Countering the Blue Revolution

Countering the Blue Revolution

By Alfredo Quarto, Mangrove Action Project


Today, there is a blue revolution in our midst, driven by immense profit potential, but resulting in furthering terrible environmental losses and human suffering. To counter this “revolution,” a worldwide movement is building against the production and sale of farmed shrimp. Though there are an array of would-be certifiers who claim their particular standard setting process addresses the multitude of problems created by the shrimp aquaculture industry, none of these really suffice in meeting their stated objectives, and so unsustainable shrimp farming continues to expand its destructive course.

Traditional aquaculture in and of itself can be done sustainably, and was done as a common practice along the coast of Indonesia, where for over a thousand years tambak systems once flourished to supplement local livelihoods and dietary needs. Tamboks relied on tidal flows to bring in the shrimp and fish larva, as well as the nutrients, to the fallowed rice paddies, which were diked during the dry season and after the rice harvest, so that farmers could have an additional crop of farmed seafood while their rice paddies were prepared for the next production season. Another ancient system of sustainable aquaculture existed in Hong Kong called gei wei built within the mangrove wetlands themselves. Both tambak and gei wei were small-scale, mixed aquaculture, including production of shrimp, mollusks and finfish all in one pond, and their production was meant for local consumption, not for export. With these more traditional methods of aquaculture there was much less of an ecological footprint, and for certain the marine and coastal ecologies remained healthy and intact.

However, things drastically changed around three decades ago with the introduction of industrial aquaculture in both Asia and Latin America. Aquaculture processes changed from traditional, small-scale and low-impact to industrial, large-scale, high-impact production approaches, with seafood export, not local use, in mind. As the industry expanded its reach into the international marketplace, the rate of destruction of the natural environment and the related adverse consequences for local communities accelerated, the ecological footprint increased logarithmically. And, these problems continue to plague the industry today, regardless if the shrimp production process is certified or not.

Robbing the Poor to Feed the Rich:

Overall, setup processes and operations of industrial shrimp aquaculture are tremendously disruptive to the delicate and complex balance of coastal ecology. Among the most serious problems are degradation and loss of vast tracks of mangrove forests and their associate intertidal wetlands, such as salt flats, mud flats and salt marshes, which are destroyed or degraded when developed into shrimp ponds and service roads. Vast stretches of invaluable mangrove forests- the nursery grounds for countless marine life- are cleared to make way for these aquaculture operations. In this way, shrimp farms displace diverse, multiple resource environments with monoculture operations. This results in dependence on a single crop to bolster the local economy, rather than the multiple crops of the displaced former agrarian/ fisheries economy, which involved multiple skills and usages of existing varied resources. This single resource dependency drastically lessens the resilience of the affected economies, making them much more vulnerable to vagaries of an often erratic export dependent economy, as well as highly susceptible to the sudden appearances of diseases and pollution problems that regularly plague the industry. These sudden and too common impediments can quickly ruin a local shrimp farm industry, leaving thousands without jobs or alternative means of livelihoods.

Also, once productive farmlands have been left infertile, their soils salinated, while important waterways and underground aquifers have become contaminated with salt-water intrusion, pesticides and antibiotics used in the shrimp rearing ponds. Thus, industrial shrimp aquaculture destroys the very infrastructure that formerly supported traditional means of livelihoods by removal of the mangroves and salinization of lands and waters. Then farming and near shore fishing are no longer viable options for local communities to fall back on, so that today there are countless displaced coastal residents who were forced to leave their communities in search of supporting low-paid and unskilled jobs in the cities. These might rightfully be called “industrial shrimp farm refugees!”

Susan Stonich, in “Greening the Blue Revolution” points out:

“The potential of aquaculture to improve the nutrition and incomes of the poor has been impeded by the emphasis on the cultivation of high-value, carnivorous species destined for market in industrial nations. The primary motives are generating high profits for producers and input suppliers and enhancing export earnings for national treasuries….Goals of broadening the economic base of rural areas, generating local employment, and enhancing food security are minor compared to the overarching objectives of shrimp farming.” (1) Stonich, S.

