How Thailand’s Dying Shrimp Are Killing an Indian Village

There’s something different this year about the rows of pinkish shrimps stacked on ice at your neighborhood store or being served at Red Lobster. Two years ago, most of it came from Thailand. The current lot, however, were raised on farms in coastal India.

Behind the switch is a mysterious disease that first showed up in China and has since decimated shrimp farms in Thailand and Vietnam. In the process, it has also minted millionaires as far away as Ecuador while leaving a trail of broken homes in rustic Indian villages.

wholesale shrimp
Wholesale shrimp waiting for purchase at a fish market.

The first hint of the epidemic came in October 2009, when owners of some aquaculture farms in China noticed that their shrimp were dying en masse within the first month of their lives. Scientists didn’t know what was causing the disease or how it was spreading. They named it Early Mortality Syndrome, or EMS, since it was killing the animals early in their lifespan. For the next three years, the disease popped up sporadically in Vietnam, Malaysia, and China. In early 2012, it finally arrived in Thailand, the world’s biggest shrimp exporter, and wiped out more than half of its annual production in 2013.

“It was a very unusual disease,” says Peter Walker, an expert on shrimp diseases at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong. “It was spreading, and people really didn’t know what to do.”

Boom Times for Some

Before EMS struck, Thailand was the biggest supplier of shrimp to the U.S. It sent 410 million pounds of the crustaceans stateside in 2011. But as the disease halved Thai production, American buyers began looking to second-tier suppliers like India to make up for the deficit. The supply crunch led global prices to climb 70% in July last year compared to a five-year average, making farmers like V. Balasubramaniam in south India very happy.

“We had a glorious year, especially the second half,” Balasubramaniam, general secretary of the Prawn Farmers Federation of India, says while driving to his farms on the nation’s southeastern coast. “For now the mood in the Indian shrimp industry is to make hay while the sun shines.” One pound of so-called 40-count pacific white shrimp destined for export, fetched about 190 rupees, or about $3, in July, compared with 102 rupees in December 2012, he says.

The small village of Neendakara on the southwestern coast is home to dozens of shrimp farms, which means it should be riding a wave of prosperity on the nation’s shrimp boom. On the surface, all seems well here. But that illusion begins to fall apart when you start looking more closely.

The smell of the sea wafts over large ponds that lie along a road winding through this coastal village. Egrets and sparrows skim over the water, resting on coconut groves along the banks. An occasional motorcycle or minibus drives along the narrow road bounded on each side by two-room brick homes, with kitchen gardens.

Out of one house comes Philomina, wiping her face with a kitchen cloth as her teenage daughter peeps out of a window. Their home appears to be falling apart. Large cracks extend through the walls, and the plaster has peeled back, exposing red crumbling bricks. “No matter how many times we do the repairs, the plaster falls off,” Philomina says, pointing to a wall bearing large floor-to-ceiling cracks. The family was forced to sell her wedding ornaments to pay for the repairs, and yet the house is still on the verge of collapse, she says.

damaged walls Neendakara
Year-round shrimp farming is causing salt damage to the exterior walls of Philomina's house in Neendakara village in Kerala, India.

A tea stall few houses away is bright blue and visitors are greeted with the smell of recently-applied paint. Owner V.D. Xavier says he has to apply a fresh coat every six months, as the paint keeps on peeling off. “What I earn through the business goes straight into this,” he says, as he drops a banana in hot oil to make a delicious fried snack for his customers.

Because of shrimp farming, the village of Neendakara is literally crumbling. The placid ponds that dot this village are salt pools brimming with shrimp, and over time, the salt from these ponds has percolated into the groundwater and crept up into the buildings, where it is now eating away at the bricks and plaster.

In just a few decades, other coastal regions could also be dealing with salt incursion, though the source won’t be shrimp farming but sea level rise. Neendakara’s attempts to keep salt from spoiling its soil and corroding its buildings could serve as a model for other small towns around the world—or a warning, depending on how well they work.

Neendakara protest
Residents of Neendakara and nearby Ezhupunna protest during the visit of a government tax inspector to the region. Their signs demand limits on shrimp aquaculture and more government subsidies for rice farming.

Local residents have spent five years petitioning officials to stop the steady march of salt into their homes, says Benny Kalathil, a 47-year old who lives by the ponds and makes wrought iron gates and window grills. They’ve tried to get officials to enforce limits on shrimp production, and now they’re trying to revive a traditional practice of alternating saltwater shrimp with rice. Flushing the ponds each year to turn them into rice paddies saturated with freshwater could slow the incursion—and save their homes and businesses.

But they’re up against powerful interests. The businessmen who operate the shrimp ponds live in palatial residences away from the village, far enough to be safe from the saline soil. The government appears hesitant to act, in part because global demand has made shrimp far more profitable to grow than rice. One acre of land can yield between 175,000 rupees and 700,000 rupees worth of shrimp in a year, depending on the intensity of production. Compare that to a typical pokkali rice harvest, which produces 20,000 rupees under the best of conditions. And the shrimp business has become even more lucrative the past year after EMS struck Thailand.

Meanwhile, the villagers face the brunt of the salt damage.

Familiar Territory

For land rights activist Ossie Fernandes, the shrimp boom brings back memories of an environmental catastrophe in the early 1990s. The government allowed shrimp exports and businessmen with no experience in aquaculture to purchase cheap coastal land and turn it into shrimp ponds. “It was an open season back then,” Fernandes says. Soil salinity rose sharply and untreated effluent that flowed into creeks destroyed native fish stocks.

Spurred by the disaster and the protests that ensued, India’s Supreme Court prohibited industrial shrimp farms, spurring the government to create a body to regulate aquaculture.

That body has been ineffective in regulating the industry and has only served the shrimp industry’s interests, a former judge ruled last monthafter hearing testimony from residents and farmers in six districts.

“Vast agricultural land have been destroyed and fish stocks are ruined,” says Fernandes, who has lobbied for fishermen’s rights for more than 17 years. “The shrimp farmers are very strong and politically connected. The government won’t be strict with them because they bring enormous foreign exchange.”

More than 14 million people work in fisheries and seafood production in India, according to the Asian Fisheries Society, and the industry generated more than $5 billion in export revenues in the year ended March. Most of the production happens along the country’s eastern coast, where mechanized feeders, aerators, and round-the-clock water monitoring systems are deployed to ensure high yields.

In Neendakara, which lies in the country’s southwestern coast, the industry is relatively nascent, and aquaculture operators still follow traditional practices that rely on tidal flows and manual labor. The village is in a coastal zone where farmers used to alternate between growing rice and shrimp, a practice that lasted for hundreds of years, says V. Sreekumaran, director of a government-run research lab that breeds rice hybrids.

hybrid rice plants India Rice Research Station
Dr. V. Sreekumaran at a shed holding hybrid rice plants at the government-run Rice Research Station near Kochi in southern India

Up until the 1960s, farmers here would plant a traditional rice crop during the monsoon months from May to November and turn the field into a shrimp pond for the rest of the year. The animals’ excreta enriched the soil, and the remnants of last season’s rice plants fed the shrimp larvae, Sreekumaran explains.

The kind of rice they used is called pokkali, which is a Malayalam phrase that roughly translates to, “as tall as a man,” says K.S. Shylaraj, one of Sreekumaran’s colleagues. Soil quality in this region has always been poor given the mild, naturally occurring incursion of salt from the nearby Arabian Sea, and pokkali was a local breed that could tolerate this saline environment.

“This integrated model of planting rice and shrimp was very good for this region,” Sreekumaran says in his facility’s lab, as technicians in white coats snip chunks of plant tissue and prepare them for DNA tests. “But this city metro is just like a balloon growing bigger and bigger and taking away all the pokkali fields.”

Dwindling Plantings

Fifty years ago, about 60,000 acres of land was under this rice-and-shrimp cultivation. Farmers would build embankments to hold rainwater, forming ponds of freshwater for the rice. Over time, the water would percolate down and replenish aquifers. Pressure from the freshwater aquifers kept the salt in check, limiting damage to homes.

But these days, rice is infrequently planted on only about 2,500 acres. Meanwhile shrimp is farmed on about 17,000 acres all year round. Smallholder farmers prefer to sell their property to developers or lease it to shrimp businessmen than plant a crop with such a low return, Sreekumaran says.

I wanted to talk to people who were still alternating pokkali rice and shrimp, but the only ones I could find after three days of crisscrossing the district were a sisterhood of nuns who ran a nearby convent.

When I visited them just before sunset on a Saturday, I found an elderly woman in gray habits watering some plants in the convent’s sprawling campus. Sister Als Maria turned out to be the resident agriculture expert who manages the Catholic trust’s 17 acres of farmland in Neendakara. For every year since 2002, the trust had planted rice in the rainy season and handed over the land to a shrimp businessman for the rest of the year.

Neendakara seawall
Waves from the Arabian sea crash into a seawall near Neendakara village. Groundwater aquifers in coastal areas like this are likely to get saltier as sea levels rise.

“The rice is always making huge losses,” Maria says as we stand chatting in the cool evening light. “All the profits that come from the prawns go to the rice.” Despite the mounting losses, the trust continues to plant rice because one of their senior members, a revered nun who passed away recently, felt it was important to grow rice to give jobs to local women. “We do it in her memory. It’s making a loss but we won’t stop.”

The nun’s experience hasn’t deterred a group of residents determined to bring pokkali back for its environmental benefits. They have seized on a so-called “pokkali law” from 2008 which states that shrimp farms in certain areas can operate only if they switch over to growing rice in the rainy season.

But getting the government to enforce this apparently forgotten law is another matter. Currently, actual enforcement is the resident’s main demand. Their campaign got a boost in 2012 after college professor and political activist Francis Kalathunkal joined their cause. When Kalathunkal, a 53-year old with a bushy, graying mustache, is not teaching English to undergraduates, he is petitioning civil servants, holding community meetings, organizing rallies, and prodding journalists to write about pokkali.

“Since this round-the-year shrimp cultivation has set in, the salt has encrusted the land, and it is impossible to grow vegetables,” Kalathunkal says to a revenue inspector from a neighboring district, as he takes her on a tour of some of the salt-damaged houses one Friday afternoon. About twenty women and children from the village are tailing them, holding placards demanding government action against shrimp farmers. Every home the officer visits has cracks, crumbling bricks, and peeling paint on the walls. One house even has salt crystals blooming like fungi on the floor.

“During the morning, the salt will be on the floor, and she has to sweep those,” Kalathunkal explains. Pitching to the revenue inspector is part of his strategy to win over as many people in the local establishment as possible, to counteract the shrimp lobby’s deep pockets.

At Loggerheads

The shrimp businessmen are increasingly vocal in their opposition to the residents groups. The high price of shrimp lends urgency to their protestations. “Neendakara has some of the best land in Kerala for aquaculture,” shrimp contractor Nickson Edwin says as he stood beside a 120-acre pond he operates with two others. “It makes no sense to grow rice here—it’s just not profitable.”

Still, the residents have persevered, and they have managed to convince a district official to enforce the pokkali law. Last year they planted rice for the first time in 35 years, though they got off to a rocky start. The shrimp contractors handed over the fields four weeks late, and that gave the group little time to clear the salt and prepare the soil before the onset of monsoons. Then, the rains were heavier than expected, and, since the farmers had decided to go organic, some of the produce was lost to birds and insects. At the end of the season, the farmers grew just 0.25 tons per acre, a paltry yield. Conventional rice farms an hour away yielded ten times that.

shrimp ponds Neendakara
Ponds teem with shrimp larvae in Neendakara village. This is the site where local farmers successfully planted rice last year, albeit with poor yields.

Kalathunkal remains undeterred, though, and says last year’s crop has demonstrated that pokkali rice can be successfully grown on soils that are “too toxic” for most vegetables. Saltwater intrusion in aquifers in this part of India is projected to increase as sea levels rise due to climate change, and planting rice can keep the salinity in check.

“Shrimp farming has made the water here very salty, and climate change will only make things worse,” Kalathunkal says, sipping coffee at a single-story village home as waves from the Arabian Sea noisily crashed into a seawall just 50 feet away. “Paddy has to be cultivated here. Only then the freshwater in this soil will be replenished.”

Kalathunkal wants to use pokkali’s unique heritage to market it as an upscale product for which customers pay a hefty premium, like India’s long-grain Basmati rice that is exported around the world. Curious, I later cooked some of the rice at home. It was dark brown with a mild salty taste, though while cooking, it produced a musty odor akin to wet soil. Yet its taste and flavor is prized by locals.

