Shrimp Farming: History, Species and Environmental Problems

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shrimp farm paddlewheel aerator
Shrimp farms are aquaculture businesses for the cultivation of marine shrimp or prawns for humans to eat. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Farmed shrimp accounts for 55 percent of the shrimp produced globally. . Shrimp aquaculture has grown very fast. In the 2000s, about one quarter of all the shrimp produced was raised on shrimp farms.

Shrimp farming has changed from traditional, small-scale businesses in Southeast Asia into a global industry. Technological advances have made raising shrimp at ever higher densities possible. Much of farm-raised shrimp is produced in giant, man-made rectangular shrimp farming ponds and pens that are filled with coastal sea water directed and controlled by dikes. The shrimp are fed shrimp feed that is produced on industrial levels. The shrimp are harvested at least twice a year. Broodstock is shipped worldwide.

Building and running shrimp farms creates many jobs. At shrimp farms paddle-wheel aerators circulate and oxygenate the plankton-green water. According to the WWF: Farming has made shrimp more accessible to an eager, shrimp-loving public in the US, Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. Investors seeking profits have intensified farming methods with industrialized processes, sometimes at significant cost to the environment.

Shrimp farming is traditionally fractionalized—much of it is done on small farms in Southeast Asian countries. Often, governments and development aid agencies in these countries have promoted shrimp aquaculture as a path to helping people with incomes below the poverty line. These policies have sometimes been at the expense of wetland ecosystems, partly because building shrimp ponds near tidal areas saves farmers the expense of high-elevation water pumps and long-term pumping costs.

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase ; Encyclopedia of Life ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal

Shrimp Farm Producers by Country

Most shrimp aquaculture occurs in China, followed by Thailand, Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Brazil, Ecuador, and Bangladesh. Shrimp farming is widespread in Central America and Southeast Asia. It generates substantial income in these developing countries.

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shrimp farm construction
About 75 percent of farmed shrimp are produced in Asia, in particular in China, Thailand, Indonesia, India and Vietnam. The other 25 percent are produced mainly in Latin America, where Brazil is the largest producer. In 2016, the largest exporting nation was India, followed by Ecuador, Thailand, Indonesia and China.

In the 1990s and 2000s, bout 30 percent of farmed shrimp was produced in Asia, particularly in China, Indonesia and Vietnam. At that time about 54 percent was produced in Latin America, where Brazil, Ecuador, and Mexico were the largest producers. The largest exporting nation was Indonesia.

The global annual production of freshwater prawns in 2010 was about 670,000 tons, of which China produced 615,000 tons (92 percent). In China, prawns are cultured along with sea cucumbers and some fish species, in integrated multi-trophic systems.

Most farmed shrimp is exported to the United States, the European Union and Japan, also other Asian markets, including South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

History of Shrimp Farms

Commercial shrimp farming began in the 1970s. Significant aquaculture production started slowly. Production grew steeply in the 1980s to meet the market demands of the United States, Japan and Western Europe. Thailand, Ecuador and the Philippines were shrimp farming pioneers. After a lull in growth during the 1990s, due to pathogens, production took off again in the 2000s. In 2007, the amount of farmed shrimp exceeded the capture from wild fisheries for the first time. By 2010, the aquaculture harvest was 3.9 million tonnes, compared to 3.1 million tonnes for the capture of wild shrimp.

Exporting shrimp and prawns was initially a very lucrative businesses. Big and small time farmers cleared forests and dug holes for shrimp farms. Many of them raised three-inch-long Asian tiger shrimp for the Japanese market. The business was so lucrative that boomtowns emerged from poor fishing villages. The owner of one Mekong Delta shrimp producer told National Geographic in the early 1990s, "We’ve got motels, restaurants, a junior and senior high, and the national power line just reached us. The population of the district has almost doubled.

