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Researching Shrimp Farmings' Impacts in Thailand

Last year I became involved with ASIANetwork and attended their conference.  ASIANetwork is a consortium of over 160 liberal arts colleges, including Marietta College, that works to strengthen Asian Studies in undergraduate liberal arts education.  When I attended their conference in the spring of 2012 I learned more about one of the goals which is to strengthen connections between Asian Studies and Environmental Science programs, which was right in line with my interests.  I also learned about the ASIANetwork Freeman Student-Faculty Fellows Program at the conference.  The ASIANetwork Freeman Student-Faculty Fellows Program has supported collaborative undergraduate research in East and Southeast Asia for the past 15 years.  This program provides support for groups of students lead by a faculty member or faculty pair to travel to Asia and conduct research projects there.  

I was really excited about the opportunities that I learned about at the ASIANetwork conference and at the beginning of fall semester I invited students to help develop a proposal for the
ASIANetwork Freeman Student-Faculty Fellows Program.  I was interested in relating the research to an environmental issue, so I asked them to consider research topics that were related to the shrimp farming industry in Thailand.  Six students began working on research proposals and after many drafts and a competitive process, four students' proposals were submitted with the final proposal.  In February we found out that our proposal was one of 13 in the country that had been funded.  The students have already done a lot of work on their projects in the development of the proposal and preparation for the trip to Thailand.  The rest of this website will document some of the experiences that they have had on the actual trip.

First I would like to introduce you to the students:  Eric, MaLisa, Alina and Taylor.  In the photo below they are ready to get started on both their individual research projects and kayaking into the mangroves.  They also have plenty of water on hand to help them stay hydrated.

Ready to kayak into the mangroves

So why study shrimp farming?  Have you ever wondered where the shrimp you eat comes from?  In most cases it is no longer caught, but rather grown in aquaculture facilities.  The biggest producers are in Asia, in particular in Thailand, China and Taiwan.  This is an industry that has undergone an amazing boom over the past 3 decades and is now undergoing additional changes to address some of the environmental and social issues.  It turns out that growing shrimp is a complex process and it can be done in a number of ways.  What tended to happen early in the industry's history was intensive farming where shrimp were grown at high densities.  This lead to high profits, but the ponds became useless after a couple of years because of the build up of wastes and disease.  This resulted in several problems.  First, the shrimp ponds were usually built near the coast and often replaced mangroves.  The lose of mangroves, which act as nursery areas for other species, and the wastes that were released from the shrimp ponds could have impacts on other marine species including commercially important fish and shellfish.  Shrimp farming also had impacts on the communities they were located near and there were concerns about how the workers were treated.  It turns out that there are many complex and changing issues related to getting shrimp to your dinner table.  Next time you buy shrimp at the grocery, check to see where it is from.  Hopefully this website and the research the students are doing will help you to better understand some of the concerns associated with how those shrimp were produced.      

Getting started in Thailand:
The first activity we did after starting the research projects in Thailand was to go out and learn about one of the main ecosystems that was being impacted by shrimp farming - mangroves.  Mangroves are important, but often overlooked and undervalued natural resources.  In Thailand concessions used to be awarded for people to cut mangroves, with most of the wood being used to produce charcoal.  Now most of the cutting of mangroves is associated with land use issues.

We traveled south from Bangkok to Krabi, about half way down the Malaysian peninsula.  We kayaked in mangroves in Ao Tha Lane, a bay to the northwest of Krabi.  This area of Thailand has some of the healthiest mangroves forests in Thailand.

 Map of Thailand

MangrovesMangrove close up

In addition to being able to see the mangrove forest and the extensive prop roots that provide a lot of structure and hiding places for juvenile fish and shrimp, we also saw some of the birds and other animals that live in mangroves.  The lizard below is a monitor.  It was hanging out on the bank about three feet from us and was probably a little over 3 feet long if you included the tail.