Changing Practices

Neendakara isn’t the only place experimenting with integrated rice and shrimp farming. The practice has independently emerged in other tropical coastal zones as well, such as the vast Bangladesh’s vast, low-lying floodplains and Vietnam’s Mekong delta. Small-scale farmers in Bangladesh routinely plant rice in the rainy season and switch to shrimp and mullet during the dry season, says Michael Phillips, discipline director for aquaculture and genetic improvement at WorldFish, a nonprofit research group working on improving fisheries and aquaculture.

“Bangladesh is getting more salty, so farming systems in the delta are having to be modified,” Phillips says via Skype from his office in Penang, Malaysia. The organization works with about 40,000 farmers who alternate rice with shrimp and fish in their fields, he notes. Integrated farming practices like these are “increasingly vital” as they provide people with a low-cost way of adapting to some climate change effects including sea level rise, Phillips says.

Rice farmers faced with rising salinity can add aquaculture to their mix, and people growing shrimp can plant one season of rice to replenish groundwater. These kinds of traditional aquaculture techniques require fewer inputs like fertilizer, are less risky, and are easier to manage compared to intensive shrimp production systems common in Thailand and the West, he says.

pokkali rice
A sack of pokkali rice is weighed before being handed over to local residents who toiled in the fields.

Yields, however, are much lower than industrial-scale production. A traditional rice-shrimp farm in Bangladesh yields just over 350 pounds of shrimp per acre per year, according to Phillips, compared with almost six tons in Thailand. That’s not enough to meet the skyrocketing consumption around the world. Industrial farms are also needed, says Timothy Flegel, who’s been studying shrimp diseases and aquaculture for more than 20 years, and is now a consultant to Thailand’s National Science and Technology Development Agency. “You need both kinds of systems really,” Flegel says. “The system has to be appropriate for the place it is used.”

With EMS unlikely to abate in Thailand anytime soon, authorities in India are limiting entry of overseas feedstock and larvae to prevent the disease from entering the country’s industrial-scale farms. There was some hope of a cure last year when the source of the disease was discovered—a loop of DNA known as a plasmid had inserted itself to a species of bacteria that’s common in brackish water — converting the usually harmless microbe into a mass killer. But no remedy has been found so far, and most farmers in Thailand have opted to let their farms idle rather than risk a failed harvest, says Flegel, who recently retired from Bangkok’s Mahidol University. That’s placing greater pressure on places like Neendakara to fulfill global demand.

One way to make shrimp farming sustainable, Flegel says, is for policymakers to designate saline zones away from villages and towns where clusters of industrial-scale shrimp farms can operate. And in ecologically sensitive zones like Neendakara, which is a groundwater recharge site, policies should encourage local farmers to operate traditional fisheries that require fewer inputs and are more sustainable.

A Long Road to Sustainability

Meanwhile, residents in the small hamlet have run into yet another roadblock in their quest for sustainability. Unimpressed with last year’s measly harvest, landowners have not handed over their land for rice cultivation. Government officials who had shepherded the cause last year were busy with India’s mammoth elections that just ended in May. Shrimp contractors have so refused to hand over land for rice cultivation and have opted instead to leave their land fallow during the ongoing rainy season. The few farmers who are determined to plant rice, have to deal with labor shortages and fend off pressure from local businessmen keen to ensure year-round aquaculture.

“To a certain extent we are aware that we are fighting a losing battle,” Kalathunkal wrote in an e-mail last month after flooding due to heavy rains damaged some of the pokkali crop. “Should we call it a day and say good bye to the struggle? If so how will the larger interests of society be protected and preserved and what message will we leave for posterity?”

Already, though, residents like Indira Ramanan say that the impact of the one season of rice is visible. Her grandchildren play in the backyard, which is lined with blooms of red and white flowers and shrubs bearing green tomatoes. The family has planted bananas in the bunds separating the shrimp ponds, she says pointing to one of the saplings.

“For the last 25 years, we couldn’t grow anything here, but now after just one year of pokkali, the condition is getting better,” Ramanan says. “We had to suffer a long struggle to bring back the pokkali, and now onwards we won’t agree to just prawn farming anymore. We will plant rice as well.”