Rapid growth of demand in the consumer nations of N. America, the EU and Japan over the last two decades has been a driving force for shrimp farm industry expansion in the Global South. It is this growth in demand that must be effectively addressed to counter the rapid, often uncontrolled expansion of the shrimp farm industry. One option is to raise public awareness in the consumer nations to the many serious problems created by the shrimp farm industry, pointing out not only the social and ecological malaise caused by the industry, but also spotlight the health issues associated with consuming shrimp raised in questionable circumstances where misuse of pesticides and antibiotics may have contaminated much of the shrimp being imported.

Lack of satisfactory inspections of imported sea foods, especially in the US where less than 1% of seafood is inspected, poses serious health risks for those consuming imported shrimp. This is cause for alarm, as much of the contaminated seafood is slipping by without inspections, thus furthering the risks to the consumer public. Mangrove Action Project has initiated its Question Your Shrimp Consumer/ Markets Campaign to raise public concern and awareness, countering those restaurant chains, such as Red Lobster and Skippers which offer “All You Can Eat” shrimp menus, with a simple question, “All you can eat, but knowing the issues, how much can you stomach?”

Certifying Disaster:

Now, enter the shrimp certifiers, bent on finding believable solutions to the current crisis. The key word here is “believable,” as this requires some rather slick salesmanship on the part of the many would-be certifiers and “green” labelers. Current certification programs are seriously flawed, and simply amount to more greenwashing that serves to confound an already confused public with so many different “best practices,” “sustainable” and “organic” claims and misleading labels.

Today, we find an expanding list of certifiers promoting their multi-layered, carefully constructed certification schemes. Several spent millions of dollars in order to develop standards for shrimp farming that would try to meet close scrutiny and win public confidence in the shrimp they certify. Here is a short list of a few of these certification schemes:

1) WWF – Shrimp Dialogue and the creation of the Aquaculture Stewardship Council: IUCN, NETHERLANDS and Oxfam Novib of the Netherlands joined WWF and their industry allies in producing their so-called shrimp standards via a very one-sided “Aquaculture Dialogue” process that excluded the majority of local stakeholders- the local communities most affected by the encroaching shrimp farming industry. (An international alliance of NGOs is now denouncing the shrimp standards and the ASC itself. A letter of protest to the WWF and their creation, the ASC, is attached below.)

2) Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) is an industry alliance of seafood businesses, including producers, buyers, restaurant chains and retailers. There are very serious failures in the GAA process whereby known violators of the GAA specified standards are still being certified.

3) GlobalGap of Holland is a business association and is certifying shrimp, but is also now aligning itself with the ASC and with the Global Aquaculture Alliance so that there might be more unification in the standards and the certifying process. They are suggesting that the ASC, GAA and GlobalGap all use the same certifiers to have less confusion over who certifies which shrimp.

4) Monterrey Bay Aquarium and their partner Seafood Watch are funded in large part via Packard Foundation. Seafood Watch publishes a seafood guide for consumers, including wallet or pocket-sized information cards, which has been a very useful tool, placing certain color-coded designations on seafood including shrimp. Until now, imported shrimp has always held a red code, which means a worst choice. However, recently Seafood Watch is offering their green label to certified shrimp in Vietnam.

5) Naturland from Germany is an organic shrimp certifier, but they also promote shrimp farming if done “organically.” The problem is that they also certify shrimp that even though labeled “organically raised” are still in former mangrove areas or on land taken away from the local residents who still suffer from losses of their basic resources, including their local fisheries. Again, Naturland misses the point that imported shrimp are causing local problems of food insecurity for poor coastal communities and loss of important mangrove coastal buffer zones against climate change and hurricanes or tsunamis.

6) FairTrade is also considering certification of certain shrimp operations that meet their “more strict” standards. The Conscientious Objectors alliance successfully halted their earlier plan last year after a long e-mail exchange and then a personal visit by a CO delegation to FairTrade offices, but there remains a possibility FairTrade will be back with a new proposal to certify shrimp.

Certification’s Dilemma:

Industry proponents assume there are no other ways but forward with shrimp production in the Global South because they see no other options, while they also assume there’s no better way to feed the North’s growing appetite for seafood than via shrimp imports from the South. Yet, this present rush for certification benefits mainly the industrial shrimp farming companies, which find a way of “greenwashing” their image and engender new markets for concerned, but misinformed, consumers in the North, who are misled by “green” labels that belie their true color.

