Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mainland China: Shrimp Farming

Matt Thompson is a senior aquaculture specialist with the Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Programs (SSP). He is blogging from the Seafood Summit in Hong Kong. The Seafood Summit brings all those concerned with sustainable seafood together in a conference to identify challenges and look for solutions.  

From local markets, through small-scale marine cage aquaculture, we finally arrived at the production of America’s favorite seafood item – shrimp. Around two thirds of the shrimp we eat is farmed  and the majority of that is raised in Asia and primarily imported to the U.S. from Thailand.

Unlike the marine fish farming we saw yesterday, this was in no way small-scale. The company that had open its doors to us was both large-scale and vertically integrated, meaning that they owned their own shrimp farms, shrimp hatcheries, feed manufacturing plants, and processing plants. These behemoths of the seafood industry have an abundance of control over their farming practices and the ability to invest in their operations.

We began with a tour of the company’s impressive processing plant. I’m sorry that I don’t have photos of this part of the trip - we weren’t allowed to bring cameras or any other items in for food safety reasons. The positive side of which means there are no embarrassing photos of me donning the hair net, face mask, overcoat, and boots we had to wear to walk around the plant. These companies go to great lengths to ensure your raw and cooked shrimp are safe to eat. Once reacquainted with our cameras, we headed to the hatchery.

In long concrete raceways, the broodstock or parents of the shrimp we actually eat swim (which sounds rather grim when put that way), ready to hatch a new batch of shrimp for farming. Interestingly, these broodstock were Hawaiians, raised on the islands then imported to China due to their “specific pathogen free” or SPF status. Viral diseases (which affect shrimp not humans), have played, and continue to play, havoc with the shrimp farming industry, thus it’s critical that farming begins with disease-free stocks.

Leaving the hatchery, we arrived at a good example of a modern shrimp farm. Globally, shrimp farming has had a difficult history; including the conversion of ecologically important mangrove forests into shrimp ponds, chemical abuses, an overuse of fish in feeds (both direct and in commercial diets), pollution from waste leaving the farms, and viral diseases – just to name a few of these issues. However, the industry is maturing with some practices, particularly mangrove conversion and are becoming more of a thing of the past.

Globally, the industry covers the whole range, from ocean-friendly operations to those still engaged in the more damaging practices. On the whole the shrimp we eat in the U.S. is increasingly coming from improving operations. We still have a way to go, particularly regarding feed, but positive signs are there. My role at the Aquarium is principally focused on working with our corporate partners to drive improvements in the sources of farmed shrimp they buy.

Although, I didn’t have time to do a detailed assessment of this operation, what I did see here is that this farm had lined its ponds, which can help reduce the seepage of salty water into the surrounding environment. They also filtered the waste water leaving the farm, reducing its potential to pollute.

The infrastructure was also very strong, so strong in-fact that this was the first time I’ve ever been on a farm with pond walls strong enough to drive a coach full of people over them! Aside from keeping us in air-conditioned goodness (it was probably 100F with 100% humidity outside – good for shrimp, bad for me), this also reduces the potential for pond walls to fail and release what is a non-native shrimp species into the surrounding environment.

Personally, I’d have liked to have spent all day on the farm and really got into the weeds of its environmental performance, looking for those opportunities for improvement, but it was not to be and soon enough we were back on the coach and on the way.


  1. I'm enjoying following this, keep up the great work Matt!

  2. This is really cool! Seafood industries tend to be so much less transparent than the rest of the agricultural world, and it's also great to see an insight into the global food system.