Students and professors from the University of Montana learn about how people are dealing with life and livelihoods under dynamic conditions

Saving the Forest: One Shrimp at a Time

January 11, 2010

Story By Stephan Licitra

Photos By Kevin Radley

We sped over the serpentine waters of the Mekong River, crashing over the wakes of the other boats.  Everywhere we looked there was water, bringing to life one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.  Our journey was to an innovative new project by a local research station in the province of Ca Mau at the southern tip of Vietnam. They are currently studying how to integrate shrimp farming with mangrove forest conservation and restoration.  This integration will bring the two once competitive interests into balance and sustainability providing farmers with income from both the shrimp and mangrove forests while at the same time fighting coastal erosion.

Shrimp is one of the most important products of the Mekong Delta. The industry has helped to rejuvenate the country.  According to Dr. Le Khuong Ninh, shrimp farming is Vietnam’s fourth-most-valuable export. The industry has grown quickly since the government decision in June 2000 allowing the growth of aquaculture.  Since then the industry has grown rapidly, in 2007 making $3.8 billion.  Dr. Duong Van Ni, of the Can Tho University, noted that Vietnam is now the 8th largest exporter of shrimp in the world.

At the same time Mangroves forests are an important and integral part of the coastal ecosystems, and local and national economies.  Mangrove forests provide the natural habitat for wild shrimp, and other animals.  They detoxify and remove extra nutrients from the river water, preventing algal blooms and dead zones, buffer the land from tropical storms, stop saltwater intrusion and trap sediments coming down river.  In short, mangrove forests provide valuable and needed ecosystem services. 

However, in the last half century Vietnam has lost two thirds of its mangrove forests first to war (Agent Orange) and now to shrimp farming.  That is why integrating mangrove forest with shrimp farming is an important solution.

As the boat approached the farm, Mr. Quang waved us up the smaller tributary of the mighty Mekong River.  The boat stopped on the muddy bank with only the slightest of bumps.  Here, in what seemed to be absolutely the middle of nowhere, was a 40 hectare farm, complete with 30 goats. 

The farm doubles as a research station for The Wetland Forest Research Center of Ca Mau province, and Quang is the research manager. The farm is a 30 hectare mangrove forest surrounded by 10 hectares of channels and dykes. Quang led our group around to the only real indication of human activity, a sluice gate, which is a mechanism that controls the flow of water in and out of the system.

The mangrove forest provides the natural food and habitat for the shrimp, meaning no fertilizers, antibiotics or extra feeds are needed.  The shrimp take four months to grow to maturity, but the farm is continuously restocked with larvae shrimp, so the mature shrimp are harvested twice a month.

Quang described the process to our slightly befuddled group; twice a month the moon causes the water in the area to rise extra high and then fall extra low (called the spring and neap tides and it is caused by the alignment of the sun and the full or new moon).  When the tide comes in the shrimp smell the fresh, salty water of the ocean, it awakens their instinct to migrate to the sea to breed, the water drains away and the shrimp sit and wait.

When the next high tide comes in, twelve hours later, the shrimp migrate toward the river.  The shrimp get caught at the sluice gate in the nets and are sold to the market.  Since only the mature shrimp will migrate to the sea the farm only catches the mature shrimp leaving the immature shrimp behind to grow up until the next harvest.  The farmer is also able to sell the wood and charcoal obtained from the mangrove trees, providing extra money.

This project demonstrates that with new innovation and imagination, sustainable develop can succeed.  But until the world comes to an understanding of what climate change and sustainability really mean; we will have to continue saving the forests one shrimp at a time.

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