Mangrove Action Project

Earth Island News

When the Zhangjiang Guolin Aquatic Products Company, an international shrimp farmer and exporter, opened shop along the tranquil coastline of the Leizhou Peninsula in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, it was either unaware of or unconcerned about the detrimental effects of its activities on the vast coastal ecosystem. The subtropical, ecologically diverse Peninsula, with its breathtaking bays, estuaries, and mangrove forests, is one of many mangrove ecosystems endangered by rapid expansion of shrimp farming worldwide.

Every winter, flocks of waterbirds migrating on the East Asian- Australasian flyway stop to rest and feed on the branches of the mangrove trees in the Zhangjiang Mangrove National Nature Reserve. China’s largest mangrove forests are in Zhangjiang, home to 24 known mangrove species.

But today, Zhangjiang is depressingly sparse. Too much duck grazing and shrimp farming, as well as poor monitoring and conservation efforts by China’s State Forest Administration, have left this reserve desolate and damaged beyond repair. Conservationists may have expected the region’s protection under the Ramsar Convention, which theoretically protects over 120 million hectares of wetlands in 141 countries, to have had a greater impact on ensuring the sustainability of the mangrove ecosystem there.

A mangrove tree is one of nature’s masterpieces, combining aesthetics with functionality. The intricate mangrove thickets, also called “mangles,” can survive in highly saline habitats lethal to many other plants. Mangroves create dramatic forests on humid tropical coastlines, providing many irreplaceable services to our planet’s well-being. They create nutrient-rich habitats for fish, crustaceans, and other marine wildlife; serve as safe havens for birds; protect offshore coral reefs from siltation; provide safe access to food, water, and wood for human beings in these regions; and protect them from natural disasters such as strong winds and flooding.

America’s appetite for shrimp has reached unprecedented heights, amounting to an average of 3.4 pounds of shrimp eaten per person annually. Despite recent efforts by the US Department of Commerce to raise tariffs against Chinese exporters of shrimp, the Guangdong region’s shrimp exports amount to revenues of about 100 million dollars a year. Reports of degraded mangrove ecosystems by Zhangjiang visitors notwithstanding, the Chinese government claims in its report to the United Nations Environment Programme that it has protected Zhangjiang’s nature reserve “effectively.” Many countries fail to monitor and report on the true state of their protected wetlands.

Environmental groups and bird conservationists are attempting to bring these complexities to public consciousness. One such effort is the new campaign for migratory birds launched by Mangrove Action Project (MAP) and its partner organizations in North America, Honduras, Guatemala, and Brazil. MAP’s new campaign first aims to research and reveal how the destruction of mangrove ecosystems endangers migratory birds, whose livelihood depends on their capacity to rest and feed in the mangrove forests en route to their destination. Second, MAP hopes to redefine mangrove ecosystems to include the salt and mud flats in the vicinity of mangrove forests. These salt flats and mud flats contain essential nutrients and serve as future venues for the mangroves when these “walking trees” have to shift their positions inland as sea level rises.

Many shrimp farmers who have not torn down a mangrove forest have instead opted to build aquacultures in neighboring salt flats and mud flats. While initiatives to protect mangrove forests are widespread, efforts to protect all aspects of the mangrove ecosystem are fragmented at best. In the long run, saving mangrove forests at the expense of salt flats and mud flats is meaningless. It is time to start considering alternatives to the practice of destroying mangrove ecosystems for shrimp farming, such as integrated fish and rice farming or the integrated mangrove-shrimp farm system. While these alternatives may initially require a greater start-up investment, low-budget shrimp farming clearly is not worth the cost of the consequences caused by the death of the mangroves.

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