Monitor lizard

From Krabi we continued on to the southeast to Trang.  One of the groups that we worked with while preparing the proposals was the Mangrove Action Project.  This group has an office in Trang, Thailand, and the people that we spoke to in the office are working to preserve the remaining mangroves and promote more sustainable shrimp farming and restoration of mangroves in shrimp ponds that have been abandoned.  We visited them at their office in Trang and spent most of a day talking to Jim and getting his impressions of the current situation and the challenges associated with shrimp farming and mangroves.  The next day we traveled with Jim and Ning from MAP and their new intern Pim to two villages along the Andaman coast where they have mangrove restoration projects.  We visited the restoration sites which were about 50 km from Trang in the villages of Bang Kang Khao and Laem Makham.  When we visited the sites we could see how they restored the water flow and then let the ecosystem repair itself.  Usually they don't plant many mangroves, but just let nature replant the area after the conditions have been improved to make them more conducive to the growth of mangroves.  

First MAP restoration site

One thing that was really impressive was being able to see how the flora and fauna were interconnected.  In the photo above you can see what looks like a pile of mud, to the left of the photo, that Jim and Ning are standing on.  This is actually a mud lobster mound.  Mud lobsters are similar to crayfish in that they excavate mud from their burrows and build a mound/chimney around the opening to their burrow.  This is important for two reasons, first it aerates the soils and second it builds these mounds that cause the elevation in the tidal area to vary.  This difference in elevation, even though it is only a foot or two is important to the diversity of the plants because different plants need to be at different heights relative to the high tide level.  There is a picture below of a mud lobster burrow that was about three feet across and at least a foot and a half tall.  I asked one of the people in the village whether they ate the mud lobsters.  They said they don't, but they do eat mud crabs, which have also returned to the areas where the flow of water has been restored.

Mud lobster burrow

 I mentioned before that for the most part MAP doesn't plant mangrove trees.  However, they do grow some mangroves in a nursery that are planted in specific areas for educational purposes.  In the photo below, one of the people from the village that works with MAP is showing us the different types of seeds produced by some of the 37 species of mangroves that live in Thailand.

Mangrove propogules and seeds

After viewing the restoration projects we sat down with several people from the village to talk about mangroves and the relationship between the village and the mangroves and also how the federal government was involved in regulating the use of mangroves.  They also talked to us about some of their efforts to educate people about the value of mangroves and they told us how the mangroves benefited their community.  

Meeting in village
After we left Jim and Ning we headed north to Kuraburi to meet with our translator from Andaman Discoveries, the company that had arranged our home stay.  We then continued on to Ban Thale Nok, a small Muslim village that we would be staying in for the next five days.

There are several reasons why Ban Thale Nok is an important site for the students' research.  First, it is a predominantly Muslim village, which will be important for Taylor's research since she is interested in looking at the relationship between communities and nature and how religion influences that relationship.  Ban Thale Nok was also impacted by the tsunami in 2004 and 42 of the residents died in the tsunami.  That is a huge impact for a village that currently has about 220 people.  One value of mangroves that was highlighted by the tsunami is that they act as a buffer between the ocean and land during storms and tsunamis.  Several papers have been published documenting that communities that preserved their mangroves fared better in the tsunami than those that didn't.  Finally the community had also worked with MAP to restore a former shrimp pond to mangroves.  

Ban Thale Nok sign

One of the community members had claimed some land and removed the mangroves and built three ponds.  The ponds were used for shrimp farming for a couple years, then abandoned.  To encourage people to develop land the government of Thailand has in place policies that give a person some rights to land if they "improve" it.  Unfortunately this often runs into conflict with community land and resources as it has in Ban Thale Nok.  In any case, the community and MAP were able to convince the person that built the ponds to let them restore tidal flow to one of the ponds three years ago.  MaLisa made measurements in the restored area and in natural mangroves near by for comparison.  She is interested in assessing how abandoned shrimp ponds differ from mangroves and how the restoration process helps to reverse the process and help mangroves become reestablished.  Conducting the transects in the restored area was pretty easy (muddy and some plants, but not too difficult).  In contrast the transect in the natural mangroves was a challenge.  Imagine trying to do a transect while climbing through a "jungle gym" that is located in knee deep mud.  

