By Danilo Valladares
Shrimp farming, one of the most destructive industries for coastal ecosystems, may soon be endowed with a set of standards that would supposedly vouch for environmentally responsible production, through the efforts of the prestigious World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
In 2007, WWF initiated the Shrimp Aquaculture Dialogue to establish standards for responsible shrimp farming, with the aim of minimizing the industry’s environmental and social impacts.
By 2010, six rounds of talks had been held – two in Madagascar and one each in Belize, Ecuador, Indonesia and Thailand – with industry executives, non-governmental organizations, academics and government representatives.
These talks culminated in December 2010 with the Draft Standards for Responsible Shrimp Aquaculture, which address issues such as the location of farms, responsible labor practices, water use and pollution, biodiversity, and respect for national laws, among others.
The standards are based on the eight International Principles for Responsible Shrimp Farming, adopted in 2006 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) after 140 meetings with more than 8,000 people and the publication of 40 case studies.
But activists warn that certification of shrimp farms based on these standards will pose a major threat to marine and coastal ecosystems as well as the survival of tens of thousands of families of artisanal fishers.
“The plans to certify industrial aquaculture are influenced by the interests of the aquaculture industry and do not reflect the desires of the local communities and indigenous peoples affected,” activist Alfredo Quarto of the Mangrove Action Project, an international network based in the U.S., told Tierramérica.
In a letter sent to WWF in late 2010, environmentalists from various regions, including Quarto, put forward a list of concerns over the draft standards, such as the risk of violating international agreements like the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, better known as the Ramsar Convention.
They also expressed their opposition to the use of genetically modified soy and palm oil as shrimp feed, given the fact that large-scale plantations of these crops are associated with impacts like the loss of biodiversity, land grabbing and the loss of other livelihoods for local communities.
The letter’s signatories stressed that the economic, social, cultural and biodiversity losses in local communities could not be reduced to a substantial sum of money, and called for a moratorium on the dialogue until community participation was taken into account.
Quarto also criticized José Villalón, director of the WWF aquaculture program, for having formerly worked as a manager for “a company accused of labor violations and destruction of the environment: Marine Harvest of Norway.”
Quarto said that achieving sustainability in shrimp farming is just part of the solution to the problem. “As long as demand is not reduced, the industry will continue to be out of control,” he stated.
For Villalón, however, standards for the certification of industrial shrimp farming “are a viable, powerful and transparent tool to ensure that the industry’s impacts are considered and reduced.”
Villalón, who holds a Master’s degree in fisheries biology from the University of Washington and has extensive professional experience in the industry, noted that aquaculture “will not go away,” which is why certifying the industry is necessary to “significantly reduce its impacts.”
He also denied the accusation that affected communities did not participate in the dialogue. “I don’t think any other process of developing standards has invited and involved representatives of indigenous communities like the Shrimp Aquaculture Dialogue,” he told Tierramérica.
Regarding his employment with Marine Harvest, Villalón clarified that he worked for 12 years for a company in Ecuador that was eventually acquired by Marine Harvest. “My job was to produce shrimp, and the company was never accused of or implicated in labor-related or environmental abuses,” he maintained.
According to Villalón, WWF wants to ensure that aquaculture is carried out in a responsible way that will reduce its damaging impacts, “especially if standards are measureable.”
“I don’t think any other aquaculture standards address the impacts as rigorously as these do. The draft contains 86 guidelines of which eight percent focus on dealing with impacts on communities around the farms and 43 percent on the impacts on employees,” he noted.
Opposition to shrimp farms, and their potential certification, is even greater when they are set up in coastal wetlands or mangrove forests.
Carlos Salvatierra, executive director of the non-governmental network Redmanglar International, told Tierramérica, “We see it as greenwashing that will allow the industry to continue operating with a more favorable public image.”
The 2009 edition of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Policy Makers, a report published by the United Nations Environment Program, looked at the trade-off between the profits to be made from commercial shrimp farming and the environmental services offered by mangroves.
In a 2007 study in southern Thailand, the conversion of mangroves into commercial shrimp farms showed net private economic returns estimated at 1,220 dollars per hectare per year, without taking into account the rehabilitation costs of 9,318 dollars per hectare when the shrimp pond is abandoned after five years of exploitation.
Meanwhile, the estimated benefits provided by mangroves, mostly to local communities, were around 584 dollars per hectare for collected wood and non-wood forest products, 987 dollars per hectare for providing a nursery for off-shore fisheries, and 10,821 dollars per hectare for coastal protection against storms, totaling 12,392 dollars per hectare.
Aquaculture is the world’s fastest growing animal food-producing sector, with the per capita supply from aquaculture increasing from 0.7 kg in 1970 to 7.8 kg in 2008, according to FAO.
And mangroves are disappearing: 35,600 square kilometers were lost between 1980 and 2005, primarily as the result of conversion to aquaculture, agriculture and urban land use.
Jorge Varela, executive director of the Honduran NGO Committee for the Defense and Development of Flora and Fauna in the Gulf of Fonseca, told Tierramérica that the certification process currently being developed does not fulfill such basic parameters as “including genuine representatives of affected communities in the discussions.”
The WWF estimates that the standards for the certification of shrimp aquaculture will be ready by the end of the year.