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Mangrove Action Project

Shrimp Farms — Not For the Birds

In 2000, the Brazilian government announced a three-year plan to expand its shrimp aquaculture industry’s area of production sixfold—from 12,000 to 75,000 acres. In 2002, over 25,000 acres of Brazilian shrimp farms produced about 60,000 tons of farmed shrimp; ponds are expected to cover 100 square miles of important coastal wetlands by 2005.

The shrimp aquaculture industry has invaded Brazil with a shortsighted passion for quick profits. Many local fishing communities face impoverishment from loss of their wild fisheries. Extensive stretches of once bountiful tidal wetlands are replaced by manmade ponds, where the rush for farmed shrimp overrides both reason and law.

Brazil’s mangrove area is the second largest in the world—more than two and a half million acres of mangrove forests are found along Brazil’s long, curving coastline. The recent burst of activity in the shrimp farm industry threatens thousands of acres of important coastal wetlands, havens for countless migratory shorebirds.

Also threatened are vital tidal wetlands, such as the mud flats, salt marshes, and salt flats that are often targeted for shrimp culture. The rapid, uncontrolled spread of shrimp culture could forever affect a delicate balance of nature that has long been taken for granted.

The future integrity of the Atlantic coastal migratory bird flyways may be lost to this unsustainable development, and shorebird species could be lost.

The north-central coast of Brazil is the most important wintering area in South America for roseate spoonbills, black-bellied plovers, ruddy turnstones, whimbrels, and willets, and is also critical for sanderlings, semipalmated sandpipers, short-billed dowitchers, and red knots. Because of their importance to migratory shorebird populations, coastlines of the Maranhão have been designated a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site of hemispheric importance—hundreds of thousands of shorebirds use the region each year.

For many years, the mangrove forests were seen (and often officially designated) as wastelands, not fit for anything but mosquitoes and smelly swamp. This view of the tidal forests is gradually changing, influenced by recent scientific studies and public awareness campaigns. Mangroves are now recognized as immensely important for the health of wild fisheries and marine ecology.

Unfortunately, mangrove forests are now viewed as somehow distinct from the associated wetlands found on the tidal flats, which are an equally important part of a larger tidal ecosystem.

Migratory shorebirds must refuel by feeding on the small fish, sandworms, crustaceans, snails, and other marine life that abounds within and upon the soil of these far-from-barren wetlands. The tidal flats’ importance as resting and feeding grounds for these shorebirds must be recognized by those who claim that shrimp farming is permissible if it is located outside the immediate vicinity of the mangrove forests.

Further information is needed to evaluate the direct and indirect effects that loss of these wetlands is having on migratory shorebird habitats. Without proper planning, strict enforcement, and an effective coastal zone management plan, the shrimp industry could follow the same destructive path in Brazil that it has taken elsewhere, and leave in its wake the extinction of many species of migratory shorebirds.

We cannot protect the larger mangrove ecosystem if our concept of that ecosystem fails to include all of its complex interconnections. Expanding our concept of the mangroves is a necessary part of halting unsustainable development of these fragile and valuable wetlands.

— Alfredo Quarto


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