mangrove transect

I didn't take any pictures while we were actually doing the transect in the mangroves, although I really wish I had pictures from that.  Unfortunately, at the time I was more concerned with staying upright and out of the mud.  This picture was taken as MaLisa and Bon Him, our guide, were returning to the starting point of the transect.  For the transect MaLisa collected densitometry data (how dense the vegetation is), measured the soil pH, and identified any plants within 1 meter of the transect points.  We also collected soil samples that will be analyzed for phosphorous and nitrogen levels when we get back to Marietta College.  

While living in Ban Thale Nok it was very obvious that the people used the mangroves as a source of a number of resources.  The woman in the picture below is shucking clams that were collected from a channel that runs through the mangroves.  

Clams from the mangroves

We also saw two women collecting clams from the restored pond when we were doing the transect.
Harvesting clams in restored mangroves
Some other products that are taken from the mangroves include mud crabs that are caught in traps (see photo 1 below) and Nypa palm fronds that are made into thatch and also can be stripped and dried for use as cigarette wrappers, which sell for 5 Baht for a pack of wrappers (photo 2 below).

Mud crab

Nypa on tableNypa drying on road

In the first picture above the woman across the street from our home stay had stripped the cuticle from the fronds and gave us the stripped fronds.  We were helping her by twisting the fronds so they would dry evenly.  The second photo to the right shows the Nypa drying on the road.  Luckily I got a picture of this the first day we were in the village because it wasn't good drying weather after that.  What that means is that it rained for most of the next three days that we were in Ban Thale Nok.

From the interviews that Taylor and Alina were conducting we learned that most people in Ban Thale Nok didn't think they were impacted by shrimp farming, because there aren't any active shrimp farms directly in the village.  We also learned that most people didn't think that jobs in shrimp farming were very desirable.  The people in Ban Thale Nok preferred to work for themselves and many of them either ran stores, or produced a product, or farmed some land.  

To learn more about shrimp farming we had to do some traveling.  First we went to a shrimp farm that had agreed to meet with us.  However, when we actually arrived they decided that they would rather not talk to us.  All that we learned from that visit was that all of their workers, except for the manager were Burmese.  After this disappointment we traveled to the next village over.  This village has a large shrimp farm operating in the village.  Alina and Taylor were able to have people fill out their survey and conducted a couple of short interviews in the limited amount of time that we had in this village.  I didn't get pictures of them interviewing because I didn't want to make the subjects nervous.

village 2

Just outside of this village there is an abandoned shrimp pond (see photo below).  Unfortunately this pond is not going to revert to mangroves as it has been ditched and oil palms have been planted on the high parts.  This is a common fate for abandoned shrimp ponds.

Abandoned shrimp pond planted with oil palms

Later in the day we met with the manager from another shrimp farm.  He met with us for an hour and provided us with a lot of information about the economics of running a shrimp farm, the regulations that are imposed by the government and foreign importers.  There are no photos from this visit and interview because he asked us not to take any photos of him or the farm.  

Some miscellaneous pictures from Ban Thale Nok:

The picture below is our house mother at our home stay.  Da was a wonderful cook and also ran a business selling chili paste at the local market and from her house.  The picture is from the market.  It turns out she was also a great source of information on shrimp farming.  Several year ago a friend that was managing a shrimp farm asked her to work for him at the farm.  She worked for him as an accountant, so she knew a lot about the operation of the farm and how much money went to different expenses.  Eventually she decided to quit because she felt that she was being asked to take on too much responsibility for the amount that she was paid.
Da at the chili paste stall in the market

The next picture is of the female students heading back to their home stay.  Motorcycles are the primary mode of transportation in Ban Thale Nok, although they aren't like the motorcycles you would expect to see in the states.  This motorcycle has a side cart and comfortably seats the driver and 4-6 passengers.  It was only a short ride and on a level well paved road - so I felt fairly comfortable with them getting a ride.

Motorcycle in Ban Thale Nok

It had been frustrating arranging interviews with shrimp farms.  Either they outright refused to meet with us, or they were concerned about how the information was going to be used and didn't want anyone to know that they had talked to us.  When we left the home stay and went back to Kuraburi we were able to arrange a meeting with a friend of our translator, Pi Nat.  Her friend was very open and willing to talk to us about their family owned shrimp farm, although he was also a little bit concerned that other people might find out that he talked to us.  He told us about the challenges that they were facing with Early Mortality Syndrome (EMS), a new disease that had been causing problems in several countries, and how they were trying to combat this disease.  He also talked to us about the market for shrimp and how even though the costs for food to feed the shrimp had gone up, the price of shrimp had not gone up because of the increased global production.  He explained the process involved in registering as a shrimp farm and what documents were needed to be certified to produce shrimp for export.  He was also open to talking about labor issues and then took us on a tour of the shrimp ponds and talked to us about how they manage the ponds and tested the water quality.  This ended up being one of the most informative interviews that we had so far.

Group photo at shrimp farm

The photo below is an aerial view of Ban Thale Nok from GoogleEarth.  To the far left is the ocean "B".  "BTN" indicates the area where the village was relocated to after the tsunami and the school was moved to the top of a hill overlooking the village - labeled with an "S".  The abandoned shrimp ponds are to the left of and below the "X".  The U-shaped pond just below the "X" is the one that MAP worked with the village to restore.  The natural mangrove area where we conducted a transect was near the label "M".

Ban Thale Nok - GoogleEarth

I should mention that as I am working on updating the website
I am sitting in Lumphini Park in Bangkok .  I just watched the sun rise and now there are groups of people doing aerobics and a group practicing Tai Chi in front of me.  It is a very peaceful location in a huge city (see below).

Bangkok sunriseAerobics

We spent one day in Bangkok making arrangements for interviews.  The students worked with Ju, our translator, to make contacts and send out requested information.  

The following four photos were taken by Alina.
Working with Ju - arranging meetings

Conference room

It was a busy, but productive day and we were able to arrange a meeting with Blue Aqua for the next morning before we were scheduled to catch a bus to Laem Sing.  Blue Aqua is a company that manufactures and distributes specialty equipment and supplies for aquaculture facilities.  Blue Aqua sells and helps develop aquaculture systems that take a scientific approach to aquaculture.  Blue Aqua also publishes a quarterly magazine that addresses issues in aquaculture and presents the current research on those topics to a lay audience.  We were able to arrange an interview with Dr. Shishehchian, the president and CEO of the company.  It was a very interesting interview that began by him giving us an overview of the company and how their goal was to provide products that helped their customers to increase profits and also contributed to sustainable aquaculture.  The interview then moved on to broader topics such as regulations, labor issues and the markets for shrimp and other products.

Blue AquaEric at Blue Aqua

We rode on a bus for 4 hours to Chanthaburi, then found a taxi at the bus station to take us to Laem Sing.  On the map at the beginning of this web page Laem Sing's location is indicated with a red "x" just below Chanthaburi in the eastern part of Thailand.

Laem Sing is a coastal tourist town, well sort of.  It is a tourist town during the dry season, but since this is the wet season it is much quieter now.  Even when it is busy they mainly have Thai tourists so there is very little signage in English and many restaurants don't have menus with any other language than Thai.  This posed some challenges, especially the first morning when we went out to get breakfast.  If ordering from a Thai menu was a test of our Thai language abilities I guess we passed, but we didn't earn a good grade.  We ended up getting food for everyone, but three out of five got something different than they requested.

Challenged by Thai menu

There are several reasons for coming to Laem Sing, first it is surrounded by shrimp farms and second it is largely a Buddhist community.  

Laem Sing, Thailand
The uniform rectangular areas and circular areas are fish or shrimp ponds.  In the close up below you can even see the aerators around the edge of several of the ponds.
Close up Laem Sing ponds
Another reason is that one of the largest shrimp farms in the area is Sureerath Prawns, a farm that claims to be organic on their website.  We were really hoping to meet with a representative from Sureerath Prawn because we wanted to know what challenges they had faced in going organic as well as the advantages they saw in their decision.  From their website Sureerath Prawn seems to be a large shrimp farm that is addressing many of the problems that have been associated with shrimp farming in the past and we were hoping to learn from their experiences.  Unfortunately it was very difficult to get in contact with them, which has been frustrating.  We sent e-mails in English and Thai, tried to call several times and faxed a letter in Thai explaining why we wanted to meet with them.  We received no response from them.  When we got to Laem Sing and finally got in touch with them we were told they would not meet with us.  This is in contrast to their website that invites visits from interested people, so we suspect that there was some cultural miscommunication involved.

Because of this, we had to adapt our plans somewhat.  We continued with our plans to collect surveys from local residents and interview local officials, but we also added some additional meetings that we hadn't originally planned on.  On our second day in Laem Sing we traveled to the provincial town of Chanthaburi to speak with a representative of the Chanthaburi Provincial Office of Labour Protection and Welfare.  This turned out to be a very productive interview that provided a lot of information about the status of foreign workers in the province and labor regulations.  The representatives that we met with were very helpful and were able to adjust their schedules to allow for an interview that lasted for over an hour.  

Meeting with provincial labor and welfare office
Photo by Alina Kielbasa.

After this meeting we got noodles for lunch in Chanthaburi then continued on to the Kung Krabaen Bay Royal Development Study Center.  This is one of six centers that have been set up in different areas of Thailand by the royal family.  The purpose of these study centers is to encourage development projects that would allow rural communities to be self-reliant.  The center's goal is to provide education on occupational and agricultural techniques that are specific for local conditions.  It is an amazing facility that includes a conference center, class rooms, an aquarium, a walkway through the mangroves and demonstration facilities where the techniques are being used.  We started our tour of the facilities with a meeting with two people that told us about the mission of the Royal Study Centers and answered questions that we had.  They then took us on a walk in the mangroves and we finished up by visiting the aquarium.

Kung Krabaen class room
Oyster farming demonstrationAquarium

The photo above and to the left is a demonstration on how to farm oysters by hanging them on racks.  We saw many examples of people using this technique in the Chanthaburi River near Laem Sing.  The photo to the right is in the large tank at the aquarium.

One other benefit of our visit to the Kung Krabaen Bay Study Center was that we arranged for MaLisa's last two study locations on mangroves.  The professional fisheries biologist at the center gave us permission to collect the samples we needed as long as we sent him a copy of the report.  We came back to the study session the next day at low tide to collect the samples that we needed in a natural mangrove area and in an area that had been replanted with a mono-culture of one type of Rhizophora mangroves.

Mangroves - replanted all the same species evenly spaced.

After the transect we were a little bit muddy.
After the mangroves - a little muddy

We returned to the Bangkok the day before we were supposed to return to the states.  The plan was to have a full day to tie up loose ends, conduct a couple of remaining interviews and get ready to head home.  MaLisa and I had applied for and received a permit to receive soil samples from the USDA and we spent a good part of the day packaging the samples and arranged to have the soil samples shipped back.  

The rest of the students met with the Thai Shrimp Farmers Association and spoke to the National Fisheries.  

The next morning we were catching taxis at 3 AM to head to the airport and on our way back to Columbus, Ohio.  Twenty seven hours later we got to the Columbus airport and we were almost home.

Group in Laem Sing