Mon, 06 Jul 2020 16:19:09 -0700
Thailand is the world’s sixth-largest producer of shrimp and provides 19 percent of the shrimp we eat in the U.S. In our 2010 assessments for Thailand, we rated 75 percent of Thai shrimp Avoid. This month we have good news: we’ve released a Good Alternative recommendation for farmed shrimp from Thailand that covers 95 percent of all shrimp it produces. It’s a significant development—and it didn’t happen overnight. To understand how Thailand made these important improvements, it helps to first understand how Seafood Watch assesses farmed seafoods and a bit of the Thai industry’s recent history.
Farmed shrimp, wild feed
The shrimp we import from Thailand is farmed, but their feed contains wild-caught seafood from the Thai trawl fleet. In the years since we last assessed Thai farmed shrimp, the trawl fleet has been scrutinized for poorly managed, indiscriminate fishing and human rights abuses. So much negative information came to light that the Feed criterion in our assessment seemed likely to fall from its previous Good Alternative rating to a Critical rating in the updated version.
The Thai government responded by enacting strict management plans that helped improve practices in ways that benefit both people and ecosystems. And shrimp farmers relied less on seafood from the fishery. Those two changes resulted in an Avoid rating for the Feed criterion in our updated assessment. While this isn’t a good or sustainable rating, it is one step above Critical.
Why does this matter? If even one of the ten criteria we consider in an aquaculture assessment is rated Critical (or if two are rated Avoid) the overall result will be an Avoid rating. So this small shift means we don’t downgrade the entire shrimp rating based on the Feed score alone.
Water, waste and disease
There were other problems with Thai shrimp farms. In 2010, most farms didn’t do a good job of managing water quality in their ponds. They frequently released the water into the surrounding environment, releasing chemicals, shrimp feces and uneaten feed. That set the stage for tragedy when it created conditions for the spread in 2012 of acute hepatopancreatic necrosis disease (AHPND) on shrimp farms. The disease wreaked havoc on the digestive systems of shrimp and destroyed that year’s harvest. Poor water quality management allowed the bacteria to grow rapidly in shrimp ponds, wiping out entire ponds within days.
It soon became clear that the bacteria were widespread in the land and water around farms. Within a year, production had fallen by 50 percent, bankrupting farmers and shuttering farms across the country.
A minority of farms, representing the 25 percent of total production we rated yellow in 2010, took a different approach. They treated and maintained their pond water, discharging little or no water to the surrounding environment, even during harvest time. This required the farms to be more diligent in keeping their water clean—a practice that served them well during the outbreak. They set a clear example for the broader industry of the importance of water management.
As the industry began to regroup after the catastrophe, farmers converted fallow ponds into storage reservoirs and sedimentation basins to enable water treatment and reuse. This led to cleaner water, lower risk of escapes into the wild and less chance for the spread of disease-causing bacteria.
The next steps
Our new Good Alternative rating for Thai farmed shrimp has nine yellow criteria and one red criterion. That means there’s still substantial room for improvement. The key will be if government oversight is maintained and strengthened over time. The Feed criterion, in particular, would benefit from additional and improved government oversight, including action to eliminate or reduce the amount of wild-caught shrimp feed sourced from the Thai trawl fleet. On the industry side, farmers and their trade associations will have to engage in good faith with the government and commit to making sure that new policies are implemented on their farms.
While there’s a lot still to be done, the Thai shrimp farming industry has shown remarkable ingenuity in overcoming disease and economic disaster to build a new system of cleaner, more efficient and more responsible farms. For the sake of Thai farmers, the health of the ocean and the shrimp on our plates, let’s hope they continue pushing forward.