The last shrimp farms in Koh Kong have closed up shop, ending an industry that was
once touted as an easy road to riches for farmers, and economic prosperity for the
Instead, the industry's failure has left a string of bad debts and an environmental
disaster of large areas of mangrove swamps which were cleared for the farms.
The boom time for shrimp farming was 1995-1996. During that period 67 businesses,
mostly using Thai finance, set up breeding ponds, often by clearing large areas of
mangroves in tidal areas.
But by 1998, 57 of the businesses had failed, leaving debts that ran into the tens
of millions of dollars, and employment in the industry had dropped by 90 percent.
By the beginning of this year the remaining 10 shrimp farms had also closed.
The death blow for the industry has been disease, which spreads quickly among the
crustaceans in their over-crowded ponds. Farmers had tried to combat the problem
with massive doses of antibiotics, but this led to problems on neighboring land as
the chemicals seeped into the soil.
Some environmentalists believe that the idea of sustainable shrimp farms is a myth
and say shrimp farming is a "hit and run" or "slash and burn"
Jim Enright, natural resources manager of the Thai environmental NGO, Yadfon, compared
shrimp farming to "get rich quick" schemes, such as drug trafficking.
"Shrimp farming is still very experimental. We have been farming crops for 10,000
years, but have only been farming shrimp for around 30 years. The fact is, we still
don't know which methods are sustainable," he said.
According to Mangrove Action Project (MAP) newsletters, excessive quantities of fresh
and sea water are needed to operate intensive shrimp ponds. Salt water intrusion
destroys neighboring rice paddies, other crops, and drinking water.
MAP says that to maximize harvests and profits, commercial shrimp ponds are stocked
very densely. Massive amounts of organic waste produced by ponds are simply pumped
into surrounding waterways, killing local flora and fauna. Chemicals and antibiotics
used to prevent disease outbreaks contaminate natural ecosystems and hasten the development
of disease-resistant viruses.
According to Appropriate Technology magazine, both Taiwan and China, two of the former
leading shrimp farming nations, have experienced an "environmental backlash"
on a nationwide scale.
The Sierra Club Canada says the typical shrimp farm company moves on, leaving the
locals to cope with the environmental and socio-economic damage it has caused.
Meanwhile a few farmers like Check Then are trying to make a living using their ponds
to raise wild shrimp. Unlike their commercially bred cousins, the wild shrimp are
thought to be easier to tend and more resistant to disease.
Farmers like Then pump sea water into their ponds and hope it will contain small
shrimp which will mature in the captive environment, but it is a hit-and-miss business.
Without knowing how many shrimp are actually in the ponds it is difficult to calculate
how much food to throw in, or if there is any point in throwing any in at all.
Then's niece said the business was not really profitable, but it generated enough
money to keep the ponds going and pay the workers' salaries.
For the longer term, Then said he was hoping to convert his ponds to other kinds
of aquaculture and would investigate alternatives in Thailand.