Alfredo Quarto is the Executive Director of Mangrove Action Project, a worldwide network, which includes over 350 NGOs and nearly 200 academics within its umbrella. MAP helps give voice to the struggles of traditional coastal people in developing nations and is continuing to raise awareness and concerted actions towards sustainability and accountability within the shrimp aquaculture industry.


Researchers in the aquaculture industry say that the problem of mangrove displacement is now largely in the past because it's now known that mangrove soils are too acidic for locating shrimp ponds and that excavating ponds amidst the trees is too labor intensive and too costly. What do think of this?

I think our publicizing the problems of mangrove displacement via shrimp aquaculture mitigates the problem. We have lessened the impact on the mangroves in many countries. For instance in Thailand, they're cutting less mangroves now and expanding less into mangrove areas. But definitely there are still mangrove areas affected by shrimp farming, in areas of Honduras, areas of Africa, and other areas of the world where mangroves are being threatened. It's a continuing problem.

But even if the ponds are right next to the mangroves and they haven't actually cut mangroves, there may still be a problem?

There still is the problem of overloading the capacity of the mangrove forest to assume the burden of effluent, and if the effluent is beyond a certain point it can overload the mangroves and affect the mangroves negatively. Also, the underground water and the aquifers that are used for the shrimp farms can affect the mangroves because mangroves require a certain amount of filtration with water and nutrients coming through them from the upland areas.

So if those mangroves are affected by your taking the water supply for the shrimp farm, that could have a negative affect on the mangrove health as well. So it's not just cutting them, it's not just clearing them. It's also effects from the surrounding environment.

An aquaculture expert we spoke with at Auburn University claims that he wrote the Environmental Impact Report in Tanzania for the developer who wants to establish the Rufiji Delta shrimp farm project, and he says that the ponds won't be located in the mangroves and that they're planning to implement many of the better practices called by the FAO.

I was at Rufiji Delta in February of 1998 and talked to a forestry department official who maintained that the first phase of the project - there'll be six phases - will result in about 10 hectares of mangrove clearing. After the first phase there'll be more mangrove clearing according to this forestry official. He's right there at the Rufiji Delta itself. So we do feel that mangroves will be affected.

And whether they're cleared or not cleared, the fact is also that the local people, the local communities, are losing some of their land rights involved in this decision to put Rufiji Delta in peril with a large-scale shrimp farm development - we're talking 10,000 hectares.

And we're also concerned because Rufiji has never had a shrimp farm before and in fact, Tanzania has no coastal plans for shrimp farms in effect. So the shrimp farm will be very much an experiment at the risk to the local people. So we are very concerned about the environment and the local people at Rufiji, and the concern is much felt by the local communities there.

Is it true that the mangrove forests at Rufiji are some of the last remaining large tracts?

Rufiji Delta actually has the largest integral mangrove forest in East Africa. It's about 53,000 hectares of mangrove forest there. The original plan for the shrimp farm at Rufiji would have affected about 1/3 of those mangroves, clearing them out of the picture. Because of outside pressures and environmentalists' concerns we've been able to at least get the industry to address the issue.

We've interviewed another aquaculture expert who has consulted for the large shrimp farm interests in the Gulf of Manseca. He showed us satellite photos that seem to show that larger farms have taken care to locate in salt flats rather than in mangroves. And from these photographs it also appears that the smaller farms are the ones displacing the mangroves.

He also said that the large farms are amongst the most sustainable in the world and he seemed to be quite proud of the fact that they are living up to the FAO Code of Best Practices criteria. Can you comment on that?

For one, in Honduras there's still illegal expansion of shrimp farming into mangrove areas and to say that large companies are not doing it misrepresents the fact that a lot of the smaller enterprises are supported by larger companies' investments - for instance, infrastructure. The people who are starting up these ponds buy the feed, buy the equipment to start their ponds up and plus get the technical advice from the larger corporations that are involved there.

It might be true that some of these may not be situated in a mangrove forest but there are many acres of mangrove forests that have been cleared to produce these shrimp farms. And so shrimp farms are in mangrove areas. I've seen myself, on personal visits, shrimp farms located in mangrove areas.

One of the problems with the satellite photo is it's really hard from that distance to show, after the fact especially, that these were not mangrove forests. Some of them might have been degraded mangrove forest that were converted later on, so a satellite photo may not be the most accurate way to determine what that area was in the past. It might show what it is now, but the past is really hard to say. But we know that thousands of hectares of mangrove forest were lost in Honduras, a lot of that due to shrimp farming.

This aquaculture expert went on to say that he thought if in fact diminishing fisheries in the Gulf is a problem (we found that it is), the cause of it is not so much a bycatch issue related to harvest of wild shrimp larvae, but because of increased fishing effort going on in the Gulf.

