Aquaculture, regarded as an environmentally sound practice, can utilise farm resources including farm wastes and generate food and income. On the downside however, shrimp farming, the most lucrative of aquaculture option in the east coast of India, has been leading to pollution of the aquatic environment causing degradation of mangroves and other water resources, which came to light for the first time with a report of National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) on environmental impact of shrimp farming conducted at the instance of Supreme Court (NEERI 1995). Shrimp seed (tiny spawns of Penaeus monodon along estuarine and mangrove belts) extraction from the wild, a practice that is a threat to the ecosystem as most of the by catch is destroyed. The development of hatcheries may have reduced the need for wild caught seed, but the practice is still prevalent because it is believed that wild seeds have more disease resistibility. It is also alleged that the marine fisheries have been affected through reduction in catches of both fish and shrimp due to shrimp farming activity (C Vasudevappa et al., 2002, ‘Literary review of Shrimp Farming in India’).
The rationale behind promotion of shrimp farming activities under aquaculture by various government agencies in India was to promote export earning, produce nutritive food, generate employment and income and raise the living standards of coastal poor. But mushrooming of shrimp farms with the sole intension of profit during early 1990s led to negative fallouts such as use of huge pumps, displacement and unemployment of traditional fisher people, fall in agricultural productivity with shift in landuse. The studies of NEERI indicated that the cost of ecological and social damages to the tune of Rs 63,050 million and Rs 4230 million for Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu by far exceeds the benefits of the state earnings of Rs 14,980 million and Rs 2800 million, respectively.
The shrimp seed collection ban
In response to the various conflicts that arose from the shrimp aquaculture sector, social workers and environmentalists filed a petition with the Indian Supreme Court in 1994. The petition sought a ban on non-traditional aquaculture farms in the coastal regulation zone (CRZ) through the enforcement of the 1991 CRZ Notification. At the request of the Supreme Court, NEERI investigated the social and environmental costs of shrimp farming in 1995. It was estimated that these costs far exceeded the economic benefits of aquaculture farms and in December 1996, the Supreme Court responded by placing a number of stringent restrictions on intensive, semi-intensive and extensive shrimp aquaculture in the coastal zone—pronouncing a ban by the Supreme Court in 1996 against wild seed collection. The Coastal Aquaculture Authority Act, 2005 thus banned the collection of wild seeds for aquaculture purpose. As per the clause 8.1 of the Guidelines issued under the above Act, only healthy and pathogen free seed from registered hatcheries should be used for stocking; and,
Seed collection from the natural resources should be banned by the State Government with a view to protect a large spectrum of fin and shell fish species from being destroyed.
Accordingly, state governments enacted a ban on seed collection from the wild. However, in the current scenario, even though it is illegal, groups of men and women of all ages row their boats to large river intersections and pull their nets for six or seven hours. In fact in the book by A Jalais (2009), ‘Forest of Tigers’, it is observed that the people of Sundarban use two techniques to collect shrimp seed stock: one that requires a boat, the other can be done from the riverbank.
Case Study: Raichak
Travelling into the heart of estuarine West Bengal, Raichak, a survey conducted by GnY in 2008 revealed hundreds of fishermen collecting little creatures from the turbid waters of the River Hoogly. Wild shrimp seed in the Hoogly estuary in eastern India, even today, remains widespread and engages a greater part of the river bank population. During peak season (May-June), the entire village collects shrimp seed—the collectors, a wide array of people, from young boys with small sieves and active seasonal fishermen with several gears to women who use indigenously fashioned nets to glean the waters. The middlemen who procure the seed, usually visit the area twice a day to purchase the seed from the collectors. They then sell it further, to affluent aquaculturists.
Most dominating gears in wild seed collection in Hoogly estuary are push and bag nets. Gears used for the operation are very fine sized mesh (mosquito nets with about 1 mm mesh), nets and trawls, manually hauled or passively set against the tidal current. The bag net is preferred due to its relatively small size, easy manageability and its efficiency as compared with the other gears available.
To segregate the shrimp seed, the fisherman uses a small plastic plate, spoon or bivalve shell to lift up the shrimp juveniles. The shrimp seed differs depending on gear as well as seasonal and hydrological conditions and the daily catch during peak season can be as much as 100 to 500. The daily price per seed differs between seasons as well as time of the day. On an average the middleman will pay about Rs 0.20 to 0.50 per seed but in the study area, researchers found the price to be as high as Rs 1 for a single 5 mm sized seed.
Apart from the dubious efficacy of the system, with large numbers perishing during multiple transfers—what is more worrisome is that during shrimp seed segregation, other finfish and aqua species that are caught are destroyed. This bycatch, dominated by cnidarians, molluscs, other crustaceans and fish larvae was observed to be emptied on to the levee where it quickly sundried and died. Data procured from here showed a target species ratio of 7 per cent only. Thus there remains an enormous gap between bycatch and target species.
Life cycle of a shrimp
For all known members of the penaeid family, the development from egg to adult, are similar. It is characterised by the change of habitat, depending on the developmental stage, where the adults spend their lives offshore and spawn at depths of 30 to 60 m. When the egg hatches the nauplii start feeding on plankton. In the post larval stage they migrate to near shore areas, like estuaries or mangrove coasts—the nursery grounds. In this nutrient rich water further growth takes place and when the shrimp is in its subadult stage it migrates again to offshore areas. We were unable to procure data on mortality rates during collection and segregation but transportation from the middlemen to the stocking ponds resulted in a mortality rate of 4 to 10 per cent according to the survey although overall mortality rates is understood to be well above 40-60 per cent.
The survey findings
The Raichak area was visited in early May 2007 and consequently in November 2008. Information about fishing methods in wild seed collection was collected through open ended interviews with seed collectors and by direct observations. Information about daily and seasonal catch, price, market channels and distribution of wild seed was collected through interviews with village heads and middlemen. A total of 100 households were surveyed and in most cases information was cross checked by repeated interviews separated by days. Most of the interviews with local government were conducted in English and the interviews with the local people were conducted in a Bengali dialect. Worth mentioning here is that although the seed collectors were unperturbed there was a scepticism about our team asking questions about seed collection, especially among the middlemen. For example it took several visits to assure people that we were not ‘government people’.
Data for calculating bycatch ratios in Raichak was gathered from two samples collected during incoming high tide. Two bag nets were set perpendicular to the tidal flow at a location used by Hannan, a local seed collector. The gear measured 7 meter in length and 1 meter in height. The mesh size was about 0.5 to 2 mm. This set of gear was chosen due to the locality and the fisherman’s experience. The samples (catches) were bought from the fisherman.
The local seed collectors cite a decrease in wild seed abundance over the past years. The daily catch could be 100 to 500 seed per active fisherman per day during peak season in a recall period of ten years. Our survey however showed, on an average only 60 to 100 seed per head/day was collected during the survey period of early May.
Once the fishermen and their families segregate the shrimp seed from the rest of the catch they sell it as soon as possible as the catch is fragile and easily perishable. Although the shortest chain of distribution would be in two steps where the collector sells directly to a farmer, this does not happen in Raichak, or as literature suggests, in any other area practicing seed collection. The seed collector sells his catch to another collector, a ‘mobile buyer’ who usually visits the area twice a day. The mobile buyer often travels on a scooter or a cycle (one buyer had a ‘scooter van’, a contraption which is a cycle driven cart fitted with an engine) with some Styrofoam boxes. The engagement in seed collection is however not a year-long occupation. During off season seed collectors go for deep river fishing or to a lesser extent agricultural work. Only a few persons, about 18 per cent of the total household surveyed are totally dependent on seed collection all year around.
Even though most studies related to shrimp seed collection is localised and a pan India study is still awaited, insights indicate that the bycatch ratios can be staggering. It is important that the mangrove areas of coastal India, which sees a preponderance of wild shrimp seed collection and acts as a natural nursery for a plethora of marine life and should be enduringly protected. If the bycatch could be released back into the waters, the impact of seed collection on the ecosystem would perhaps be minimised—however, most fishermen tilt the bycatch onto the levee where they quickly die in the tropical heat. It is pertinent to understand why the practice does not involve bycatch release—is it time saving? It is fairly flummoxing as segregation takes place in the absolute vicinity of water. But, then again, even if the finfish and other juveniles were to be put back into the water, would they survive the abrasion and the relentless heat?
Experts cite various reasons as to why the ban is without effect. Firstly, the demand for wild seed continues unabated with aquaculturists holding a preference for them due to their better survival rates despite the availability of hatchery fry at lower costs. Secondly, in a resource mismanaged country’s list of priorities, manpower to control and educate the perpetrators falls in the lowest of categories—loosening the lawmakers grip. But, thirdly and most importantly, without alternative livelihood opportunities the poor, landless farmers keep coming back to the mangrove banks to eke out a living. As it is currently configured, the ban only penalises the poorest in the fry marketing chain and does not apply to the sale, transport, storage, and stocking of wild seed. If a concerted effort is to be made in reducing the harvesting of wild seed, then incentives for collecting the fry must be removed. This means that the ban should be targeted to farmers and traders that are seeking the fry, not only the suppliers.
It is unlikely that the demand for wild seed will diminish in the near future because the quality of hatchery-produced fry is an issue that needs to be resolved—with low disease resistance, high mortality and a high demand-supply gap. In a scenario like this the least that we can do is perhaps review the variety of gears at the outset and regulate the size of mesh to minimise the adverse effects of seed collection. Trainings and programmes for seed collectors could also significantly reduce bycatch destruction. Moreover, better hatcheries with higher quality of fry, guaranteed certified with the seal of quality from competent Indian authorities is the order of the day, as also are NGO consortium that work towards not only better practices but alternative livelihoods for the local fisherpeople engaged in exploitative practices such as shrimp seed collection.