But the trail of destruction that followed in the wake of the shrimp farming boom is not pretty.
"Businessmen chopped the trees, excavated the land and bred their shrimps. After a few years, the land became unsuitable, and they moved to a new plot," says Maritime Institute Malaysia senior researcher Tan Kim Hooi.
He explained that the shrimp ponds of those days only lasted between two and five years. After some years, the soil became too acidic and water quality deteriorated, lowering prawn yields.
"It’s what we call the ‘rape-and-run’ business."
Fish in focus
This year’s focus on fisheries for World Wetlands Day is one reflection of how seriously global environment giants are taking the aquaculture issue.
Some of the concerns, says the Ramsar report, are the industry’s heavy dependency on antibiotics and hormones, the use of wild fish as a food source and the introduction of non-native species.
It’s like clearing a natural forest to build a chicken farm. You lose thousands of plants and animals, but at least you can sell the chickens.
In Bangladesh, according to a report by international NGO Mangrove Action Project, 10 agricultural jobs were lost for every job created in aquaculture. In Andhra Pradesh, shrimp aquaculture generated US$500 million. But estimated losses from environmental damage cost US$2 billion.
The report went on to say that for every dollar earned by the industry, four was being lost by the people, the coastal ecology and therefore the country as a whole.
But the industry got hit most badly when a worldwide shrimp epidemic called White Spot Syndrome Virus broke out in the mid 1990s.
The disease, which caused prawns to literally curl up and die within days of being infected, heralded a grim end to many a shrimp-harvesting dream.
In recent years, a tighter rein had been put on aquaculture activities, says Tan. Guidelines which took environmental sustainability into account had been imposed on the industry, ensuring that at least a measure of control was exercised.
"Prawn farms now are supposed to be built further inland away from the mangroves, and the good farms line the bottom of their ponds properly," he says.
But the damage of yesteryear has been done, leaving the world with an estimated 250,000 hectares of abandoned shrimp ponds.
Source: New Straits Times Online