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Coastal area of Honduras in 1987
The total global production of farmed shrimp reached more than 1.6 million tonnes in 2003, with a value of nearly US$9 billion. The largest shrimp farm in the early 2000s was run by Huu Dinh, a Vietnamese-American who returned to Vietnam. Located on the coast of northern Vietnam, it is comprised of acre-size ponds dug into an area know for its poor soil. The ponds receive salt water from a mile long canal and has large pumps for pumping water and a shrimp hatchery. As of early 2004, the farm had 1,500 acres of ponds. Huu Dinh hoped to have 5,000 acres of ponds by the end of 2004 and sell 7,000 tons of shrimp, a sevenfold increase from 2003.

By the 2000s, shrimp farming was threatened by oversupply. Farmers were sometimes unable to sell all their catch. So many shrimp were raised the price has collapsed. Farmers were working much harder to raise fewer shrimp. On top of that viruses devastated farmed stocks in Ecuador and China in the mid 1990s and Thailand in the early 2000s while farmers were hit with tighter restrictions on the use of antibiotics.

Environmental Costs of Shrimp Farming

There are a number of environmental problems associated with shrimp farming. Shrimps ponds often have no lining so salt water percolates through sandy soil, contaminating fresh water ground water supplies and aquifers. Waste water from the farms are fed into canals that empty into rivers used for drinking water and into the sea. In some places, particularly in Thailand, shrimp farms generate so much pollution that the farms are abandoned and the land is unable to produce anything else.

As shrimp farming grew, industrial monocultures were very susceptible to diseases, which caused several massive regional wipe-outs of farm shrimp populations. Diseases caused by overcrowding at the farms are often treated with chloramphenicol — a powerful antibiotic with no known safe level of human consumption.

Many mangrove swamps have been destroyed to make away for shrimp farming ponds, degrading places where many young fish live. This, consequently, has harmed fisherman by reducing the number of fish they catch. It has also been estimated that up to 38 percent of native mangrove forests in Asia have been destroyed to be converted into ponds for shrimp farming, triggering erosion and harming habitat for mollusks and many other species, including shorebirds

Forests have been cleared and wetlands and agriculture land have been appropriated for shrimp farms. One environmentalist told the New York Times, “This is basically a cut-and-kill system. They buy up the land, create dikes, use chemicals, and kill everything off. Then when they done, they leave and move up and down the coast, looking for more land.”

Coastal area of Honduras in 1999 after shrimp farming
World Heritage sites in Bangladesh and the Philippines have been cleared to make way for shrimp farming ponds. A report by the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) called the pollution and deforestion problems related to shrimp farming to be a “shocking environmental crisis.” Acknowledging the economic importance of the shrimp industry, many environmentalists are pushing for environmentally-friendly versions of shrimp farming rather than categorically condemning the practice.

Huge, export-oriented prawn and fish hatcheries have destroyed some local fishing operations. Farming pools are sprayed with many chemicals and antibiotics to maximize shrimp production and these chemicals can enter natural waterways, harming animals and humans alike. These pools are often abandoned after a few years and there is typically no effort to return these lands to their original conditions. Greenpeace has said that tropical shrimp farming "has led to the destruction of vast areas of mangroves in several countries [and] over-fishing of juvenile shrimp from the wild to supply farms." Greenpeace has placed a number of the prominent tropical shrimp species that are farmed commercially on its seafood red list, including the whiteleg shrimp, Indian prawn and giant tiger shrimp. [FAO, 2001; GreenPeace, 2012]

Eyestalk Ablation — A Cruel Shrimp Farm Practice

Eyestalk ablation is the removal of one (unilateral) or both (bilateral) eyestalks from a crustacean. In a context of shrimp domestication, ablated females produce more eggs and for a longer time period than non ablated. [Source: Wikipedia]

It was routinely practiced on female shrimps (or prawns) in almost every marine shrimp maturation or reproduction facility in the world, both research and commercial. The aim of ablation under these circumstances was to stimulate the female shrimp to develop mature ovaries and spawn.

Initial captive conditions for shrimp caused inhibitions in females that prevented them from developing mature ovaries. Domestication removed these inhibitions. Even in conditions where a given species will develop ovaries and spawn in captivity, use of eyestalk ablation was considered to increase total egg production and increased the percentage of females in a given population that participate in reproduction. Once females have been subjected to eyestalk ablation, complete ovarian development often ensues within as little as 3 to 10 days.

Improving Shrimp Farming

hatching and raising juvenile shrips

Increasing ecological problems, repeated disease outbreaks, and pressure and criticism from NGOs, consumer countries and even producers themselves, led to changes in the industry in the late 1990s and generally stronger regulation by governments. In 1999, a program aimed at developing and promoting more sustainable farming practices was initiated, including governmental bodies, industry representatives, and environmental organizations.

According to the WWF: There is transformational change and continued interest to address environmental and social impacts by many in the shrimp farming industry. Large and small shrimp farms alike in Central America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere are working toward producing shrimp responsibly. Several are looking to comply with the rigorous ASC shrimp standards as an independent means of demonstrating their compliance with responsible farming.

Indoor shrimp ponds have been developed with temperature and water-quality controls. These are seen by some as the future because the shrimp can been harvested five times a year and are shielded better from viruses and many environmental problems are reduced. Production is almost more consistent and predictable.

Inland Shrimp Farming

Inland culture of marine shrimp in areas away from the coast has grown considerably in recent years. During the earlier years of the industry it had been common with raising Asian tiger shrimp in various Asian countries. Later, it expanded significantly in Asia with the introduction of the whiteleg shrimp. A significant proportion of China’s farmed shrimp production is grown in “freshwater.” This expansion has also taken place in the Western Hemisphere and there are now several inland shrimp culture operations in various countries there, including the United States. [Source: Darryl E. Jory, Ph.D., Global Seafood Alliance, June 23, 2017]

Darryl E. Jory wrote: Inland shrimp farming provides several advantages over the traditional locations along the coast. An important one is enhanced biosecurity and improved control over the spread shrimp diseases, compared to the control that can be implemented in coastal areas. Biosecurity has been a very relevant topic for many years, because various viral, bacterial and parasitic diseases have caused serious problems to the industry worldwide.

shrimp pond stage of shrip farming

When farms are sited nearby other coastal shrimp farms and their water supplies and effluents (as well as wild shrimp populations), preventing infections of farmed stocks can be expensive, difficult and often not successful. With inland shrimp farming, isolating culture operations in areas typically with low salinity waters and away from the coast, and based on certified clean seedstock, can effectively prevent the introduction and spread of pathogens.

Inland production also relocates shrimp culture from highly sensitive coastal areas and ecosystems — where often serious conflicts can arise over the use of common resources like land and water — to inland areas and more resilient ecosystems, thus minimizing potential conflicts with other users of common resources. And when farms use low-salinity water, the effluent can be used to irrigate various crops and effectively address effluent disposal issues.

Various issues must be considered in relation to the setting up and operation of a shrimp farm in inland areas, including some environmental considerations, the introduction of exotic species like the whiteleg shrimp into areas where the species is not endemic, and postlarvae acclimation. Salinization of inland soils and waters is a consideration when shrimp farms are built away from the coast. Management alternatives include setting up inland farms in areas with soils having adequate particle size distribution, or to use plastic liners — as seen in this aerial view of an inland shrimp farm — to resist seepage and prevent salinization. In some cases where marine shrimp farming has expanded into freshwater areas, traditional farmers and environmentalists have become alarmed about the possibility for salinization of soils and waters.

Shrimp Species Raised in Shrimp Farms

Virtually all farmed shrimp are of the family Penaeidae, and just two species — 1) whiteleg shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei) and 2) Asia tiger shrimp (Penaeus monodon) — accounting for roughly 90 percent of all farmed shrimp, with Asian tiger shrimp accounting for 20 percent and whiteleg shrimp, 70 percent.

shrimp farm hatchery

In the earlier years of marine shrimp farming the large Asian tiger shrimp the preferred species. It was reared in circular holding tanks where the thought they are in the open ocean, and swam in "never ending migration" around the circumference of the tank. In 2000,global production of Asian tiger shrimp was 630,984 tonnes, compared to only 146,362 tonnes for whiteleg shrimp.

As time went on whiteleg shrimp became more popular. In the 2000s, the production of giant tiger prawn increased modestly while that whiteleg shrimp soared nearly twenty-fold By 2010, positions were reversed. That year the global production of Asian tiger shrimp was 781,581 tonnes, compared to 2,720,929 tonnes for whiteleg shrimp.

Whiteleg shrimp is currently the dominant species in shrimp farming. It is particularly suited to farming because it "breeds well in captivity, can be stocked at small sizes, grows fast and at uniform rates, has comparatively low protein requirements... and adapts well to variable environmental conditions." White shrimp cost less to produce and are immune to certain diseases. Asian tiger shrimp are susceptible to certain diseases and may pass them on to other shrimp.

Whiteleg Shrimp — The Main Farmed Shrimp Species

Whiteleg shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei) is the most widely raised shrimp in shrimp farms. By some estimates it accounts for three quarters of all farmed shrimp. Also known as Pacific white shrimp and king prawn, it is a moderately large shrimp native to the eastern Pacific Ocean, from northern Mexico to as far south as northern Peru. It grows to a maximum length of 23 centimeters (9.1 in), with a carapace length of nine centimeters (3.5 inches). In the wild, adults live in the ocean, at depths to 72 meters (236 feet), where the water temperatures never rise above 20 °C (68 °F) throughout the year, while juveniles stick to estuaries and more brackish water. [Source: Wikipedia]

shrimp farm ponds

Whiteleg shrimp (sometimes called Penaeus vannamei) is particularly suited to farming because it "breeds well in captivity, can be stocked at small sizes, grows fast and at uniform rates, has comparatively low protein requirements... and adapts well to variable environmental conditions."
For decades whiteleg shrimp has been an important species for Mexican inshore fishermen and offshore trawlers. The development of aquaculture production with this shrimp began in 1973 in Florida using shrimp captured in Panama, that were used in hatcheries for larvae production. By the 1990s farmed raised shrimp had overtaken the wild fishery.

In Latin America, fish farms for whiteleg shrimp began with the availability of hatchery larvae, the development of feeds, the technification of the growth processes the establishment of freezing facilities and market channels. In the 1970s and 80 the industry spread and grew throughout Latin America from Mexico to Peru. Ecuador became one of the world leaders producers of this type of shrimp at the this time.. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Asia introduced whiteleg shrimp in their aquaculture operations. China, Vietnam, India and others have become major packers as well.

Asian Tiger Shrimp

Asian tiger shrimp (Scientific name: Penaeus monodo) are one of the largest of all shrimp. Also known as giant tiger prawns, black tiger shrimp, Asian prawn shrimp, ghost prawns, grass shrimp and and other names, they range in weight from 100 to 320 grams (3.52 to 11.28 ounces) and range in length from 3.7 to 17.4 centimeters (1.46 to 6.85 inches). The lifespan in the wild and captivity is about two years, though individuals introduced into the Gulf of Mexico may have a lifespan closer to three years.[Source: Jennifer Kiel, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Asian tiger shrimp are native to the coasts of the Arabian peninsula and the Pacific and Indian Ocean coasts of Australia, Indonesia, south and southeast Asia, and South Africa. They are an invasive species in U.S. waters. They were accidentally introduced to the United States off the coast of South Carolina in 1988, by an unexpected release from an aquaculture center. They had spread as far south as Florida's coastline by 1990 and, since 2006, have been found in the Gulf of Mexico; they are found along the coastlines of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Farmed Asian tiger shrimp constitutes about 20 percent of total world shrimp production. In the wild, they are nocturnal (active at night), often feeding at night and burrowing into the sea floor during the day. They move about the ocean floor searching for food, which is picked up and manipulated by their pereopods and mouthparts. Diseases carried by Asian tiger shrimp are highly contagious and can infect native shrimp populations, harming local fishing industries.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated April 2023

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