I think it's all combined. You can't just have one issue -- increased fishing effort -- as the only reason for declining fisheries. If you're destroying the habitat of the mangrove, you're destroying the wild fishery as well. If you're catching the larvae of the shrimp for the shrimp farms, it also affects the wild fishery because for every one larva you catch, you might have as many as 100 fish thrown over as bycatch. It could be as many as 10 to 15 times anyway, the way the fish that are discarded. Fingerlings or small fry fish are thrown over as waste, because they just want the shrimp.

And this is causing a lot of loss of the natural wild fishery, too. Pollution, overfishing, bad fishing practices all combine to be a problem. We can't ignore one of the ingredients, which is the shrimp industry.

Do you think that the international lending institutions, such as the World Bank, are now giving enough consideration to environmental and social impacts before making loans for shrimp aquaculture?

The World Bank and other lending institutes have recognized, through lip service and through written papers, the problems of the past. They seem to be trying to be implementing solutions on paper, but in reality those solutions do not exist. The enforcement, the monitoring, the regulations are still not ensured.

And most of these places where they're still loaning money for shrimp aquaculture do not have coastal management plans in effect. The governments are not responsible and have not shown a resilience to be responsible and regulating these industries. And we see the same problems are going to be perpetrated elsewhere, as have existed in the past. There's no real basic change other than the recognition of a problem.

Many of the industry leaders that we've met seem to agree with many of the criteria that are being called for by the NGOs for sustainable shrimp farming. To what degree do you think this awareness is really having an impact in producer countries?

Our basic tenet is that we can put pressure on demand, which puts pressure directly on the industry. And the industry in the US or other consumer nations can put pressure on the producers in the nations that produce the shrimp. That's our hope, that chain of command will filter down our concerns to where the shrimp are being produced to start producing them in a more ecologically and socially acceptable fashion, where the local people won't be affected so negatively, where mangrove forests will not be cleared so dangerously.

And so our awareness campaign is definitely important to raise the attention of the consumer, which we feel will eventually put pressure on the producers in the countries that are producing the shrimp. And we hope that will entail changes at the ground level in the actual sighting of the ponds, in the regulations of the ponds, infrastructure of the pond and so on.

But also consider the local people's point of view and their future. Because oftentimes the consumer who's consuming the shrimp in the US or Europe or Japan or other areas of the world does not understand the problems that their consumption demand are creating in the southern countries or the developing nations which are producing these shrimp.

What would be some of the alternatives to shrimp for consumers?

Shrimp has been a luxury product. Only in the last few years has it really become a high demand market item in countries like the United States, in Canada, in Europe, Japan I should say. It's become a luxury item and it really is not a major food necessity in the countries where it's consumed. What did we eat before we ate shrimp? We had other types of food items on our plates in those days. We don't need as much shrimp as we think we need.

The problem we have today is we need to face the loss of the wild fisheries due to bad fishing practices and try to encourage revamping of our fishing techniques, which will enhance the wild fisheries again to grow in densities and proficiency to feed us. I think the oceans have enough room and enough fish to feed us if it were handled correctly.

The problem is we're basically over-harvesting, we have overcapacity of our fleets, we're taking too much too fast. And that's hurting. Trying to substitute the loss of a wild fishery with the build up of aquaculture production is not the solution, because oftentimes the aquaculture production is hurting the wild fishery itself. So aquaculture is not the answer. Oftentimes it's a problem added to the problem. And we're not going to find this solution through endorsing solely an artificial production system. We need to really have solutions that address the problems at the wild ocean level.

And I think that one of the problems with aquaculture, it's been promoted as a way to help the poor people who, you know, are hungry, produce for them. But the light of that, the basic falsity in that premise is that most of the shrimp, about 98% of it, is shipped abroad; the majority of the shrimp is shipped to the northern consumer nations who can afford them. But the southern nations, or the developing nations, are losing that protein source, the local people are losing their natural fishery, and it's being shipped north.

So if people want seafood, shrimp in particular, what might they get instead?

As a substitute for shrimp, because shrimp is not yet produced in a sustainable fashion, I would suggest people eat other types of fish and products that they can verify might be more easily produced sustainably in aquaculture or from wild fishery. For instance, scallops, mussels, crab - I think some of these ocean products might be good substitutes for shrimp. Let's hold off from eating so much shrimp until we have a sustainable production method in place and it can be verifiably sustainable.

Which of the criteria for best aquaculture practices do you think will have trouble with getting consensus between the NGOs and the industry?

