How We Can Help the Fish Farmers Who Feed Millions in Asia

Digital applications on mobile phones are now available for checking the health status of aquaculture products. Photo: Jindra Nuella Samson
Digital applications on mobile phones are now available for checking the health status of aquaculture products. Photo: Jindra Nuella Samson

By Takashi Yamano, Aya Suzuki

Traditional aquaculture practices are not sustainable. Improved policies and practices are needed to support the fish farmers who feed families in Asia and the Pacific. 

Aquaculture has grown rapidly in Asia in the past three decades. The main impetus for the industry’s surge is the stagnant wild fish catch, which has leveled off at a little above 80 million tons since the 1980s. Since then, aquaculture has been supplying the human consumption of more than 100 million tons of seafood. Asia dominates global aquaculture production, but the aquaculture industry is facing environmental sustainability concerns.

Freshwater fish and shrimp are two major forms of aquaculture in Asia. The increase of fish production from inland aquaculture has reduced fish prices in domestic markets, benefiting poor consumers in Asia. The employment generated in aquaculture is substantial and rising, providing more work for women than the male-dominated wild capture fisheries.

Shrimp farming became widespread after technological innovation intensified the industry in the 1980s. Private actors, notably conglomerates in Japan and Thailand, played important roles in the growth of shrimp aquaculture in Asian countries, such as Viet Nam, strengthening the supply side and expanding global demand as a result.

Viet Nam is an interesting case study. In 2000, Viet Nam allowed the conversion of rice fields to fishponds. Initially, shrimp exports from the country were met with high rejection rates in importing countries, with high antibiotic residue in the product often cited as the main reason. After collaborative efforts of producers, traders, and government agencies, the rejection rates for shrimp exports from Viet Nam have declined. Viet Nam is now one of the world’s largest shrimp producers.

The environmental challenges facing aquaculture include land salinization, which hinders agricultural yields; land subsidence from overuse of groundwater; frequent outbreaks of shrimp and fish diseases under intensified farming methods; misuse of prohibited antibiotics; destruction of mangroves; and dependence on wild fish catch for feed, which depletes marine resources.

Efforts have been taken to mitigate the negative impact on the environment. In Thailand, lab tests for diagnosing shrimp health or water quality are freely available for shrimp farmers who register with the government. Further, the traceability system in Thailand is well structured, requiring a “movement document” to be updated whenever shrimps are transferred between two parties at every stage, from hatcheries to processing factories. Through these efforts, antibiotic residues are no longer an issue in Thailand.

Meanwhile, producer groups share technical and marketing information on social networks. Experienced producers, experts, and academics share tips and check for inappropriate information on these groups. Digital applications on mobile phones are now available for checking the health status of aquaculture products through their photos. Overall, digital technology use can help promote inclusive growth by providing affordable access to technical information and market access to farmers in remote areas.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was the first year in the past 60 years in which aquacultural production declined. Movement restrictions, temporary closures of restaurants and hotels, and extra hygienic practices severely hurt aquaculture producers with reduced demand and increased production costs.

One study estimates the loss due to lockdown policies to be $1.5 billion in the shrimp sector in India. However, in some countries such as Ecuador, Indonesia, and Viet Nam, shrimp production increased despite the difficulties. Notably, in 2020, Ecuador took over the top shrimp exporter position in the world from India.

While the prices remained low, early recovery of the People’s Republic of China’s market and the increased demand for processed food for takeaways in the United States led to the recovery of the global seafood market in the latter part of 2020.

As aquaculture production spread around the world, global competition also intensified. Consumers are becoming more aware of sustainability issues surrounding the sector. The demand for animal products in Asia is expected to grow as consumers in Asia become wealthier and demand more diversity in their diets. Aquaculture production in Asia needs to keep up with the increasing demand while ensuring the sustainability of the growth. Some recommendations are as follows.

First, to ensure that fish farmers follow good practices, governments and supporting organizations should actively use digital technology. Many elements important for sustainable aquaculture, such as water quality and fish health, can be visualized with recent technology and help farmers make appropriate farming decisions. They can also use digital technology to assure traceability from ponds to dining table. This will add to the reputation of the exporting country.

Another difficulty in fish farming is negative spillover across fishponds and to neighboring crop farms via waterways. Some rules and monitoring schemes on the use of water should be put in place, preferably by crop and fish farmers themselves. These kinds of local water governance systems are widely observed around the world among crop and fish farmers who share groundwater for irrigation to protect their local public goods.

Lastly, more research should be conducted on fish farming practices which are appropriate for the small-scale farmers’ environments. While large-scale research and development to raise shrimp fully inland in factory-like facilities have been conducted in developed countries, these are not applicable for smallholders in Asia.

Small-scale farmers themselves have attempted innovative farming methods in the sector, such as raising shrimp in low salinity water, rice-shrimp intercropping or alternate-cropping to control soil salinity and nutrients, and the use of circular ponds rather than square ones to promote better water circulation. These farm-level innovations should be examined more rigorously and promoted if proven effective.

The pandemic has made it clear that former aquaculture practices are not sustainable going forward. Putting the right policies and practices in place will help support fish farmers and the millions of people in Asia and the Pacific who rely on fish to feed their families.