Certifying Failure and Loss

Leave a comment

May 19, 2017 by Species Ecology

Certifying Failure and Loss

Alfredo Quarto, Mangrove Action Project

The international discredit, the new green consumerism, and the production crisis has pushed shrimp production to obtain the ‘green’ seal through certification, and continue producing over the ruins of an industry that occupied and exploited resources illegally, cut mangrove, polluted estuaries and caused impoverishment and displacement of thousands of people….” (1) Gongora, Red Manglar


Continued mangrove loss and unresolved pollution problems still shadow the shrimp aquaculture industry, despoiling once fecund waters of nearby estuaries and coastal zones. Formerly rich fishing grounds are being impacted, and vital fish breeding and nursery habitat are being lost to encroaching shrimp farms, thus robbing local communities of their traditional means of livelihood and sustenance. Today, despite the “green” labels, industrial shrimp farming remains largely an unsustainable and destructive process that should not be condoned by any existing standards as more sustainable, or the best option for consumer choice. Globally, the best options to reduce harmful effects of industrial shrimp aquaculture must involve decreasing the present upward trend in production, which itself can be positively affected by greatly reducing consumption demand for imported farmed shrimp to at least those levels of ten years ago. For instance, ten years ago in the US, around 2.2 pounds of shrimp were consumed per capita, while today it is over 4 pounds per capita- almost double. Shrimp consumption in Europe has also been growing steadily, and today China is not only the largest producer of shrimp, but also one of the largest consumers of shrimp.

Meanwhile, as we work to reduce destructive production habits, we need to take effective steps to restore the more than 450,000 ha of abandoned shrimp farms back to healthy, functioning intertidal zones. Perhaps, a percentage of these abandoned shrimp ponds can be rehabilitated and put back into a more sustainable form of aquaculture, including a mixed mangrove/ crab, fish or shrimp silvoculture. But it is an even better idea that much of these areas are restored back to a functionally productive mangrove ecosystem, in which case Community-Based Ecological Mangrove Restoration can be implemented.

Beyond the Vagaries of the Blue Revolution:

While it seems a reasonable and interesting pursuit in drawing up criteria or guidelines to more effectively regulate the industrial aquaculture industries, it is imperative that in our zeal to come up with solutions that we do not lose sight of the more complex social and environmental issues. A mere cookbook recipe, with rudimentary references to social and environmental factors of deeper complexity will only produce further disasters, not ameliorate past grievances. While agreeing with some of the concepts aiming to establish certain limited guidelines for better practices, it is obvious that these are not sufficient to justify further expansion of the shrimp aquaculture industry. Present schemes of certification of shrimp are inadequate and potentially harmful to the cause of sustainability. Meanwhile, further studies of overall benefit and loss—particularly, who benefits and who loses– need to be undertaken, and further involvement and influence of indigenous and local communities must more assuredly permeate the makeup of such further analyses.

In reviewing these numerous shrimp certification programs, it is possible the certifiers have the consumer’s “best interest” in mind, or so they purport in their standards. However, one might justifiably ask, why are we so one-sidedly concerned about the expectations of the consumers? What about the expectations of the indigenous and local communities in the producer nations that are affected by these same shrimp or other aquaculture operations? It is not only the “aware consumers” who should have their sway in this matter!

And what of the local community members who have no real, life-defining experience in shrimp farming, yet do have an immense stake in what happens to their surrounding coastal environment and its shared resources?

The certifiers talk about “best practices,” but these best practices in one location may not serve well in another, and these depend as well on the numbers and proximity of producers. For instance, a hundred “organic” producers lined up along the shoreline of a bay, may be set up to be individually sustainable, but are collectively unsustainable, even though each may be following the best practices of the day.

And then again, these same certifiers talk about shrimp certification as an effective way of drawing the line against “bad practices,” such as mangrove clearing and misuse of chemicals in the shrimp ponds. Nevertheless, in all of this talk about line drawing, it is evident that the local communities are not drawing the lines themselves, but the producers and certifiers are. Then what of the picture drawn by all of these varied line drawers? Does this final drawing not exclude the local communities and true stakeholders most dependent upon the resources captured in the line drawing that could very well adversely affect their resource base and their lives?

