Thailand: The real cost of a shrimp dinner

2 June 2014

Considered a delicacy by many, shrimp has become increasingly popular on our plates in the last years as the cost of this once pricey item have gone down. Yet few are aware of the social and environmental issues that mar the industry. In its new hotspot, shrimp in Thailand, Fairfood will peel away the misconceptions surrounding our favourite crustacean and shed light on the real cost of the Thai shrimp industry. Stay up to date on this topic by following us on Facebook and  Twitter.

Close your eyes and take a moment to picture the origin of this much-loved seafood. Do you see a small fishing boat drifting on the ocean, hauling in its nets? Guess again. Much of the shrimp we consume actually come from shrimp farms. When wild harvests couldn’t keep up with the increasing global demand, several countries in Asia and Latin-America started experimenting with aquaculture in the 1970s and 80s. Thailand was one of the countries that saw the potential of the industry and is now the world’s biggest exporter of shrimp, supplying the American, European and Japanese markets.

Thirty years later, shrimp aquaculture has turned into a complex industry that generates employment for many. The shrimp are bred at special hatcheries, cultivated at one of the 25,000 shrimp farms, peeled and prepared by the processing industry and then exported. In addition, there is a whole industry that provides the farms with feed for the shrimp and other necessary inputs. In sum, shrimp are a high value product, and the industry in Thailand is worth over one billion USD.

However, this wealth doesn’t trickle down to every level of the production chain. In the processing industry, unreasonable working hours of twelve or more hours a day and an insufficient income far below Thai minimum wage are rife. In general, jobs in the fishery industry are known as 3D-work: dirty, dangerous and demeaning. Thailand is officially an upper-middle income country now, and as the country has become more developed, this type of work has become increasingly less popular. As such, it can hardly be surprising that Thailand attracts a large foreign work force from its less well-off neighbours. According to the Thailand Development Research Institute, migrant workers make up more than half of the workforce in the fishing and associated industries and do the work Thais no longer want to do. The same institute has also discovered that migrant workers face higher levels of discrimination and exploitation in the fishery industry than in any other industry in the country.

In Samut Sakhon, the heartland of the Thai fishing industry, the majority of migrants come from adjacent Burma. Research indicates that 20 to 30 percent of Burmese migrant workers are trapped in forced labour: they are brought to Thailand under false pretenses and coerced to work because of debts or threats to themselves or their loved ones and then further subjected to exploitative working conditions. A study from the Thailand Development Research Institute has also revealed that child labour is used in the industry, the majority of whom are also migrants. These children are subject to the worst forms of child labour.

The boom in the industry has also put pressure on local ecosystems. Trawlers that fish for so-called “trash fish” to feed the hungry shrimp, damage marine life as their nets drag across the ocean beds and bring in all types of fish, as well as endangered species. Estimates indicate that almost two kilos of trash fish are required to produce one kilo of shrimp, which has raised the discussion as to whether aquaculture actually helps to protect wild marine resources.

Furthermore, effluent from the shrimp ponds has severely degraded water quality in central Thailand. Shrimp excrement and uneaten food in the water provoke detrimental levels of nutrients in addition to the fertilizers, pesticides, disinfectants and antibiotics farmers use to sustain intensive forms of aquaculture. Depending on the type of pond, water and residual sludge may be disposed of in surrounding areas several times during the cultivation process or after the harvest to manage water quality within the basin. Not only water quality is affected: since young shrimp do well in brackish water, it is estimated that about a third of Thailand’s mangrove forests have been cleared in order to construct ponds close to sea water, despite a ban on felling mangrove. Additionally, effluent from nearby shrimp farms also negatively impacts the remaining mangrove forests and the high levels of salt in the water cause a loss of loss of soil productivity in surrounding areas and abandoned farms.

With the extensive ecological and human rights violations linked to the Thai shrimp industry, Fairfood finds that our seafood dinners come at a high social and environmental cost. While the price of shrimp has gone down, local communities and workers are paying the price. That is why Fairfood wants to make the shrimp industry more sustainable.

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