The production of shrimp in mangroves brings big profits to a few companies, but at a high cost. The ecological consequences of the expanding aquaculture include the widespread disappearance of an extremely diverse natural habitat, the mangroves, and the social consequences of more difficult economic activity for the local population groups who have known how to use these tropical mudflats sustainably for many centuries.
Honduras is around a third the size of Germany and has around eight million residents. In the west it has access to the Pacific in a relatively small stretch of coast, but most of its coastline is in the east on the Caribbean Sea. The area shown on the map is on the Gulf of Fonseca, a bay on the Pacific Ocean, in which El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua have a share. The climate is tropical and humid with a two-peak rainy season in summer and a dry season in winter.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE MANGROVES
Along with tropical rainforests and cloud forests, mangroves are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems on earth. Their biomass can exceed 400 tons per hectare, with a net primary production twice as high as in Central European forests. Mangrove forests protect coasts from storms and currents, have a dampening effect on tsunamis and fix washed-in sediments. They are the habitat for many fish and shellfish. In the tropics, mangrove trees are used to make wooden houses, boats and furniture because the tannin in them protects against termite damage. The mangrove forests are traditionally a supplier of firewood and charcoal as well as food (fish, mussels and shrimp). In natural medicine, the plants are used to treat asthma, hepatitis, tumors, fever, diarrhea and insect bites.
For millennia, mangrove fringes have been scarcely penetrated peripheries of tropical and subtropical countries with sparse settlements of fishermen who find safe waterways in them. Mangroves have been cleared for several decades. This is happening increasingly quickly and over a wide area. In their place, aquacultures are created.
Shrimps produced in breeding tanks – the usual market name for very different types of shrimp and crabs – enable high economic revenues. Once a rare delicacy, today they have become mass-produced. Almost four million tons of shrimp are currently produced in aquaculture every year, which is around 3.5 times as much as in 2000. Around three quarters of the shrimp produced in aquaculture worldwide come from Asia, the rest from Latin America. Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador and Brazil are important producer countries there.
The ecological costs of shrimp production are high: the mangroves are destroyed, the natural currents and sedimentation are prevented or at least impaired by the construction of canals and dams. The environment is contaminated when the uncleaned water, which has been heavily contaminated with pesticides, antibiotics and leftover feed, is drained from the breeding tanks. The destruction of temporary lagoons affects reptiles and amphibians, many migratory birds are losing their resting places, and the most biodiverse habitats in the country are being decimated.
The Comité para la Defensa de la Flora y Fauna del Golfo de Fonseca (CODDEFFAGOLF), to which fishermen and conservationists belong, has been fighting with protests and blockades against the further destruction of the mangrove fringes since 1988. In 2000, a first nature reserve could be designated. Since then, management plans have been drawn up – which, however, presumably remain toothless as paper tigers and are overwhelmed by the reality of the expansion of aquaculture. This becomes clear in the map: part of the designated nature reserve is already occupied by breeding tanks.
AQUACULTURE IN HONDURAS
In Honduras, the 2,300 square kilometers of mangroves once made up two percent of the country’s area. They are rapidly disappearing and are being replaced by aquaculture. This development becomes clear on the map if one compares the area of the breeding tanks in 1987 and 2013.
The work in shrimp farms consists of setting up and cleaning the breeding tanks, feeding and catching the larvae, decapitating the shrimp and packing the harvest. 90 percent of the employees are women. Temporary work is the rule, guaranteed minimum wages of US $ 3 per day are rare, trade union organizations are banned. The coastal population that does not work for shrimp export is losing access to once public resources on the Pacific coast. That is why there have been several protests and violent clashes between fishermen and shrimp farmers. The latter benefit greatly from the new branch of the economy: shrimp and lobster today achieve export revenues comparable to coffee and bananas.