As well, too often in the shrimp producing countries, the laws are not adhered to in a dependable fashion, and enforcement is seriously lacking or biased in favor of the “influential persons.” This in itself gives little incentive to obeying the laws, just knowing how easily they can be broken. This is an internal problem involving governing infrastructure that will not be easily remedied by a simple code of conduct or best practice incentive.

The certifiers’ references ensuring the shrimp farmers they certify have clear, legal title is also not clear. Too often, governments in shrimp producing nations do not recognize the land title or tenure rights of indigenous and/or local communities, even though these said communities may have occupied that same land for many decades or centuries. In many cases, the expansion of the shrimp aquaculture industry follows the typical pattern of transformation of a commons, which includes the mangroves and other community resources into privately owned/operated lands, which in practice nearly always benefit the few and the rich rather than the many and the poor. For instance, in South Sulawesi, it is usual practice for high government officials to be granted large aquaculture areas for private ownership, areas that by and large were mangroves and associate intertidal wetlands.

As far as land title, what is clear in one person’s mind is obscure or highly questionable in another’s. I remember a case in Orissa, India, at a small village located on the shores of Chilika Lake where an entire village of over 250 people were being forced off their lands because a city dweller with financial and political influence had obtained “legal” lease title to their land to commence shrimp farming there. All of those people in this remote fishing village, though their village was there for over 100 years, had no legal title, and were forced to move. It would seem that this shrimp farmer’s “clear” government approved land title was not justly acquired by him, though on the surface he had acquired legal title.

As is often the case, existing laws are inadequate, and not recognizing at least the resource tenure rights of long-term, prior occupancy, these insufficient laws will be meaningless if certification compliance by a shrimp farmer still results in injustice at the local community level.

Remediation is another carrot offered by the eager certifiers. Remediation ostensibly aims to set up mangrove tree plantations on mudflats or elsewhere to compensate for ecosystem loss due to shrimp farming. However, remediation invariably loses the original ecosystem value and doesn’t reestablish the complex biodiversity that is being sacrificed. How can one replace a mature, functioning mangrove wetland ecosystem by planting a newly established system elsewhere- too often in the wrong terrain and with the wrong species? A healthy, functioning ecosystem, along with all of its robust productivity and functionality, cannot be simply planted elsewhere. Yet this is what we are being told to believe by the would-be certifiers. Too often, valuable mangrove ecosystems are destroyed and a poor substitute is set up in their places that will never give an equal return for what has been disrupted and ruined in that careless conversion.

And, these remediation schemes often fail miserably, because they lack needed sensitivity and cognizance of the true ecology and inherent value of those ecosystems being remediated. In “compensation” via this too often deficient “no net loss” process, they are sacrificing the left arm of Nature to protect the right hand of commerce in too many instances!

And the reality remains that there is no other viable place to put in a new mangrove system. Mangrove systems, opportunistic and colonizing, already occupy the entire potential mangrove habitat. No mangrove remediation projects can recreate the habitat conditions required by mangroves, and usually an attempt to do so results on converting (and destroying) one valuable type of ecosystem, such as a salt marsh or mud flat, into a mangrove forest. The usual approach to restoration- hand planting,- never really succeeds in recreating a viable, healthy mangrove ecosystem.

On close review of the bulk of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)/Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) shrimp standards, one finds nice technical fixes for the on-site pond operations. Nevertheless, these do not include the social and environmental concerns sufficiently to make these more than remedial actions to ensure business goes on unimpeded by poor farm standards of operation. But the social and environmental problems associated with industrial shrimp farming are not eliminated even with these technical remedies set in place.