According to a recent study by Simon Bush, et al, these numerous and confounding certification schemes are not effectively dealing with the problems inherent in the shrimp aquaculture industry:

“Because private production units (farms or value chains) are certified, the cumulative impacts of multiple farms in a particular location or the impact of aquaculture on surrounding agriculture or mangrove conservation is rarely effectively considered…” (2) Bush, S., et al

According to this same study, WWF’s certification process- the so-called “Shrimp Dialogue” has been criticized “for adopting a technicalfocus that reflects interests and valuesof the most powerful actors to the exclusion of others… Even when such stakeholders participate, they are often unable tomeaningfully influence outcomes.” (3) Bush, S.

In a rather convoluted reckoning, if a consumer buys only credibly certified shrimp products coming from well-managed operations, then that consumer will avoid buying products that come from unsustainable, chemically contaminated, monoculture plantations. Nevertheless, since only around 4.2 % of the total production from aquaculture is estimated to be eco-certified, buying certified shrimp does not make much difference on the overall market forces. Nor can this certified shrimp entrance into the marketplace prevent the destruction, because one consumer buying certified products can’t prevent others from buying uncertified products, which will still dominate the market with their lower priced shrimp.

As well, more and more shrimp are now destined for sale within China. This may make it much more difficult to lessen the demand side of the equation and the consequent adverse impacts of shrimp production if certification is mainly aimed at markets in the Global North. This is especially relevant with the massive market potential in China that may well suddenly double this demand, placing even more stress on our planet’s coastal zones.

According to one recent study,

“Developing nations accounts for 80 % of world aquaculture production …as the population and middleclass in Asia is growingfast alongside with seafood consumption, targeting Asianseafood markets is essential if eco-certified production is aiming for reducing the environmental footprint of the overall sector… exclusion of species groups currently especially popular in Asia (such as carp)could limit the global environmental benefit of certification…” (4) Jonell, M., et al

Looking for more effective solutions:

There is mounting evidence that existing certification schemes are driven by industry interests and are mainly designed and implemented by forces in the Global North in a pseudo-imperialism that one author claimed is part of a new “eco-certification empire,” whereby:

“The main drivers of transnational eco-certification are brand-conscious European and North American corporate buyers, working with primarily Northern-based environmental groups. Thus transnational eco-certification in the South is almost entirely for products exported to Europe and North America…” (5) Vandergeest,P., et al

Bush states basically the same, then makes a recommendation in his report:

“Although private sustainability certification was born in part out of fear of under regulation by states, it is now blamed for being inflexible, divisive, and restrictive. The assumption that countries in the Global South are incapable of regulating aquaculture no longer holds true everywhere… Northern-led certification need no longer be imposed in lieu of state regulation or in isolation from local standards development but should be institutionalized as part of a broader array of approaches, including state and private regulation in the Global South…” (6) Bush, S., et al

Basic guidelines for any form of more intensive aquaculture that make good sense should include the following rudimentary conditions:

1) Aquaculture of herbivorous species makes sense- carp, tilapia, seaweed, clams, etc.

2) Raising carnivorous species does not make sense- shrimp, salmon, etc., unless done on a low-intensity, small-scale such as the traditional tambok or gei wei systems

3) Do not use wild caught fish or GMO crops to feed farmed fish

4) Locate the pond or facility outside the intertidal zone, so as to allow the intertidal areas to maintain their normal functions and support for wild fisheries.

5) Restore abandoned shrimp farms located in intertidal wetlands, including mangroves to their natural health and productivity- not via mono-cultured plantations, but via more natural, biodiverse systems that can better maintain and nourish a healthy wild fishery.

6) Aquaculture should supplement the wild fishery, not compete against, replace or degrade it, as is the case with shrimp and salmon farming approaches today, which too often destroy or greatly diminish the coastal zones where they operate.

7) Local production should be for local consumption first and foremost before export of surplus is planned. The problem is these export oriented aquaculture operations leave the poor poorer and engender food insecurity, not food security, for the local populations.

8) Small-scale operations still need proper siting and management plans in place to not overwhelm limited resources.

9) Training local community members to become skilled, self-sufficient fish farmers via training workshops and extension services would help. (MAP Indonesia’s Fish Farmer Field School is such an example.)

10) Small-scale and low cost fish farming operations are more relevant to meet local needs, avoiding the lure of increased export value as one’s main incentive. Produce and eat locally is the motto of the day!

This continued clearing of mangroves for shrimp farm production, or for whatever other reasons, must now be perceived in an entirely new light…a light that illuminates far beyond the dark crevices of development for convenience and profit to a future for life and a sustainable living on this now endangered planet…this blue and green home we call our Earth.

Note: To counter the adverse effects of the so-called “Blue Revolution” which promotes such destructive industries as shrimp aquaculture, MAP has launched its “Question Your Shrimp” campaign to raise consumer awareness in the global North about the plight of both the mangroves and local communities in the global South affected by shrimp farm development. The campaign aims to greatly reduce consumer demand for cheap imported shrimp, suggesting as well that consumers buy local shrimp produced in the US or Canada. Consumers need to more fully understand that there are significant connections between how and where our foods are produced. For more details, please go to


1) Stonich, S.C., Greening the Blue Revolution: A Natural Assets Perspective

Evironmental Studies Program Department of Anthropology, Interdepartmental Graduate Program in Marine Science, University of California, 2002 pg. 4

2) Bush, S. R., et al, Certify Sustainable Aquaculture?SCIENCE VOL 341 6 SEPTEMBER 2013, pg. 1068

3) Ibid

4) Jonell, M., Phillips, M., Ro¨nnba¨ck, P., Troell, M., Eco-certification of Farmed Seafood: Will it Make a Difference? 28 March 2013

5) Vandergeest, P., & Unno, A., A new extraterritoriality? Aquaculture certification, sovereignty, and empire, Political Geography (2012), doi:10.1016/j.polgeo.2012.05.005

6) Bush, S. R., et al, Certify Sustainable Aquaculture?SCIENCE VOL 341 6 SEPTEMBER 2013, pg. 1068


Thousands join industrial shrimp aquaculture protest: WWF standards denounced as greenwash

(Brussels, April 24, 2012) Hundreds of NGOs in Asia, Latin America, Africa,

North America and Europe are protesting against WWF and its lack of concern for the environment and local peoples’ livelihood in the interest of industry profits from shrimp farming.

The conversion of mangroves and coastal zones into ponds for shrimp cultivation for the export industry has caused severe environmental destruction, depletion of coastal biodiversity and wild fisheries as well as shoreline erosion. It increases susceptibility to hurricanes and tsunamis and releases massive quantities of carbon, thus contributing to climate change.

The large scale use of fishmeal exacerbates all these problems. Coastal populations in tropical countries are severely affected by the loss of livelihood, food security and protection from storms. Protests are often met with human rights abuses. The WWF certification legitimises this situation by giving a “green stamp” to shrimp cultivation. Their certification standards, recently finalized, will be handed over to a certification company named the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC).The standards have been developed by WWF and the aquaculture industry through a process called the Shrimp Aquaculture Dialogue led by a General Steering Committee (ShAD/GSC).

“The destruction of mangroves and coastal zones and the many human rights violations and food insecurity issues that the shrimp industry causes must not be condoned or encouraged, which is exactly what these so-called ‘shrimp standards’ will do,” says Khushi Kabir, Coordinator of Nijera Kori, a NGO working with around 650,000 people in several coastal districts of Bangladesh.

WWF has spent four years and at least US$ two million to develop standards without involving the stakeholders or resource users: i.e. neither the coastal communities of the shrimp producing nations whose livelihoods depend upon a functional coastal ecosystem, nor the NGOs that support them and the coastal ecosystems on which they depend have been involved. The standards will perpetuate an unsustainable and destructive system of aquaculture.

“WWF is greewashing an environmentally damaging and corrupt industry through certification of this luxury product,” says Luciana Queiroz of Redmanglar, a network of 254 organizations in 10 Latin American countries. NGOs and networks in Asia, Latin America and Africa representing more then 300 organizations concerned with coastal environment and the livelihood of coastal communities have signed a letter of protest to WWF. In addition, around 30 NGOs in Europe and USA as well as many individuals have also signed the letter of protest rejecting the standards (appended below). We call on WWF to practice its stated Mission “to stop the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature” by its Guiding Principles of conservation and sustainable use of natural resources – and to withdraw from certification of tropical shrimp aquaculture.

The Open Letter will be handed over to WWF on April 25. Natasha Ahmad, Coordinator of ASIA (Asia Solidarity Against Industrial Aquaculture), a network of 18 organisations in eight Asian countries emphasises that “the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concludes that there is a considerable net economic loss by shrimp aquaculture in mangroves and wetlands”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *