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Shrimp: luxury food with a hidden environmental price tag

Ecologist

17th February, 2012

Our love affair with shrimp has fuelled the destruction of the 'rainforests of the sea' - mangroves - whose biodiversity and carbon-storing capacities are much undervalued. The author of 'Let Them Eat Shrimp', Kennedy Warne, talks through his alarming findings

You call mangroves the 'rainforests of the sea.' While most people know about rainforests, most don't know about mangroves. Why is that and why are they important?

Kennedy Warne: Mangroves tend to be associated with mud, and most people don't like mud. (With the possible exception of potters.) They also tend to harbor mosquitoes, and very few people (apart from entomologists) like mosquitoes. So there are a couple of reasons straight off the bat why mangroves have been maligned and disrespected-or simply ignored. While terrestrial tropical rainforests aren't exactly fun places to be, with their torpid heat, abundance of bugs, high rainfall and other challenging attributes-people still recognize their importance and endorse efforts to prevent their destruction. Why aren't mangroves higher on the environmental priority list? I don't know. Their contribution to the planet and to humankind is immense. As I write in the book, they serve as coastal barricades and land stabilizers; they supply nutrients to the sea and nursery grounds for marine life; and they provide homes and livelihoods for millions of people across the tropical world.

What sparked your interest in mangroves and how did you come to write a book about them?

KW: I live in New Zealand, and have always been strongly drawn to the sea. In northern New Zealand, where I live, we have just one species of mangrove (some countries have 20 or more), and it forms lush coastal forests. From childhood, I was aware of an aura of mystery and surprise about these places. Strange sights, sounds and smells emanated from them. They intrigued me. When I was editor of New Zealand Geographic magazine, I decided it would be a good thing to produce a large feature story on what goes on in a mangrove forest, and I learned such a lot from helping research and produce that story that my attachment to these places increased. Ten years later, when I started writing for National Geographic magazine, I proposed a story on mangroves of the world, and that was the genesis of the book.

In the book you detail the devastation caused by shrimp aquaculture. How has the western taste for massive amounts of this 'luxury' food at a cheap price played a role?

The problem with shrimp aquaculture is that in the industry's pioneering years, during the 1970s and 1980s, the ideal site for a shrimp pond happened to be at about the same position on the shore that mangroves flourish: low enough to get occasional tidal flow, but high enough not to be affected by tides all the time. Because mangrove forests tended to be public lands occupied by subsistence communities, they were readily appropriated by a combination of commercial aggression and governmental compliance.

Governments in developing countries became keen backers of shrimp farming because shrimp fetched a high price in the West, and was therefore a reliable source of foreign exchange. It was relatively easy for aquaculture corporations to clear mangroves and build shrimp ponds, the land was cheap to rent and there was plenty of it, so the cost of farming shrimp was low. Probably the most odious part of the early years of shrimp framing was that when one pond was nutritionally exhausted, the company would abandon it and bulldoze some more mangroves to build a new one. So the forests gave way to ever-expanding swathes of ponds. And all the while, consumers in the West couldn't believe their luck, that such a tasty seafood was flooding into supermarket freezers and on to restaurant menus for such a cheap price. They never made the connection between cheap shrimp and disappearing mangrove forests.

One of the many secrets mangroves hold is their potential to store carbon. What is their potential for mitigating climate change and is it being recognized?

Scientists have found that mangroves are among the most effective carbon sinks of all forest types. Because they are found in tropical zones of fierce sunlight and abundant moisture, they grow fast and form carbon-storing tissues at a rapid rate. When their leaves, twigs and branches fall into the mud, a lot of that detritus gets buried in the soft sediment, and its associated carbon can remain 'locked up' for centuries. Carbon that might otherwise be oxidized to carbon dioxide, escalating global warming, is taken out of the atmospheric game. So an intact mangrove forest is a very useful carbon store - and economists are finally catching on that this one ecological service alone is worth far more than all the shrimp that you could grow in its place. But there are many, many ecological services that mangroves perform, and if you put them all together you would consider that cutting down a mangrove forest would be economically crazy. I think this message is slowly starting to filter through to people. We can't go on pretending that our lifestyles are ecological sustainable when they clearly are not.

As you traveled, you saw first-hand the devastation caused by shrimp aquaculture and massive coastal development. How has this impacted both the environment and the local communities?

When you read statistics of how much mangrove forest individual countries have lost-50 per cent, 60 per cent, 70 per cent-it can be very hard to get a picture of what those coastlines would have looked like if they had been left alone. But then you go to a place like the Sundarbans, the largest tract of mangrove in the world, and it starts to dawn on you the magnitude of what has been lost. And because mangroves are among the most biologically diverse forests on earth, you also realize that many species that rely on mangroves have disappeared too. Australian writer Tim Flannery wrote a book called A Gap in Nature, and that is what mangrove clearance has caused: a very large, unfillable gap in nature.

Initially, my interest was focused on the natural history of mangroves. But then I started to meet people whose lives had been disrupted-more than that, catastrophically damaged-by mangrove deforestation, and I started to turn my attention to the impact mangrove loss was having on coastal communities. They were losing a physical resource, of course-a source of timber, thatch, medicine, food-but they were also losing a defining part of their identity as forest dwellers. It would be like living next to a river and waking up one morning and finding the river was gone. Their plight affected me deeply.

For the book you traveled all over the world and met many people. Who did you meet and why are their stories important?

I tried to cover as many angles as I could of the world of mangroves, from a Malaysian scientist who spent a lifetime studying carbon movement within mangrove ecosystems, to a retired American chemist who has devoted his twilight years to planting mangroves on the shores of the Red Sea, to coastal villagers in Brazil who fought, and won, a battle to prevent an enormous shrimp farm being built beside them, to traditional mangrove cockle gatherers in Ecuador . . . and that's only about a third of the people I've written about in the book. Each one gave me a slightly different window onto the subject, and by telling their stories I hoped to show readers that mangroves aren't some boring little backwater of a subject, but a really vital and important world that they should know about.

How should local governments balance the importance of mangroves with business interests like shrimp aquaculture and development?

That's an economic question, but it's also a question of social justice. In the book I talk about the growing discipline of ecological economics, in which economists have begun to put a value on the services that ecosystems like forests provide to the planet. It turns out that forests are far more valuable if they are left standing than if they are cut down. That doesn't mean we should stop logging all forests, but we should certainly open our eyes to the true costs associated with that choice to fire up the chainsaw. Mangrove destruction has been driven by the desire for short-term gain. I think the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was a tremendous wake-up call for countries which had allowed their living sea-walls, the mangrove forests, to be removed. It shouldn't take tragedies like that to make us think about the long-term implications of our economic decisions. Similarly, coastal people have lacked a voice and identity, so have been easily pushed aside, and their interests disregarded, in the quest for a quick peso. But I have been inspired by the courage these small, marginalized communities have shown in standing up to corporations and even their own governments in demanding recognition for their way of life, their environment, and their basic human needs.

What are some of the challenges to mangrove restoration?

One of the problems is that agencies involved in mangrove restoration have tended to plant just one or two species, instead of aiming to recreate the forest in all its diversity and complexity. So you get mangrove plantations rather than mangrove forests, and their value, both to nature and to people, is greatly diminished. So it's important to have an ecosystem approach to restoration, not just a focus on 'How many mangroves can we plant today?' But a more fundamental problem is that mangrove restoration is often not perceived as a high priority compared to, say, coral reef restoration or the rainforests of the Amazon. So we come back to the problem of perception: that mangroves aren't appealing places, that they're somehow 'second-class' ecological citizens. One of the most arresting statements I've read about mangroves was made by a group of scientists a few years ago, saying that unless the current rate of mangrove loss (between 1 and 2 per cent loss per year) is halted and turned around, within 100 years mangroves will be gone. We need to take that warning seriously.

What can people who don't live near mangroves do to help protect them?

There are several organizations that are working to protect mangroves, so a good place to start would be to get on a mailing list or two, and become acquainted with the issues and hotspots. We can all play a part when it comes to applying pressure on corporations or governments that are acting badly in terms of the environment or human rights. The second thing people can do is think about their purchasing decisions, and how they may be having an impact far from these shores. Ask questions. Look at product labels. Where does this shrimp come from? What is the environmental record of the company supplying it, or the country where it is produced? Can I eat this food in good conscience? Or perhaps you might take another look at that beach resort you're planning to visit for your vacation. Was it built by clearing a mangrove forest? Was a community displaced as a result? But I would say the best thing-the most lasting choice-people can make is to put a visit to a mangrove forest on the to-do list. There are mangrove ecotourism opportunities throughout the world, from simple boardwalk tours to riverboat cruises, to snorkeling among the mangrove roots, which is like gliding through the arches of a cathedral. Once you have walked in a mangrove forest, you may find, as I have, that they have a magic that is beyond words.

Let them eat shrimp: the tragic disappearance of the rainforests of the sea by Kennedy Warne (Island Press, March 2012, $25.95)

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