And, to ensure that these listed technical criteria are adhered to, given the complexity and immensity of scale of these operations, is not an easy matter that can be clearly certifiable. For instance, the whole issue of feed conversion ratios is one of extreme importance, yet not dealt with in serious enough manner today. The fact that a continuing aquaculture production of carnivorous shrimp requires more inputs in weight of wild fish mass to produce less output of farmed variety is a very serious breech of ecological balance and resource equity.

With or without certification, production of farmed shrimp continues to rise in volume each year to meet an artificially created demand for shrimp products in the wealthy consumer nations. There, shrimp is a luxury commodity, which only recently made it to the top of the consumer, hit record charts. This two-decade flirtation with the latest eating fashion in the consumer nations means that something is inherently off balance in the producer nations! Certification will simply continue the status quo of high consumption demand in the importing nations, while not addressing the overconsumption issues there, nor the ongoing social and environmental issues in the producer nations. For instance, 90% of shrimp sold in the U.S. comes from Asia and Latin America, where environmental regulations are lax and often not enforced.

Meanwhile, the high levels of production of farmed shrimp do not equate to local food security in the producing nations, and in fact signifies the opposite, resulting in food insecurity. In essence, shrimp aquaculture is robbing the poor in the South to feed the rich in the North, as the majority of farmed shrimp is exported to fetch higher revenues for the shrimp industry and increase export earnings for the local governments. Simultaneously, shrimp farming is damaging the very fisheries and agriculture that the coastal communities in the Global South depend upon.

Shrimp certification will not remedy these ills still prevalent within the major body of the shrimp aquaculture industry. This is especially relevant because this certification involves certifying open, throughput systems of aquaculture, which inherently degrade the very resources they depend upon for their successful operations, and are thus by their very nature unsustainable.

The stated aim of WWF/ASC’s so-called standard setting process is to move industrial-style shrimp farming towards a more sustainable production system. But this is akin to a “pie in the sky” notion that sounds nice to say, but clearly impossible to achieve. How can such a resource dependent operation done on such a massive and growing scale be contained so as not to adversely impact the natural resource base upon which it depends for its continuing operations. Meanwhile, this competes for the same resource base that the local populace ultimately depends upon for sustenance and traditional culture.

The activities of WWF and its creation, the ASC, have come under heated attack from an international coalition of NGOs and Community-based groups, calling themselves the Conscientious Objectors. They argue that the proposed ASC, as well as its so-called certifiers, are too intertwined with the retailers and multinational corporations. Certification will simply legitimatize industrial aquaculture, which though certified is, while in its present mode, still unsustainable and will have the effect of increasing demand for low-cost shrimp for markets. WWF and its few big international NGO allies have not fully considered “the grounded realities of shrimp farming in Southern countries such as displacement, human rights violations, and environmental degradation, nor did it provide sufficient scope for input from ‘local resource users’ who have experienced these displacements and human rights violations…” (2) Vandergeest, et al

WWF and other would-be certifiers of farmed shrimp must be reminded that; “although a lot of attention has been paid to mangroves recently, mangroves are parts of an ecosystem that includes salt flats, mud flats, lagoons and salt marshes. Coastal intertidal zones (vegetated or unvegetated) are critical transition zones that provide essential ecological functions and influence coastal fisheries. Shrimp farms, certified or not, should not be located within these important intertidal areas. Certification of aquaculture systems such as shrimp farms that transform, convert, ‘reclaim’ or occupy wetlands cannot be certifiable by any credible means.” (3) Cintron, Gilberto, PhD.

