NEWS Shrimps and Shorebirds: Allies for Commerce and Conservation?


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*By James Lowen

How shrimp producers in Mexico and Central America are supporting migratory shorebirds in ways that may also help their own business.

Some shrimp producers may find it hard to think of birds as friends. Many farms are visited by cormorants, which swim underwater to catch shrimp. Understandably, farmers often considered them pests. Shorebirds, however, pose the industry no such problem.

Being unable to dive or feed easily in deep water, shorebirds cannot feed on the shrimp. Nor do they compete with shrimp for food such as small worms: shorebirds can only access ponds following harvest, when they have been drained – and they depart within a few days, once the ponds are dry. Nobody will lose money because shorebirds visit their farm. Their hunger does shrimp producers no harm.

The shorebirds are particularly famished because they need to replenish energy levels after migrating thousands of kilometers, typically from nesting grounds in the Arctic. Many still have a long journey ahead, as they spend the rest of the year in South America. This life cycle means that shorebirds connect the entire Americas, including key markets for the shrimp industry.

Red Knot (Calidris canutus), for example, is a medium-sized shorebird that turns brick-red in summer and whose global population is plummeting. In 2020, one marked with a green tag on its leg was spotted at Seajoy’s Acuícola Real shrimp farm in Nicaragua. In the previous eleven years, the very same individual had also been seen as far away as Massachussetts and Delaware (United States) and in Ontario (Canada).

Thousands of semipalmated and western sandpipers in Acuicola Real Shrimp Farm, Gulf of Fonseca, Nicaragua. © Salvadora Morales.
Shorebird Friendly Shrimp Farms

Shorebirds face increasing challenges from our modern world, so nearly half of all Arctic-breeding species are getting ever rarer. Their extinction is no longer an outlandish thought. In a world without people, shorebirds would refuel at natural wetlands such as estuaries.

But human activities have changed landscapes, so shorebirds increasingly find traditional stopover points built upon, degraded or polluted. Along some coastlines of Mexico and Central America, such as the Gulf of Fonseca (shared between El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua) – this means that shorebirds now often find food more easily in man-made wetlands… such as shrimp ponds.

In this way, many shrimp farms in the Americas now serve as vital restaurants for dozens of shorebird species. In northwest Mexico, 25,000 shorebirds of 25 species have been counted feeding on drying shrimp ponds, including an astonishing 22,000 tiny, short-legged Western Sandpipers (Calidris mauri) crowding onto a single pond. Shrimp farms also serve as ‘hotels’.

When high tides swamp coastlines, shorebirds need dry land nearby on which to rest, such as dikes between shrimp ponds. Four per cent of the entire regional population of the larger, longer-legged Willet (Tringa semipalmata) recuperate on dikes at Acuícola Real, a Nicaraguan farm run by SEAJOY (part of the Canada-based Cooke Inc.).

Beyond ‘restaurants’ and ‘hotels’, some farms also provide year-round ‘homes’ for shorebirds. Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) – tall, pied birds with impossibly long, bright pink legs – often lay eggs and raise chicks on the dikes. In Nicaragua, one in three Wilson’s Plovers (Charadrius wilsonia) now lives on a shrimp farm.

Black-necked stilt nesting on the edge of a shrimp pond. © Juanita Fonseca.

Many shrimp producers have grasped the importance of their land for these special birds. Several are actively helping them, with the support of conservationists. Shrimp producers in Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras and Panama have worked with the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN, an international conservation organization) to identify good aquaculture practices that promote shorebird conservation, says WHSRN’s Salvadora Morales.

In 2019, SEAJOY also organized a workshop in Nicaragua, which sought to build alliances for shorebird conservation in shrimp-production areas. Among ten companies and government bodies attending were Camaronera de Nicaragua S.A., the Playa Hermosa Cooperative, Sahlman Seagoods and Aquamar.

Participants put together an action plan focused on research, monitoring and management. SEAJOY ran a similar workshop in Honduras, attended by shrimp producers including Grupo Granjas Marinas, Grupo Litoral, Rivermar, El Faro and Milcien. Participants agreed a vision of “using best practices for shorebird conservation” by 2030.

Ismael Wong, General Manager of the SEAJOU/COOKE Group, receiving recognition for his collaboration in the conservation of shorebirds in the Gulf of Fonseca, Nicaragua. © Salvadora Morales.
Shorebird Friendly Production Practices

So, what do emerge ‘best practices’ look like? What can a shrimp producer do cheaply on extensive or semi-intensive farms that helps shorebirds, without harming its own operations? According to Morales, a kaleidoscope of more than 30 actions have been identified.

The first step involves “documenting which shorebirds use the farm”, and when and where – a process with which local birdwatchers can help. Equipped with this information, producers can “actively identify and protect important sites where shorebirds concentrate,” Morales explains. This can be done in several ways. Hector Corrales of Grupo Granjas Marinas considers that the “best example of our farms’ good management practices that help shorebirds” involves constructing dikes with shallower slopes.

These, Corrales explains, “are less affected by erosion; as a consequence, more beach exists, providing ideal habitat for shorebirds”. Restricting vegetation on dikes to no more than 30% also helps. Morales suggests complementing these actions by “minimizing disturbance to shorebirds using the dikes to roost”, including through signs restricting vehicle speeds in key areas.

There is also evidence that harvesting ponds sequentially rather than simultaneously would provide shorebirds with a steady supply of just-harvested feeding areas. After harvesting, leaving pond gates open for a few days would allow tidal water to enter, which, in turn, would prolong their suitability as shorebird feeding grounds. Such small changes would have big benefits for birds.

Shrimp pond in harvest process. © Juanita Fonseca.

Although these measures may cost little and interfere minimally with operations, why should a shrimp producer bother with them – other than for the pure love of nature, of course? One reason, Morales suggests, is that “shorebirds can unite communities, producers and conservationists – which is not so common in the industry”.

In 2021, WHSRN and SEAJOY ran shorebird festival at Nicaragua’s Delta del Estero Real, as part of environmental-education activities carried out by local companies and CAMANICA, a Spanish firm. “With the industry’s help, boys and girls from nearby communities learnt about local shorebirds,” Morales says.

Economic Benefit of Receiving Shorebirds

Community engagement provides value for producers. Ecotourism – charging people to watch birds on shrimp farms – is a possible complement. Another intriguing idea is that conservation organizations might ‘rent’ shorebird-suitable habitat on shrimp farms during critical months.

But the ultimate goal of shorebird-friendly shrimp aquaculture would, WHSRN’s Juanita Fonseca suggests, be to “provide economic benefits to producers for implementing good practices that help shorebird conservation”. generate direct commercial benefit through: shorebird-friendly shrimp.

Although WHSRN’s Juanita Fonseca acknowledges that a new, independently certified product – shorebird-friendly shrimp – targeting environmentally aware consumers offers “no market benefits for producers today”, there are already moves to make it part of tomorrow’s marketplace.

Birdwatching and visiting a shrimp farm in Sinaloa, Mexico. © José Ramón Ávalos.

Environmental certification is nothing new to forward-thinking members of the industry, of course. Many are familiar with Best Aquaculture Practices, GlobalGap, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) or the European standards ISO22000 and ISO14000 as means to access ‘premium’ markets. Grupo Granjas Marinas and SEAJOY, are among companies whose Central American operations are ASC-certified. This approach makes increasing commercial sense.

The 2021 Power of Seafood report – published by FMI, The Food Industry Association – found that 41% of seafood consumers say sustainable certification has a major impact on their purchases, up from 29% in 2019. Grupo Granjas Marinas, Corrales explains, has long been “differentiating a product generated following the strictest environmental controls”, in order to “gain access to customers with the highest social and environmental demands”. Collaborating with WHSRN, he says, “fits with our ethos of producing responsibly and differentiating our product in the best markets”.

“The problem is that no current certification system encompasses shorebirds, despite their global importance. So how might shrimp producers be recognized for helping these waterbirds? One path is for companies to integrate shorebird-related actions into internal environmental management plans.”

Another option, Fonseca explains, is to “integrate some good practices into existing certification schemes” – an approach that WHSRN has been investigating. Providing habitat used by thousands of shorebirds could, after all, be considered evidence of a production system consistent with maintaining ecological balance.

“However,” Fonseca says, “we consider that creating a new certified label focused on shorebirds would be ideal”. She is aware that a developing new, ‘shorebird-friendly’ kitemark will not be easy, given the costs involved and uncertainty of payback. Indeed, as Corrales observes from a producer perspective, “unfortunately, in reality new certifications are usually not accompanied by better prices”. Nevertheless, Fonseca and other colleagues are enthused by a recent report from Seafood Business Solutions.

“The consultancy interviewed consumers, restaurants and distributors in Sinaloa, Mexico, to assess options and opportunities for the creation of a certified label supporting the habitat of migratory shorebirds. Although distributors showed little interest, consumers and restaurants were enthusiastic.”

Both were willing to ‘put their money where their mouth is’: four-fifths of restaurants and two-thirds of consumers were willing to pay a premium ranging from 2–10% for certified shorebird-friendly shrimp.

And that was just in Sinaloa, let alone target markets further afield. Evidence from other productive industries suggests strong prospects for bird-friendly shrimp in North America and Europe. The Southern Cone Grasslands Alliance unites hundreds of cattle-ranchers across four South American countries. As well as helping rare and migratory birds, certified biodiversity-friendly beef has been exported to Europe since 2014, where it commands higher prices.

Shrimp farms in Ensenada de Pabellones, Sinaloa, Mexico. © Medardo Cruz.

Coffee-drinkers have long willingly paid extra to support favored causes. Organic, Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance certification systems are commonplace in Europe and North America. A recent addition is ‘shade-grown’ coffee: Central and South American producers receive a market premium for delivering coffee from plants grown under a rainforest canopy where 40 types of North American-breeding songbirds spend the winter.

The US market share Bird Friendlyâ coffee may be under 0.5%, but in a retail market worth $47 billion and with an estimated 45 million birdwatchers in the country, helping birds offers great commercial rewards.

A third example of a specific bird-friendly certification system comes from the other side of the world. IBIS Rice pays Cambodian farmers a supplement to produce hand-grown jasmine rice grown in ways that help save endangered birds such as Giant Ibis (Thaumatibis gigantea). In March 2022, IBIS Rice’s UK market received a huge boost following endorsement by Chris Packham, a celebrity.

For shrimp producers, sustainability has become a critical part of doing business. Semi-intensive shrimp production can work with nature, rather than against it – and, in the tropical Americas at least, can help save rare shorebirds. Given that the producers of beef, coffee and rice are now making money through specific bird-friendly certification systems, is it not now the turn of shrimp to benefit?

For more information and to receive different materials related to the topic, contact Juanita Fonseca: and Salvadora Morales
Featured Photo: Flock of shorebirds using the dike. © Salvadora Morales.​

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