A look at fish and shrimp farming in Sri Lanka

As an island country, Sri Lanka is blessed with a remarkable bounty. Its diverse climes and environments make it possible to grow practically anything within our shores. From fruits, vegetables, and tea to craft and rubber, our industries are endless, and our geographical position puts us fairly in the centre of things to be able to capitalise and grow off our country’s resources.

The industry of aquaculture, particularly shrimp farming, began to take root on a commercial level in the North and East in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, growing steadily to become one of our biggest export industries and source of employment for the coastal communities of these regions.

However, the shrimp farming industry has come under fire in recent years and months for its potentially adverse impact on the environment, both marine and coastal. The Sunday Morning Brunch reached out to environmental conservation organisation The Pearl Protectors to learn more about aquaculture and its impact.

The Pearl Protectors strive to protect Sri Lankan marine environments through building awareness on marine ecosystems and their beauty as well as fostering passionate individuals. They recently published a case study titled “Impact on the marine environment by shrimp farms, looking at shrimp farming in Sri Lanka as well as eight other countries”, outlining the impacts and potential sustainable practices going forward.

What is aquaculture?

Aquaculture, as defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2011, is the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of fish, shellfish, algae, and other organisms as in all types of water environments. The rearing of these organisms does not need to be solely for food; aquaculture can also be used to repopulate endangered species, restore habitats, and also breed fish and water animals for zoos and aquariums.

Globally, aquaculture is one of the world’s fastest-growing production systems and contributes to 44.1% of the world’s 167.2 million tonnes of fish supply. As an industry, an estimated 500 million people in developing countries are stakeholders through fisheries and aquaculture, whether directly or indirectly.

Aquaculture comprises three major types of farming based on the water environment organisms farmed in marine water: Freshwater, brackishwater, and mariculture.

Shrimp production mainly belongs to marine aquaculture. Shrimps are the second most traded seafood commodity in the world, exporting $ 11 billion – 15% of the worldwide seafood business. Locally, shrimp exports make up about 50% of Sri Lankan fisheries’ export income, bringing about $ 25 million in revenue. Our biggest customers are Japan, the US, and the European Union (EU).

Sri Lanka’s shrimp farming industry first started in the Batticaloa region in the late 1970s and went on to set itself up in Puttalam and the North Western Province in the 1980s. Sri Lanka’s shrimp farming industry is powerful because of our natural resources – coastal lagoons, mangrove swamps, tidal flats, and estuaries that are well suited for shrimp farming. Combined with our transport networks and harbours, exporting was something that was easy to accomplish.

Shrimp farming is a valuable source of employment and income for rural communities in the northwest, north, and east of Sri Lanka. It generates income and foreign exchange earnings, and also allows Sri Lanka to play in the global marketplace, build exchanges, and grow.


The drawbacks of shrimp farming

While shrimp farming provides valuable employment and economic benefits, it takes a heavy toll on the environment, which is why it has become a topic of controversy in a time where the whole world is becoming more and more conscious of its ecological impact.

Shrimp farming interferes with both coastal and marine ecosystems. They require the clearing of rich and diverse mangrove trees and marshlands that bear a distinct number of species. Moreover, animal lives are cleared for pond construction and fringing habitats get heavily degraded.

These can lead to the reduction of animal breeding and feeding habitats. Bangladesh has lost a huge amount of mangroves and associated biodiversity due to shrimp aquaculture expansion. Also, converting agricultural land into shrimp farms created a loss of agro-biodiversity and livestock and increased soil salinity, which predicts that these ecological impacts may likely be exacerbated by climate change.

The clearing of mangroves heightens the risks of coastal erosion which in turn can lead to natural disasters like tsunamis, having more severe impacts, as well as increasing carbon dioxide output into the environment.

The nutrients and chemicals used in shrimp farming cause pollution and eutrophication (higher concentrations of algae and low water oxygen levels). This impacts both the marine environments as well as the mortality of the shrimps being bred. Self-pollution within farms also affects shrimp mortality, which then affects yield with fishermen taking the hit financially.

Shrimp farming sometimes requires salinising freshwater groundwater which can affect water that is used for farming and drinking. The construction of artificial ponds for farming also creates issues with drainage patterns.


Wedithalathive Nature Reserve and its role

At the heart of the recent controversy is the Wedithalathive Nature Reserve situated on Sri Lanka’s north-western coast, adjoining the Vankalai Sanctuary in the Mannar District. Wedithalathive is a very rich and vibrant ecosystem of mangroves, tidal mudflats, saltmarshes, seagrass beds, and coral reefs. It was declared as a nature reserve in 25 February 2016 under the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance.

As reported by the Environment Foundation (Guarantee) Ltd. (EFL), an aquaculture project proposed by the National Aquaculture Development Authority (NAQDA) was to de-gazette the reserve. The main objective of the project, according to the NAQDA, is to pave the way for foreign currency to enter the country’s economy by growing fish and shellfish through Sri Lanka’s first large-scale aquaculture development project. The project also proposes including the exotic prawn species named “Litopenaeus vannamei”.

The paper was co-sponsored by the Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development and the Minister of Sustainable Development, Wildlife, and Buddhasasana.

Wedithalathive as a nature reserve hosts three main ecosystems that are essential to biodiversity such as mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass meadows. Shrimp aquaculture is one of the major threats for mangroves, which causes distraction to both environmental and social problems.

The Pearl Protectors Co-ordinator Muditha Katuwawala

The Pearl Protectors Co-ordinator Muditha Katuwawala commented on the environmental impact of implementing a large-scale aquaculture development project in Wedithalathive, explaining that the proposed development would cut through mangrove ecosystems and disrupt the ecosystem completely. Katuwawala also shared that large-scale aquaculture development in a country like ours could result in the whole industry floundering. Citing the example of Thailand, whose aquaculture industry began in the 1960s, Katuwawala said that when Thailand went large-scale with its aquaculture development, they faced many setbacks, particularly with disease outbreaks among its shrimp, resulting in the overall major decline of the shrimp farming industry.

Katuwawala also explained that part of the proposed aquaculture project involves growing the exotic shrimp Litopenaeus vannamei, which is a genetically modified shrimp that is not endemic to Sri Lanka. Katuwawala also shared that Litopenaeus vannamei has been introduced to Sri Lanka in 2018, despite this being a violation of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, and could have a far-reaching environmental impact.

“While the vannamei prawns themselves may be unaffected by their presence in our ecosystem, the rest of the ecosystems could be vastly impacted,” Katuwawala pointed out.

An appeal has been made to the Cabinet to de-gazette Wedithalathive and proceed with the project. The Cabinet is yet to rule on this.

The Sunday Morning Brunch spoke with National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) Director General L.K.T.C. Lokukumara, who explained that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report is still very much underway, with the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) taking over to assess the impact on wildlife in the context of Wedithalathive. Lokukumara explained that the study is not close to being completed at this stage with all parties involved working closely together to identify and define sensitive areas, points of note, and concerns while maintaining all protocols and codes of conduct.

There is contention as to the legality of conducting such studies under the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance. However, in the absence of a clear EIA, it is hard to say what the final outcome would be and what impact this may have on both our marine environments and shrimp farming industry.

EFL Head of Legal Bhagya Wickramasinghe shared that the proposed aquaculture project at Wedithalathive was suspended following NARA’s initial report and recommendations in 2017 not to de-gazette Wedithalathive as a nature reserve. The issue has been put forward to the Cabinet despite these recommendations, and while it is under the power of the Minister of Wildlife, the minister does have the power to de-gazette Wedithalalthive as a nature reserve, in accordance with the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance. In such a case, the minister first needs to conduct an environmental impact study, after which if the study indicates that there is no adverse impact or that the ecosystem will not be harmed by de-gazetting, then they can go ahead with it. There have been talks of such a study being conducted, but this is not yet confirmed.