Shrimp Industry Devastating Mangrove Forests
By Diego Cevallos *
Ecuador and Honduras have suffered the worst cases of loss of coastal mangrove forests, warned the United Nations Environment Program on the occasion of World Environment Day.
MEXICO CITY - The number of shrimp farms in Ecuador, Honduras and Mexico is profiting their owners, but they also increase the destruction of mangroves -- protective coastal forests that affect 70 percent of the commercially valuable fish and shellfish.
In the past 12 years, the pools where shrimp are raised -- mostly located on sites where mangrove forests once grew -- have expanded so rapidly that they have caused ''significant environmental problems,'' says the United Nations Environment Program.
As part of the Jun. 5 World Environment Day celebrations, UNEP released the document ''One Planet Many People: Atlas of Our Changing Environment," based on comparisons of satellite images taken in different years.
One of the things that stands out in the photos taken from outer space of Latin America is how shrimp farms in Ecuador and Honduras have devastated areas that used to be mangroves. In Ecuador, the focus is the Gulf of Guayaquil, and in Honduras it is the Gulf of Fonseca, on the Pacific coast, and shared with Nicaragua and El Salvador.
''Shrimp farms and ponds have mushroomed, carpeting the landscape... causing significant environmental problems. Mangroves, natural coastal defenses and nurseries for wild-living fish, have been cleared to make way for farms,'' says UNEP in a statement.
Mexico does not appear in the collection of satellite images, though after Ecuador and Honduras it is the leading producer of farmed shrimp in the Americas, and mangrove destruction in that country is also serious, according to environmentalists.
In Honduras, the area covered by shrimp farms grew from 1,450 hectares in 1986 to 10,500 hectares today.
According to figures from the Honduran Central Bank, farmed shrimp exports fetched 152 million dollars in 2004. The industry provides some 24,750 jobs, Alberto Zelaya, member of the National Aquaculture Association, told Tierramérica.
But the expansion of shrimp farming has also had serious social and ecological impacts in Honduras, said Saúl Montufar, spokesman for the non-governmental Committee for the Defense and Development of Golf of Fonseca Flora and Fauna.
''In the social arena, there has been marginalization and expulsion of fishing families in the shrimp farming areas, a loss of access to traditional fishing sites, and a decline in the fish catch,'' said Montufar in a Tierramérica interview.
Environmentally, there has been ''abuse in the introduction of thousands of tons of nutrients (to feed the shrimp), which has led to the decline in water quality and to the destruction of wide areas of mangroves,'' added the activist.
Similar problems are found in Ecuador, where the total area originally covered by mangroves -- some 363,000 hectares -- had fallen to 108,000 in 2000, Marianeli Torres, local coordinator of the International Mangrove Network, told Tierramérica.
Ecuadorian, Honduran and Mexican activists maintain that their countries' respective environmental regulations for the shrimp farming industry are insufficient, are often violated with impunity, or are simply ignored.
The Mexicans, for example, fear that the destruction of mangroves will advance rapidly in the next few years due to legal shortcomings.
The activists report that the law, which originally provided strict protection for those ecosystems, was modified in 2004 by the Vicente Fox government to allow mangrove clearing in exchange for economic compensation.
The government changed the regulations without the prior consultations required by the law itself, ''and its only aim was to benefit projects like expansion of ports, tourism and aquaculture,'' said Héctor Magallón, local coordinator of the forests campaign for the international environmental watchdog Greenpeace.
In Mexico, mangrove forests today cover 886,760 hectares, or 69,389 hectares less than in 1993, while shrimp farm production expanded from 30,000 tons in 2000 to 60,000 last year.
But the problem is not unique to Latin American countries.
Worldwide, mangrove forests have declined by 35 percent in recent decades, to around 17 million hectares. Destruction advances at an annual rate of 2.1 percent, faster than the rate of 0.8 percent in the loss of tropical forests, according to Greenpeace figures.
The leading causes of the loss of this ecosystem are, in descending order, aquaculture and construction of shrimp farms, deforestation, alterations and obstructions of water flow, changes in soil use, and contamination from herbicides.
Mangroves, which have become one of the most threatened ecosystem types in the world, provide numerous benefits.
Seventy percent of the fish caught at sea hatched or reproduced in mangroves, or rely on the intact mangrove system in some way, according to studies conducted in Mexico.
For every hectare of mangrove forest destroyed, an estimated 757 kg of commercial fish are lost, say the studies.
Furthermore, mangroves provide humidity and thus are a natural cooling agent for nearby communities. They also protect coastlines from flooding and the destructive effects of ocean waves, hurricane winds and tropical storms.
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent. With reporting by Juan Carlos Frías in Ecuador and Thelma Mejía in Honduras.