How the hunt for seafood is ravaging a tropical island

Poorly controlled shrimp farms are causing widespread damage

Surrounded by mangroves, the tropical island of Muisne, off Ecuador's northern coast, sounds like an idyllic place to live. Fishermen repair their nets on its palm-fringed beaches while "ecological taxis" – tricycles with passenger seats – patrol the unpaved streets; no motorised transport exists on the island. Yet Muisne and its Afro-Ecuadorian community of 8,000 are in decline. As the years roll by, there are fewer fish and shellfish to catch, the water becomes more polluted and a growing number of locals desperate to eke out a living migrate to the mainland, or leave Ecuador altogether.

Feeding the developed world's seemingly insatiable demand for cheap seafood, shrimp farms have ravaged Muisne's delicate mangrove ecosystem and turned its inhabitants from a poor but close-knit community to one scarred by a disturbing string of social ills.

"There is more poverty, more pollution, more alcoholism and more prostitution. This has been a curse for our community," says Lider Gongora, a Muisne resident and the executive director of CCONDEM, the national umbrella group that campaigns for mangrove communities. "It has devastated the local economy. Muisne is poorer as a result of the shrimp farms, and it is the same for all of Ecuador's communities that depend on mangroves."

In the 1970s, before shrimp farms arrived, the island had 20,000 hectares of mangroves. Now there are just over 5,000 hectares, nearly half of which is secondary forest, replanted by the community. From Indonesia to Brazil, the story is the same. Yet nowhere has the growth of farms for shrimp, prawns, salmon and other species been as explosive as in Latin America and the Caribbean. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, production in the region grew annually at 21.1 per cent between 1970 and 2008. Over the same period, annual global consumption of farm-reared seafood has risen from 700g to 7.8kg per capita.

Meanwhile, more than half of the world's estimated 32 million hectares of mangroves – one of the most biodiverse and fragile ecosystems – has been lost. In Ecuador, fewer than a third of the country's initial 360,000 hectares of mangroves survive. And in Honduras, scene of some of the least regulated shrimp farm expansion, which has led to a string of unresolved murders of fisherman, now has just a quarter of its 250,000 hectares of mangroves still standing.

The shrimp farms typically have a complex series of environmental impacts. Initially, sections of the mangrove are cleared to make way for the farms. Once operational, the farms may use large quantities of antibiotics and pesticides that often contaminate the surrounding forests. Farms can also obstruct the flow of rivers and streams, preventing them from mixing with seawater to provide the brackish water that mangroves need to thrive. In doing so, they provide a double whammy by stopping the farms' pollutants from being washed away, increasing the ecological devastation while the shrimp and prawns are reared in a cocktail of chemicals, stale water and bacteria.

As the mangroves' delicate ecological balance is disrupted, the effects can reach far beyond these unique, coastal forests. Many of the myriad species of fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects found in mangroves spend only one stage of their life there, hatching or breeding before migrating to other biomes, such as the open sea, nearby salt flats or inland forests.

The impact for Muisne has been depressingly predictable. Fishermen who wade waist-deep through the mangroves' soupy, opaque waters looking for black scallops have to spend longer and longer to catch less and less. Previously, one fisherman could harvest up to 2,000 scallops a day but now, working longer hours, it is 150 at most. "Sometimes you spend the whole day but don't get anything," complains Mr Gongora.

Despite the 2006 election of a leftist president, Rafael Correa, and the subsequent, groundbreaking rewriting of the constitution to include the "rights of nature", shrimp farming in Ecuador has actually increased, following a new law to expand production to fresh stretches of the country's Pacific coast. "Correa has his left-wing, environmentalist discourse but it is a big lie," Mr Gongora says, bitterly. "He justifies the shrimp farming by saying it brings foreign exchange, but what is the cost to Ecuadorians?"

Some Western businesses already appear to be heeding the environmentalists' message. Britain's largest retailer, Tesco, sources some of its shrimp and prawns from a Latin American farm (it will not reveal in which country) that it claims is the first organic shrimp hatchery and uses no antibiotics or pesticides. "We want to be selling seafood to our customers in 50 years' time so it's in our interest to ensure we're sourcing it responsibly," a spokesman for Tesco said.

But for some, shrimp farming's new age of corporate social responsibility may be too little, too late. In Honduras, possibly Latin America's most lawless country, shrimp farms continue to be built inside coastal areas protected under the UN's Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

"There has been total impunity," says Jorge Varela Marquez, the head of an environment group in the Gulf of Fonseca, on Honduras's Pacific coast. "Whenever these cases have gone to court, the justice system has been completely partial and favoured the shrimp farms."

And Mr Varela Marquez's message to British consumers could not be blunter: "Pay a fair price for shrimp and stop drinking the blood of our people."

Suggested Topics
footballLIVE City face Stoke, while Warnock returns to Palace dugout
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Paul McCartney backs the
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone