Mangrove forests are among the world’s most productive ecosystems and healthy mangroves are a precious, almost priceless resource. Mangroves can quite literally save lives during storms and extreme weather events but losing mangroves also means losing livelihoods, food security, valuable timber production, coastal erosion defence and one of the most efficient and important carbon stores on the planet.
The shrimp farming industry is an obvious target when looking to lay blame for the destruction of mangrove forests. After all huge areas of this critical, life-saving, climate change-combating habitat have been cleared to make way for farms. And yet, while it is true that shrimp farming and mangrove conservation have not always gone hand-in-hand, it is also true that attitudes are changing as many shrimp farmers begin to realise the huge value that should be placed on mangrove forests – value not only to the environment but also to their farms.
Ecuadorian-based shrimp farming company, Omarsa, is one such example of an unlikely conservationist for mangroves. Omarsa claim to have the largest organic shrimp farm in the world and their farm site at Guayaquil stands on the edge of a vast nature reserve that is home to 10,635 hectares of mangrove forest. Established in 1977, the company watched as neighbouring shrimp farms cleared away precious mangrove habitat that stood in ideal locations for productive shrimp ponds, some as recently as 2019. As Omarsa began to thrive in business, they started to buy up these nearby farms to increase production. However, they also did something unusual, and that was to implement a huge mangrove reforestation project in areas that had been destroyed by the previous farm owners.
The farm’s Certification Coordinator, Paul Barreiro, is well placed to understand the importance of good environmental practice. The farm is certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), among others, which places strict conditions on environmental welfare. Still, with such an enormous area of mangrove forest close-by, it arguably would have been easy to do the bare minimum with regard to mangrove conservation on the farm and yet Mr Barreiro explained that Omarsa decided to go far beyond that.
“Over the years, the company acquired the shrimp farm of the neighbours, thus acquiring the commitment to rehabilitate affected areas. Our reforestation project started in 2007 and exceeds by three times the reforestation requirement of local conservation laws,” he said.
“The company decided to reforest approximately 100 hectares, which far exceeds the local requirement, even the current requirement of the ASC standard.”
Currently, the ASC Shrimp Standard requires that farms built prior to the 1999 RAMSAR wetland convention are required to rehabilitate at least 50 per cent of the area affected by the farm.
As one of the largest shrimp producers in Ecuador, employing more than 6000 people, Omarsa supply shrimp to 40 countries around the world. They are at the frontline of supplying tons of shrimp to feed the ever-growing demand for aquaculture products in every corner of the globe.
Omarsa are a stark example of the growing demand for aquaculture, which now accounts for more than half of seafood consumed worldwide and plays an immeasurable role in combating poverty and hunger. While this growing demand has often come at the expense of the environment, shrimp farming alone cannot be blamed for the staggering levels of mangrove loss and degradation over the past 50 years. What can be celebrated, however, is that shrimp farmers are realising the huge value a robust environment can add to their businesses and it’s thanks to farms like Omarsa who are spearheading this tidal change.
“Mangroves are of vital importance to maintain balance in our ecosystem,” Mr Barreiro said. “Small fishermen benefit from the mangroves, they depend on the extraction of shells and crabs that live in this ecosystem. This, without counting the benefits to prevent floods and avoid erosion, represents an important coastal barrier that benefits aquatic activity.
“In general terms, our industry and the subsistence of certain fishermen depend on the mangrove.”
Read more about the importance of protecting the world’s mangrove forests in our recent blog.