The Journey to Sustainable Shrimp Farming in Belize

As with many countries along a coastline, Belize thrives off of its marine harvest.  Belize’s aquatic harvest, particularly its shrimp yield, makes up a significant portion of its gross domestic product.  Shrimp farms along Belize’s coastline began emerging in the late 20th century in order to industrialize the shrimp harvest and make the process more efficient.  It is easy to see what was attractive about this idea as the coastal wetlands seemed like a natural development target to increase Belize’s potential financially. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to help the brand new country’s market and global notoriety grow, and the industry grew to be valued at $42.14 million in 2004 after only 22 years of existence (Hardesty).  This makes this industry essential to Belize’s prosperity economically.  However, this directly led to an onslaught of environmental issues that shrimp farmers at the time were either not aware of or did not care about.  Belize has a problem with their shrimp farming practices as it has degraded their resiliency to pollution along their coastline; they need to find a more sustainable way of using this important industry.

Much of the shrimp farm development along the coast displaced the mangrove swamps that are vital filtration systems.  Many shrimp farms could be seen outside of our plane window during our arrival in Belize and there were no mangrove forests in sight.  It was a very short-sighted move by Belize, and the long-term result could be disastrous.  Belize’s fisheries and offshore barrier reefs and islands are in a precarious position without these natural filtration systems.  The loss of the natural mangrove swamp filtration system makes Belize’s inner sea vulnerable to the eutrophication associated with agricultural runoff.  We have seen the same thing in the Chesapeake Bay as agriculture has taken the place of many natural filtration systems making the bay susceptible to eutrophication.  This influx of nutrients from the agriculture in Belize is not the only form of pollution as the shrimp farming process itself is also a source.  The shrimp feed is high in nitrogen, and the shrimp only retain roughly 25 percent of the nitrogen in the feed and release the remaining 75 percent into the surrounding ecosystem (Hardesty).  This means that Belize has taken away filtration systems and replaced them with sources of pollution.  As a result, the nutrient levels in Belize’s inner sea have skyrocketed since the industry started in 1982.

The entire industry came under heavy scrutiny in 2004 due to serious violations of environmental standards and heavy losses from disease (Hardesty).  The system in place at the time left Belize in a difficult situation because the new country was benefitting considerably financially but there were a plethora of environmental issues that came with it.  Despite the large amount of money the industry was making Belize they were forced to make some changes, and as a result shrimp aquaculture production dropped off dramatically from 11,000 tons to 3,000 tons in the next two years (Hardesty).  Quite a few companies were forced out of the industry in this chaotic and controversial era of Belize aquaculture, most notably the prominent company Belize Aquaculture.  The industry took a major hit financially, but it was necessary for the environmental changes that needed to happen.  The situation the industry finds itself in today is a significant improvement over what it was like in 2004 and the industry is slowly making a comeback in a more sustainable way.  There is a less harvest in this era and the harvest is more environmentally conscious with closed systems that involve no exchange with the surrounding ecosystem and the Shrimp Aquaculture Dialogue (ShAD) that is spearheading a new standard for environmental health.  The industry realized it has a problem and found some solutions, and many current companies are working with ShAD to improve on the environmental issues surrounding shrimp aquaculture.

Belize has taken noteworthy steps to fix their aquaculture problems in the last decade, but there is still work to be done to help create a sustainable shrimp farming system that benefits both the economy and the environment.  As William Cronon points out, the flaw we have when attempting to understand and control nature and wildness is that we lack a basic understanding of what wildness is and how it functions.  This leads to unforeseen and unfortunate results when we try to integrate ourselves with nature (Cronon).  Belize attempted to work against the natural world for financial reasons and the results were catastrophic.  A sustainable shrimp farming process in Belize is achievable and they are now on the right path.  The system is currently being revolutionized and the future looks bright for shrimp aquaculture in Belize.

Works Cited

Cronon, W. (1995). The Trouble with Wilderness: A Response. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, 69-90.

Hardesty, M. (2015). Threats to the Coast [Powerpoint Slides].

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