Solving India's shrimp farm riddle

April 07, 2005, vol. 32, no. 7
By Howard Fluxgold

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When Rudyard Kipling was writing Jungle Book he probably had no idea that his wild tiger- and crocodile-infested, mangrove forest would one day be farmed.

But the area in West Bengal India known as Sundarbans, on the Bay of Bengal not far from Calcutta, is the home to the world's largest mangrove ecosystem and a growing shrimp farming industry.

Duncan Knowler, assistant professor of resource and environmental management, and his team hope to find a way for the farms and the mangroves to co-exist, avoiding the ecological disaster that shrimp farming has wrought in some southeast Asian countries like Thailand.

“The key issue,” says Knowler, “is the potential for shrimp farming to become more intensive. We are trying to devise policies that allow for development in a sustainable way.”

An Indian supreme court ruling in 1997 placed a moratorium on new shrimp farms, while the nearby tiger conservation area has kept locals from cutting down the mangrove forests, replacing them with shrimp ponds.

But there is pressure to expand the industry, both from the government and big business, which sees profits from the export of shrimp. Knowler, who recently returned from five weeks in India, is trying to juggle the interests of the various stakeholders as well as the local ecology to come up with a plan.

For example, currently shrimp fry for the farms are collected by poor women and children who drag nets near the shoreline. However, they also collect other sea life in the nets that are killed.

There are some who favour hatcheries, but female shrimp would still need to be found and hatcheries would need to solve the problems of disease. Unfortunately, hatcheries also mean the collectors would lose a valuable source of income. Collecting fry also adversely affects the natural shrimp fishery.

Knowler and his team did a household survey in the Sundarbans that sought to determine what the local population would and would not support in the way of changes to the current system. “One of the things we found was that the fry collectors are not married to their job. They would like to do something else, but they need the opportunities,” says Knowler. The collectors earn only a few hundred dollars a year.

He also says that the recent tsunami made the local population more aware of the value of the mangrove forest. “People were finely tuned to the importance of the mangrove forest as protection for the coastal communities, even though they were not seriously affected by the tsunami,” Knowler found.

Knowler is currently analysing his data and plans to produce a number of scenarios to present to the stakeholders in India by August. Each scenario will suggest how they might proceed in a sustainable way and the possible consequences of their actions. “We hope our modelling will be able to demonstrate a sensible level of farming from both a scientific and social point of view,” Knowler adds.

Knowler's team at SFU includes Wolfgang Haider, associate professor and Bill de la Mare, professor in the school of resource and environmental management and two masters students, Sarah Nathan and Neil Philcox. He is also working closely with a team from Jadavpur and Burdwan universities in Calcutta.

The research funding of $106,000 comes from the Shastri Applied Research Project (SHARP) which is financed by the Canadian International Development Agency. SHARP finances bi-national policy research projects that reduce poverty and sustain development.

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