One of the biggest gaps we've seen with the NGOs and industry is the gap of the social economic issues of the local communities that are being affected by shrimp farming in areas of the developing world. For instance, in Bangladesh over a hundred people have been killed in the last 5 years; murdered because of the resistance to the shrimp industry.

And other countries that produce shrimp -- for instance India, Honduras -- there have been violence against the local people. Violence because local people are not satisfied with losing their lands, losing their fisheries, losing their water sources, losing their agriculture production abilities. People are basically forced off their lands, forced to leave their culture and livelihood behind for an industry, which help feed the luxury markets of the northern countries, the developed nations.

We need to work with the local communities, have local communities involved in decisions whether they want aquaculture in their area and what kind of scale they want. Do they want an intensive scale, and extensive scale? And will they be directly affected and benefited by that aquaculture business?

Because oftentimes aquaculture enterprises are from the outside and placed in the areas where local people live and without their consent and without their involvement, other than being hired as hired hands to clear the mangrove forest or to dig the ponds, sometimes by hand they dig these ponds. And after the ponds are in place, they're basically fired from the job.

What right do they have? They have no rights. They have been there hundreds of years. They go to the government because the trawlers are ruining their local fishery. At Rufiji they're told: You guys don't have any rights to even question the trawlers because you're not supposed to be here. We don't recognize your existence.

It's not fair to the local people to try to talk about technical solutions to shrimp farming, when the reality of the real issues goes far beyond the technical. You might solve the problem of an aerator breaking down or of filtration or effluent, you might solve the problem of shrimp dying from diseases, but what are you solving as far as the social problems of the local people who are really losing their cultures and their livelihood, who are forced to integrate into so-called modern society by moving to the cities where they are unemployed, where they're destitute?

Prostitution, drugs, the uprooting of their families -- oftentimes are results of shrimp aquaculture invading their coastal areas. And who decides where these farms are located? Usually the government and the industry bidding on a certain piece of land and getting lease rights to that land, legal supposedly, in their hands. But in the hands of the local people who have been there for hundreds of years, this seems very illegal, very illicit.

And you're displacing literally millions of coastal people for the sake of producing a luxury product, which is sent to the northern countries, or the developed countries who have consumed this product only for the last few years. Tell me is that fair? Is that a solution? Is that something the NGOs and the industry can agree on? We can agree on saving mangrove possibly, that might be a good point to agree on. But can we agree on saving local communities, respecting their land rights, respecting their ability to survive and sustain themselves through a wild fishery, which is oftentimes degraded by shrimp farm development?

Can you think of what would be possible?

I think in the future, if shrimp farming can be perfected and the bugs worked out of it, it could be made sustainable. It won't be the same kind of operation we see that exists today. Meanwhile though, the shrimp farming operations are expanding at a very fast pace throughout the developing world.

Now they're moving into Africa. They're bringing a lot of their bad practices with them that are not yet perfected. In other words, we're seeing the establishment of bad practices and unperfected the shrimp farm production techniques to new areas of the world, from Burma to Cambodia to Kenya to Tanzania.

We want basically to say, "let's halt shrimp farm production until we really have this perfected." One day it could be more sustainable, but again we have to address the issues of what does that sustainability entail? Does it mean the local people's economies, local people's livelihoods are also being considered in that equation? Or are we talking mainly about the sustainability of the shrimp farm pond itself?

The unit of area where the shrimp farm is situated maybe one hectare or two hectares. But what about the surrounding infrastructure that keeps that pond alive -- the surrounding waterways, the surrounding mangrove forest, the surrounding fishery, the wild fishery that feeds the shrimp? Shrimp feed does not just come out of the air; it comes out of the sea oftentimes. So those surrounding infrastructure of inputs to the shrimp farmer are very important to consider in the future.

What is the connection between fishmeal, shrimp aquaculture and biomass fishing, and the recovery of the ocean's fisheries?

Oftentimes aquaculture is being promoted as a way of taking pressure off the wild fishery. But it's ludicrous to think that's really happening when you think of the mangrove forest and other coastal areas being destroyed by shrimp aquaculture -- the pollution of the coastal waterways by shrimp aquaculture; the destruction oftentimes of the wild fishery itself because of shrimp aquaculture.

For instance, the feed process: in order to feed the shrimp they oftentimes use the wild fish to produce the pellets that feed the shrimp. So we're actually feeding our farm-raised shrimp our wild fishery and sometimes decimating that wild fishery, which is going to come back to us in the future to haunt us. There is no way we can do this without suffering the effects.

One of the problems of aquaculture is the disease problem, that you can have one or two types of shrimp you're raising predominantly, if they get hit by a disease that you cannot control, you lose your aquaculture production. And that will be a very terrible effect if you lose both the wild fishery and aquaculture production because of disease.