. We wouldn’t touch farmed salmon but have very little awareness of the monstrous damage done by shrimp aquaculture.

Vandana Shiva, brilliant scientist and campaigner, once told me that she thought of all the industries that had ever come to India—chemical factories, mining, industrial agriculture—shrimp aquaculture was the worst. In fact, thanks to protests and a court challenge, the Indian Supreme Court banned any expansion of shrimp aquaculture.

shrimpIt has not met with effective opposition elsewhere. Protesters in Bangladesh and Thailand have been murdered. Korunamoyee Sardar, a heroic Bangladeshi woman who fought the industrial shrimp industry, was beheaded in 1990; her head stuck on a pole to warn others.

To explain the multiple levels of human and ecological devastation caused by the industry, we have to start with the mangrove massacre. We have lost nearly one quarter of the mangrove forests of the planet. Mangroves are remarkable habitat for creatures like the endangered proboscis monkey and even the Bengal tiger. In 2010, a collaborative project, involving numerous UN agencies, produced the World Atlas of Mangroves. Its lead author, scientist Mark Spalding, described the multiple benefits to humanity of this unique ecosystem:

‘Mangrove forests are the ultimate illustration of why humans need nature … The trees provide hard, rot-resistant timber and make some of the best charcoal in the world. The waters all around foster some of the greatest productivity of fish and shellfish in any coastal waters. What’s more, mangrove forests help prevent erosion and mitigate natural hazards from cyclones to tsunamis—these are natural coastal defenses whose importance will only grow as sea level rise becomes a reality around the world.’

We are losing mangrove forests to two major developments—coastal tourism and shrimp aquaculture. The intensive shrimp aquaculture in Thailand has essentially appropriated whole coastlines, with fishpen abutting the next fishpen. With the loss of the mangrove forests, salt water intrusion can also devastate local farms. The deforestation of mangroves undercuts the local fishery. Salt water has also contaminated village water supply, leaving them without potable water. The means people once had to feed themselves, both through agriculture and small scale fishing, is destroyed.

The pens are stocked by stretching fine mesh nets at the mouth of the river. Children are often used for this work, pulling the tiny shrimp fry from the net. The rest of the small fish are by-catch, dead and discarded. Once the fry are in the pond, pesticides and antibiotics are routinely added.

The ponds tend to last between 10 to 15 years, and then are left abandoned—a toxic, salty hole where a forest once thrived. And the industry clears more mangroves to build more ponds. All so that we can have ‘all you can eat’ shrimp specials at restaurants and buy cheap party shrimp rings.

This is what I knew about shrimp aquaculture in the 1990s when Sierra Club of Canada worked with small NGOs from India, Honduras, Bangladesh, Ecuador and Thailand to raise awareness about the threat. We organized speaking tours for activists from the global south to share their stories with Canadians. I used to go to international biodiversity meetings equipped with a small red ink pad and a rubber stamp featuring a shrimp in the centre and the words, ‘Stop the Mangrove Massacre’ ringing the shrimp. Inevitably at the cocktail receptions, farmed shrimp was served. I would distribute the cocktail serviettes I swiped from the tables the night before, stamped with the message. I didn’t think there could be a worse example of human greed and stupidity trampling on the rights of people around the world, destroying critical ecosystems.

And then in June of this year it got worse. An exposé appeared in The Guardian: ‘Globalised slavery: how big supermarkets are selling prawns in supply chain fed by slave labour.’

The shrimps in ponds are being fed with fish meal. The fish meal in the Thai prawn industry is caught in a supply chain that starts with stealing men and selling them to trawler companies. The Guardian exposé is not easy to read. It makes your hair stand on end as the authors, Kate Hodel and Chris Kelly, relate the brutality of the life on the trawlers and the reports of routine murders at sea.

The article quotes Steve Trent of the Environmental Justice Foundation: ‘The supermarkets know this is happening,’ he says. ‘Everyone knows this is happening. From the boat to the shelf, the supermarkets have an opportunity to stop this… They are actively supporting slavery by not acting and, conversely, they could be actively working to get rid of it if they really had the desire.’

We are blessed to have a local and sustainable fishery in spot prawns. Small cold-water shrimp from Newfoundland and Quebec are also good options, especially since new technology has reduced the by-catch. But, please, never again buy Thai shrimp and let your supermarket know why they shouldn’t either.

View The Guardian video: