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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Recruitment Genius: Front End Developer / Web Designer

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leader in the e-cigarette ...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leader in the e-cigarette ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future