Dr. Peter Vandergeest has co-authored a paper entitled “A new extraterritoriality? Aquaculture certification, sovereignty, and empire” in which he explores the links between transnational eco-certification, imperialism and sovereignty. He labels this new move to certify shrimp as “the ecocertification empire.” (4)

The main drivers of transnational ecocertification 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. It is indicative that carp, the single most important Asian aquaculture species by far, but with very little export to Europe or North America, is a missing species in the aquaculture dialogues…” (5)

Certification Cannot Stand Alone, Alternatives Do Exist

“…although certification makes a contribution, it also has significant limits and should be considered one approach among many for steering aquaculture toward sustainable production. “ (6) Malin, et al

Perhaps, closed containment, Recirculating Aquaculture System (RAS) is the “wave of the future” for attaining sustainable aquaculture, where no disease spread or escapes of these cultured species to the wild is possible, and production ponds or tank waters are cleaned and recirculated within the system itself. Closed containment systems can also be located outside the intertidal zones, which is vital in regard to protecting the coastal wetlands. This is not characteristic of the bulk of the industry today. One day these closed systems will replace the antiquated open systems. This is the industry’s current challenge, but it will require a massive renovation of infrastructure for an already well-entrenched, unsustainable, “open system” industry, which unfortunately existing certification programs, including the WWF/ASC scheme, still encourage.

Another noteworthy approach to present day aquaculture is to encourage more sustainable and less environmentally damaging forms of aquaculture that can be practiced to help the coastal communities supplement their incomes via small-scale, community-based aquaculture. MAP Indonesia is now promoting a fish farmer field school as a bottom up approach intended to improve aquaculture practices. Rather than focusing on technical improvements, the fish farmer field school focuses on developing critical thinking skills and experimentation by the fish farmers themselves, attempting to democratize aquaculture, while also allowing aquaculture to provide a supplemental income. Aquaculture should supplement, not replace traditional fishing livelihoods.

Still we need to get beyond the consumer-and-producer-sidedness of the equation, to a more representative equation that gives more import to the values of indigenous and local communities, as well as a realistic view of what constitutes a healthy, biodiverse environment worthy of conservation. Although a voluntary certification scheme with the best intentions can reward companies that meet its standards by giving them a “green seal” of approval, certification can do nothing to prevent the worst companies from continuing their destructive operations. Affecting consumer awareness to lower consumer demand can make a difference however.

And, this is the intent of MAP’s Question Your Shrimp Consumer/ Markets Campaign, which seeks to accomplish the following goals:

1. Raise public awareness of the environmental, social and health consequences of imported farmed shrimp and how that relates to growing demand for this product;

2. Influence shrimp purchasing policies of institutional buyers, such as grocery stores, seafood markets, and restaurants, by providing guidance in sourcing environmentally and socially responsible shrimp;

3. Contribute to the body of information on sustainable shrimp alternatives and further

disseminate information on sustainable seafood programs and responsible consumer choices

Even a relatively small-scale reduction in demand, of say 10% or more, can have a decisive effect upon the rate of increase in farm area expansion. The majority of those buying, selling and consuming shrimp are not aware of the adverse ecological and social consequences of their demand. By initiating a combined consumer/markets campaign there is more certainty to affect the production side. Since the great majority of shrimp consumption occurs in restaurants, it makes sense to target restaurateurs and chefs as a main campaign focus in reducing the import demand for warm water shrimp, thus affecting the market in a most sensitive “pocket.”

It is important that shrimp farm development does not eliminate or lessen the utility of long-term traditional livelihoods for coastal communities. Traditional communities may be “dollar poor,” but culturally “wise and rich,” and their livelihoods are often based upon a self-sufficient, small-scale, local economy that may not produce export dollars, but does produce a culture, traditions and skills that can be passed on from one generation to the next. This should not be endangered by new industries such as shrimp aquaculture that promise jobs that are inevitably low paid, unskilled and short-lived, while socially and environmentally bankrupt.


1) Gongora-Farias, L, Torres-Benavidas, M., “Certifying Destruction, Integral analysis of organic certification of shrimp aquaculture industry in Ecuador”, Executive Summary RedManglar 2007

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

3) Cintron, Gilberto, PhD. (personal exchange on certification, 2009)

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

5) Ibid.

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Our Gravatar Profile

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 249 other followers

Species Ecology on Flickr

RSS Conservation News

Blog Stats

  • 5,515 hits

Follow Our Books


Articles by Calendar Months

May 2017
%d bloggers like this: