Tiny crustacean, big transformation: Part 2

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to make the global shrimp supply chain more environmentally sustainable, from family farms in Southeast Asia to customers’ plates in the United States. In this second installment of a four-part series, we take a peek at life on the shrimp pond—as Seafood Watch wades into the business of small-scale aquaculture in Southeast Asia. (Continued from Part 1.)

Pokkrong Kirdsook, Taylor Voorhees and Tyler Isaac walk single-file onto a thin wooden plank. The boards bow with each step, sagging closer to the pond four feet below. Pokkrong pulls up a spindly rope, lifting a cylindrical mesh cage from the water.

It looks like they could be panning for gold, but the riches in this cage are more lively. Exposed to the warm air on this humid afternoon in southern Thailand, whiteleg shrimp wriggle and jump on the mesh. 

IMG_2424 (1)
Left to right: Seafood Watch experts Tyler Isaac and Taylor Voorhees; shrimp farmer Pokkrong Kirdsook. Photo by Mark C. Anderson

Taylor and Tyler, both Seafood Watch senior aquaculture scientists, admire the results. Shrimp farmers need to navigate a number of risks to produce shrimp this healthy. Even the variation within a lunar cycle can impact the development of their protective exoskeletons. 

The tiny pier on Pokkrong’s farm is 8,300 miles from the Seafood Watch office in Monterey, California, but Taylor and Tyler feel at home. Both worked in aquaculture production before joining the Aquarium; they even built a small aquaponic rig in Tyler’s backyard.

They’re visiting shrimp operations in the Thai province of Krabi to talk with farmers about everything from local government regulations to wastewater management and natural remedies for shrimp ailments. 

Across the Pacific, a powerful network of North American retailers—including Seafood Watch partners Blue Apron, Red Lobster and Whole Foods—are interested in what they find out.

Low lands, high hurdles

Since 2016, the Seafood Watch team has been working with Southeast Asian shrimp farmers who want to shift toward more environmentally friendly practices. But running a sustainable shrimp farm isn’t easy. 

Giant tiger prawn. Sakulta Kirdsook hopes other countries can benefit from the improvements she and other Thai shrimp farmers are making: “At the same time, we can learn from them,” she says.

One of the biggest challenges is disease, which can crop up anytime lots of shrimp are cultivated in close quarters. Farmers often respond by using pharmaceuticals, sometimes improperly. When they discharge pond water into the surrounding environment, the chemicals can impact the health of nearby waterways and their wildlife.

Historically, large areas of mangrove forests were cleared to make space for development, including shrimp ponds. Mangrove forests provide habitat for a diverse array of marine organisms, protect the coast against storms and improve water quality by acting as a living filter. In many Southeast Asian nations, coastal communities depend heavily on these services. The impacts of mangrove loss can be devastating.

Issues of habitat destruction, chemical overuse, liquid-waste pollution and under-regulation have put much of the shrimp farmed in South and Southeast Asia on the Seafood Watch red list. 

Aerial View_MBA
Shrimp farms stretch into the horizon in this aerial view from Vietnam.

Regions with the highest shrimp production are among the least regulated, at least in practice. Even where there are strong laws in place, government agencies often lack the resources to provide on-the-ground education or enforcement. That leaves many Southeast Asian shrimp farmers without a clear set of rules to operate by. And it leaves Seafood Watch experts with a shortage of reliable data with which to assess the environmental impacts of these farms. 

The Aquarium team realized it needed to engage a broader set of private-sector players.

Sustainability as common ground 

Between stops at the Kirdsook farm, Taylor whizzes through some light reading: a study titled “White Feces Syndrome of Shrimp Arises from Transformation, Sloughing and Aggregation of Hepatopancreatic Microvilli into Vermiform Bodies Superficially Resembling Gregarines.”

Then he pores over aerial shots of the farm’s shrimp ponds, captured by a drone at 1,600 feet. “It’s all meaningful information,” he says, not lifting his gaze. 

At this particular farm there’s a lot to learn, especially from co-owner Sakulta Kirdsook. She grew up in the shrimp farming business after her father, Pokkrong, started a half-acre tiger prawn farm three decades ago. 

Shrimp farmer co-owners Sakulta Kirdsook, right, and her husband Cristiano Angeletti. Photo by Mark C. Anderson

“In his time there were less farms, less disease and more chances for economic success [given] high demand,” Sakulta says. “Farmers were not aware of the environmental damage and future problems. But now, more dangerous diseases and more farms in competition mean it’s harder to achieve success.

“Dad came into [the business] when the environment was 100 percent. I came into it when it was destroyed,” she adds. “Only sustainability can be the solution.”

Sakulta’s team, including her father and her husband, have built recirculating pipes for their shrimp ponds. The system recycles pond water rather than discharging it into surrounding waterways. The goal is to protect their shrimp from disease—which can strike hard and very fast—and to protect fragile coastal ecosystems from contaminated discharge. 

The Seafood Watch team listens intently as Sakulta describes the challenges her team navigates. “It’s hard being a shrimp farmer,” Tyler says later. “Not only are those folks making it work; they’re trying new things. They’re curious and they’re innovative.”

Setting a new standard

Vietnamese shrimp
Three-quarters of the shrimp consumed in the United States is imported from South and East Asia. Sustainability improvements in the region can be a model around the world.

If farms like Sakulta’s are successful in getting their product off the Seafood Watch red list and into the yellow, they could inspire their competitors to make environmental improvements, too. 

Many other countries, including in South Asia and South America, are rapidly expanding their own shrimp production. If they want access to the lucrative North American market, where more and more major seafood retailers are committing to sourcing sustainable products, they’ll look for case studies in doing it right.

The Aquarium team feels up to the challenge. It helps to have friends in high places—including a former U.S. Secretary of State.

– By Kera Abraham Panni, Mark C. Anderson and Magdaline Southard

Continue to Part 3

Featured image: Senior Aquaculture Scientists Tyler Isaac and Taylor Voorhees (crouching at left), along with two collaborators, get close to the product at a shrimp farm in Thailand. Photo by Mark C. Anderson

By choosing seafood that’s recommended by Seafood Watch, you’re supporting a healthy ocean for future generations. Learn more at seafoodwatch.org

2 thoughts on “Tiny crustacean, big transformation: Part 2”

  1. Thank you for your work.
    What direct inspections are performed in addition to the interviews with shrimp farmers?
    What are you looking for in their methods?
    How do you check on conformance with the labor laws?


    1. Thank you for your interest in our Southeast Asia Fisheries and Aquaculture Initiative. Responding to your questions:

      – What direct inspections are performed in addition to the interviews with shrimp farmers?

      Seafood Watch assessment of environmental sustainability often occurs at a national level. However, we’ve developed a new approach that includes a regional assessment and verification and inspections at farms. During these inspections, third-party assessors interview farmers, inspect the facility and collect documentation. This information facilitates an assessment of the environmental sustainability at a regional scale.

      – What are you looking for in their methods?

      Seafood Watch has a comprehensive aquaculture standard that reflects globally-recognized science and assesses performance against best practices.

      – How do you check on conformance with the labor laws?

      Seafood Watch assessments cover environmental performance, and we suggest that consumers and businesses utilize other tools and require robust seafood traceability to ensure social responsibility.


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