The Wal-Mart Effect:Cleaner Thai Shrimp Farms

The Fish Site
by The Fish Site
24 July 2007, at 1:00am

US - Amid the fishing villages of Chanthaburi Province, bracketed by the Gulf of Thailand and the Khao Soi Dao mountains, the inherently messy trade of shrimp farming is undergoing an environmental overhaul spearheaded by Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Thai shrimp farms such as those operated by Rubicon use mechanized paddle wheels to churn the water in the ponds and thus infuse oxygen into the water. The practice helps counter nitrogen produced by raising the shrimp.

The destruction of mangrove swamps and the pollution of natural waterways with waste from shrimp ponds has long drawn the ire of environmentalists, but in the past two years, Rubicon Resources LLC, a Los Angeles-based supplier of farmed shrimp to Wal-Mart, has bought and upgraded roughly 150 Thai shrimp farms. Among Rubicon's changes: increasing the testing and documentation of what is in its ponds, planting mangrove elsewhere to make up for the trees destroyed by its farms and standardizing treatment of the water discharged from its ponds.

Rubicon is pushing to meet a year-end deadline that all phases of shrimp production adhere to environmental and social standards backed by Wal-Mart, Red Lobster operator Darden Restaurants Inc. and other big buyers. The US-based industry group that drafted the standards, the Global Aquaculture Alliance, plans to unveil similar guidelines this year for farming of tilapia and catfish, with standards for salmon following later. Wal-Mart pledges to endorse those, too, and to require compliance from its suppliers. But the new standards come with controversy. An estimated 80 per cenr of Thai shrimp farms - most of them small operations run by families living on-site - either lack the resources to make necessary upgrades or balk at the certification fees as costs they likely won't recover. That could widen the gap between the haves and have-nots in Thai shrimp farming and world aquaculture as a whole, providing a greater advantage to large, well-capitalized suppliers like Rubicon.

Shrimp is the largest seafood crop imported to the US, totaling 590,299 metric tons last year. And Thailand, home to one of Asia's most advanced aquaculture industries, is the largest exporter of shrimp to the US - $1.28 billion worth annually. Aquaculture - the practice of raising fish, crustaceans or mollusks in captivity for human consumption - is gaining importance as wild fish populations dwindle. If current consumption rates continue, a 2006 scientific study predicted, all wild aquatic species currently harvested for food will fall below a tenth of their largest historic population by 2050.

Roughly half of the seafood consumed globally is already farm-raised, and as that expands, Wal-Mart and others are seeking to reduce the environmental problems it often leaves in its wake.

Source: The Wall Street Journal Online