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It was a profitable venture in the the 1980s and 1990s. But shrimp farming, the livelihood of many in the Sunderbans, has hit a terrible low.
12 / 2008
Squatting on the slippery, clay-covered jetty, her thin cotton saree dripping wet, Meena Sahu, scoops water out of her bucket with a broken clam shell, transfers it to a white enamelled iron bowl and counts the fine, threadlike prawn seedlings that are now clearly visible. “Twenty-five…28… 29…” her lips count silently as she squints into the bowl. All morning Sahu has been treading the shallows by her island village, Dulki, dragging a fine mesh net behind her. Sahu is a meendhara, a seedling catcher.
Like thousands of other women, children and sometimes, even men, in the Sunderbans, she stands in waist deep water for up to 10 hours a day, trawling for bagda meen, or black tiger shrimp seedlings.
Every 1,000 live seedlings she catches will fetch Sahu Rs 60 from the arabdar, local trader, who will then sell them to shrimp farms and wholesale markets, further inland for at least twice the price. The farms will sell the grown prawns to big export companies that will behead, freeze and ship them to Japan, the us and eu countries. Some of Sahu’s seedlings could well land up in the us $25 (Rs 1,220) shrimp cocktail of a high-end Manhattan restaurant.
It takes Sahu up to six days to catch 1,000 seedlings. She makes about Rs 240 a month from this work, barely enough for even one person to scrape by, even in this remote region of West Bengal. “Fifteen years ago I could have got up to Rs 1,800, for 1,000 seedlings, but it’s different now,” she said. Market, technology and environmental concerns related to the shrimp industry have changed over the years, leading to a change in the fortunes of meendharas like her.
The money trail
Shrimp aquaculture in coastal West Bengal dates back over 200 years to a time when it was carried out within a mixed rice-shrimp polyculture system. Paddy fields were allowed to flood at the beginning of the growing season, permitting young wild shrimps to enter the fields. The full-sized shrimps were gathered after harvesting paddy. In the 1950s and 1960s, this system led to the establishment of permanent ponds, behries, which were stocked almost entirely with wild-caught seedlings. According to the state government’s figures, brackish water farms cover an estimated 48,000 ha of the West Bengal coast. Of this about 4,678 hectares is under commercial farming; traditional behries take up the remaining area.
Shrimp farming took off in a big way in India’s coastal states in the late 1980s when the government began exporting shrimp to Japan, the us and eu nations. Around this time, West Bengal’s export of fishery products, which almost exclusively is in frozen shrimp, grew exponentially—from about Rs 2.5 crore in the 1970s to over Rs 60 crore in the 1980s.
The sharp rise in exports proved a windfall for the people of Sunderbans since the region was the only source of black tiger seedlings for breeding farms that were sprouting up all along India’s eastern and south-western coastline. By the early 1990s, shrimp seedlings had become a major source of income for many impoverished families in the Sunderbans. The market was booming and a family could earn more than Rs 7,000 or more a month working their nets. “The catch varies from season to season, but it is the highest around September and October when high tides bring in seedlings that have hatched during the monsoons,” Sahu said.
Tiger prawns live in the sea but enter the innumerable rivers and creeks of the Sunderbans to lay their eggs. The spawns make their way back to the sea and that is when the meendharas trap them in their nets. The work is fraught with danger. “The muddy waters are infested with dog sharks, called kamots locally, and crocodiles,” said Tushar Kanjilal, a school teacher who has spent over three decades working on rural development in the Sunderbans. “Around ten fatal crocodile attacks are documented here every year. Shark attacks are common but most are not documented. Sharks don’t kill, but bite off chunks of flesh. Often victims don’t realize until the water around them turns red,” he said.
But the lure of additional income is strong among these villagers. Anthropologist Annu Jalias of the London School of Economics, who has worked extensively in the region, said that before the introduction of prawn collection, many islanders had barely enough to eat. Those who owned no land made a living working in the mangrove forests collecting wood and honey from the forests and hunting for crabs in the shallows.
“The first blow to the meendharas was the development of hatcheries in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh in the early 1990s where seedlings could be bred artificially,” said Harekrishna Debnath, chairperson of the National Fishworkers’ Forum, Kolkata. However, this initially had little impact on their incomes because these seedlings had a high mortality rate and the demand for wild seedlings remained high.
Then in 1995-96 a lethal virus, white spot syndrome virus, swept through shrimp farms all over coastal India. The virus would eliminate the entire shrimp crop within days and has no cure till date, according to researchers at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (cmfri) in Chennai. Around the same time, environmentalists and land rights activists in coastal India began to protest conversion of fertile agricultural land into brackish water holding commercial shrimp farms and the resultant alienation of small farmers and degradation of coastal ecology.
Following a public interest litigation filed by noted Tamil Nadu land rights activist Sankaralingam Jagannathan, the Supreme Court in December 1996 banned semi-intensive shrimp farming in India. The court held that fishing farms had to be at least 500 metres from the coastline and could not use prime agricultural land, wetlands, mangroves, estuaries, saltpans, public land and government land. In compliance with the verdict, many farms were demolished and the Coastal Aquaculture Authority was set up to regulate coastal aquaculture in the country. “These two factors effectively closed down shrimp farming in the country for four years. The industry nearly went bankrupt,” said Debnath.
During this period, ecologists began to express concern about the method used to collect seedlings in the Sunderbans. “The practice is ecologically unsound because the superfine nets the meendharas use to trap the seedlings pull out many other varieties of fish, shrimp and their seedlings that are carelessly thrown aside,” said Kanjilal. “This is leading to severe depletion of local shrimp and fish populations.” He added that constant treading along the fragile shorelines by the fisherfolk was loosening mud along the edges of the islands and contributing to island erosion—a serious problem in the delta where land and water constantly engage in a tug-of-war.
In 1995, the state government banned gathering wild seedling, but in the absence of alternative employment and negligible monitoring, the meendharas continued their traditional occupation. “We can’t stop them because they need to make a living,” said Madhumita Mukherjee, joint secretary, state fisheries department. « We are trying to set up alternative livelihood options such as animal rearing and are currently looking for funds. »
Competition and trade curbs
“These days more people are opting for seedlings from hatcheries in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, which can be bought for Rs 200 per 1,000 and are a hardier breed. Viral infection is more in the natural breeds, so demand for that is less,” said Taj Mohammad, president of the Seafood Exporters Association of India of the Sunderbans region.
A more recent development affecting the meendharas is the significant fall in the quantum of shrimp exports. Although frozen shrimp continues to be the major export item from India, its share in the total export basket this year dropped to 42 per cent from 52 per cent in the last fiscal year. “The worldwide economic crisis has dealt a big blow to the industry,” said Mohammad. Many seafood importers have cancelled orders, he added. Shrimp priced at us $10 (Rs 500) per kg in international market last year has plummeted to us $7 per kg. According to Debnath, given the current inflation rates, the market price should have been about us $14.
In fact, exports to the us have been on the decline since 2004 when, under pressure from its domestic shrimp producers, the country imposed an average of 10.54 per cent anti-dumping duty on foreign shrimp shipments (duties ranged from 24.52 per cent to 4 per cent for various export companies depending on specific product, company’s product performance and volume).
Quality control continues to be an issue. Last year, the eu rejected 45 shrimp shipments from India following detection of antibiotic residues. Till June 2008, it had rejected 10 shipments, Mohammad said
“They also say our sanitation and packaging are not up to international standards, but actually all these are arm-twisting methods to further open up Indian markets to fish imports, so that the West in turn can dump their seafood on us,” Debnath said. “While they penalize us, they give export tariff exemptions to developing countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Guatemala. So now we have to compete with their products,” he added.
White over black
Another big setback that further deflated black tiger shrimp prices has been a rise in demand of a white variety of shrimp, L Vannamei— a natural inhabitant of the Pacific coast of Equador and Mexico, that is not found in India. It is in high demand in the us and many Asian countries, and its cultivation has become very popular in countries like China and Thailand.
Production costs for L Vannamei prawns are lower and meat yield is higher, cmfri researchers said. Indian exporters have long been demanding they be allowed to bring in this species into the country, but the Coastal Aquaculture Authority of India opposed it saying it was not sustainable. “Foreign shrimp could destroy native tiger shrimp populations in the Sunderbans and other coastal areas,” cmfri researchers said.
However, following pressure from seafood exporters, earlier this year, the Union Ministry of Agriculture granted permission to farm L Vannamei. The brood stock has not been imported yet, so it remains to be seen how the white shrimp will fare in India.
Till then, in the Sunderbans, meendharas like Sahu still have some hope of an income, albeit much curtailed.
This sheet is also available in French: La crevette ne paie pas
CSE, Down To Earth, 1-15th November 2008
The organisation Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), based in New Delhi (India) researches into, lobbies for and communicates the urgency of development that is both sustainable and equitable.
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