Since arriving in Asia in late October, I have been visiting shrimp farms in Thailand and attending multi-stakeholder meetings to define standards for sustainable shrimp production. Farmed shrimp and farmed salmon are the two most consumed aquaculture products per capita in the United States and Canada. But with significant, scientifically documented environmental and social impacts related to their production, shrimp and salmon also represent the two biggest challenges for sustainable aquaculture.
Thailand is the second-largest farmed shrimp producer in the world, surpassed only by China. Thailand's shrimp farming industry has followed the typical boom and bust cycle with devastating consequences for both the environment and local communities. In the 1990s, shrimp consumption in the U.S. skyrocketed and there was a strong economic incentive to produce as much shrimp as fast as possible, which resulted in mangroves being cut down in order to build more shrimp farms to meet the market demand. Another major consequence of the shrimp "goldrush" was the conversion of traditional livelihoods in Southeast Asia and especially in Thailand. Furthermore, the unregulated and rapid movement of shrimp stock used for production led to massive disease outbreaks among shrimp-producing countries, which bankrupted many farmers.
Having learned its lesson the hard way, the industry in Thailand is moving towards becoming more sustainable, making it one of the leading shrimp aquaculture countries in Southeast Asia. The Thai government, with the help of their Royal Family, has initiated programs to restore the mangrove areas destroyed by the industry and move shrimp farms further inland. This suggests that government and industry finally recognize the value of mangroves and the ecosystem services they provide. Farmers tell me that intact mangroves help prevent the flooding of farms from storms. To prevent disease, there are now strong biosecurity protocols that large companies use to minimize outbreaks of disease on the farm and control the movement of broodstock. Most farms are now fully closed systems with zero water exchange between ponds, which prevents the spread of disease.
The take home message here is that destroying the environment was bad for business. The example of shrimp aquaculture in Thailand shows that living within the limits of nature has proven to be the only safe path forward for the shrimp industry. While there is still a lot of work to be done towards becoming fully sustainable, the industry appears to be moving in a positive direction.