August 22, 2006

New Shrimp Farm Rules Aim to Save Asian Mangroves

By Clarence Fernandez

KUALA LUMPUR -- Environmental regulation of shrimp farming operations across Asia takes a major step forward next month, when the U.N. food agency considers adoption of a set of tougher industry guidelines published on Tuesday.

The key victims of Asia's shrimp farms are its mangrove forests, the stilt-like luxuriant root systems of which form a natural protective barrier against destructive waves, prompting many countries to plant them after the 2004 tsunami.

Environmental devastation wreaked by shrimp farms across the region has driven policymakers to hammer out a strategy which aims to save natural resources and protect livelihoods, experts meeting in the Malaysian capital said.

Asia generates about 75 percent of total world production of farmed shrimp, which stood at 1.6 million metric tons in 2003 and was worth nearly $9 billion, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates.

As demand for shrimp grows worldwide, concern over the sustainability of fish stocks has risen, forcing consumers and retailers to demand that the food meets environmental guidelines.

"It's ridiculous to think that a multi-billion-dollar industry can be stopped," said environmentalist Ben Brown, who works for the Mangrove Action Project in Indonesia.

"But the aquaculture industry is very far from adhering to best practices. It's still very much a get-in-quick, do-it-dirty approach, and it causes a lot of havoc."

Policymakers have found it hard to reconcile different environmental yardsticks, spurring a group of United Nations agencies and the World Bank to join hands in thrashing out the new, simpler prescription for the industry.

"There are too many environmental guidelines out there -- there's confusion among governments and investors about which ones to follow," said Koji Yamamoto, a researcher with the Network of Aquaculture Centres in Asia-Pacific (NACA).

NACA, which groups 17 nations from India and China to Australia and North Korea, published the set of eight principles for responsible shrimp farming, which an FAO panel is due to weigh and consider adopting at a meeting in September.

Once adopted by the FAO, the guidelines would be incorporated in the national shrimp farming policies of different governments, Yamamoto added. NACA's 17 members have already signed off on the guidelines.

The rules address issues ranging from farm location, design and construction to questions of shrimp feeding, health and nutrition, as well as food safety issues and concerns over sharing the farm's benefits with surrounding communities.

Stricter regulation is crucial because governments often overlook the true environmental costs of shrimp farms, which destroy mangroves, and rip up the livelihoods of poor coastal communities, researchers and economists said.

"There is no incentive to take account of mangrove costs, because they are not felt as losses to the private producers, but to the wider economy," said Lucy Emerton, an environmental economist with the World Conservation Union, IUCN.

Clearance for shrimp ponds accounted for 20 to 50 percent of mangrove clearances, Emerton said, noting that over the last 20 years shrimp aquaculture had grown by 400 percent while mangrove forest areas had shrunk by 26 percent.

"In Asia, the average intensive shrimp farm survives only two to five years before serious pollution and disease problems cause early closures," said Brown, adding that 99 percent of mangroves in some parts of East Java had been lost to shrimp farming.

Polluted soils left by unprofitable shrimp farms often needed to be treated for a very long time to be rejuvenated, he said.