Julio López Alvarado1, Walter Ruiz2 & Edwin Moncayo2
At present, there are 213,000 hectares producing around 300,000 tons of shrimp and tilapia. Over the last decades, shrimp has become the second most important non-petroleum export product of Ecuador, right after bananas.
The Cost of Shrimp Aquaculture
Despite the great economic benefits it has generated for Ecuador, shrimp farming has had an impressive ecological cost. At the beginning, ponds were built in low areas near the coast, but with the expansion of the activity, ponds were built in mangrove areas, which have important social, cultural, economic, biological and ecological impacts. In 1969, when shrimp farming was still undeveloped, there were 203,695 ha of mangroves in Ecuador. In 2014, the Ministry of the Environment (MAE) estimated that there were only 157,094 ha, with most losses attributed to the expansion of shrimp farming.
Although there are now strict laws that protect mangroves, if Ecuador wants to achieve sustainability in the industry, it has to seek new production methods with less environmental impact, and diversify the species produced. Mariculture has emerged as a viable alternative to aquaculture production systems that rely on water availability and pumping for water exchanges. Mariculture as used here means the culture of marine plants and animals in their natural environment, enclosed in specially built structures such as cages or rafts.
Presently, the main countries producing fish in sea cages are Norway (652,000 tons), Chile (588,000 tons), Japan (273,000 tons), the United Kingdom (136,000 tons), Vietnam (126,000 tons), Canada (98,000), Turkey (79,000), Greece (76,000) Indonesia (67,000 tons) and the Philippines (66,000 tons). In Latin America, sea cage farming is not a generalized production method. Most of the cage farming is carried out in Chile for salmonid production. In addition, there are cage operations of tuna in Mexico, and cobia in Panama, Colombia, Belize and Brazil.
Current State of Offshore Aquaculture in Ecuador
Mariculture in Ecuador has not yet developed to its full potential. The consolidated shrimp farming industry may represent an obstacle to mariculture development, since its production methods, with low cost and high environmental impact, have become the generalized version of aquaculture known in the country. Additionally, there is little knowledge about mariculture and its benefits, a situation that the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture and Fisheries (MAGAP) has been addressing through a series of strategies for the sustainable development of mariculture in Ecuador for the last years.
Legal and Regulatory Aspects
Along with the MAGAP’s strategies, in 2012 a ministerial agreement was published for the regulation and control of aquaculture leases. It established that licenses might be granted in all areas where marine fish farming is viable and where it does not affect other activities such as fishing, tourism, navigation and other public uses. Consequently, the following areas were excluded for mariculture: protected areas, areas of national security, navigation channels, and areas of marine reserves.
The Ecuadorian laws have established that the first 8 miles (12.87 km) from shore are reserved for artisanal fishermen. Despite the fact that nothing is specified about this limit in aquaculture regulations, the permits that have been granted so far have been given in zones beyond the 8 miles limit, where water depths are greater than 65 meters.
Due to the distance from the coast, the installation and management of these sites requires higher investment and more complex logistics than shallow water aquaculture. The Ecuadorian Government is working on the development of zone maps to identify areas with potential for mariculture, taking into account the limitations mentioned in the previous paragraphs. The main criteria used for this zone development has been water depth, distance to shore, currents, waves, protected areas, navigation, artisanal fishing grounds, areas of oil exploration, and the proximity of fishing harbors that will be used as on-shore bases.
It has been determined that the optimum depth for mariculture projects is between 20-50 meters. In the Ecuadorian coast line these depths are located within the 8-mile limit. Due to this, the government is currently analyzing the possibility of granting licenses to non-artisanal entrepreneurs to install mariculture project operations in this area, as long as they do not interfere with fishermen and other activities.
R&D in Offshore Aquaculture
Diverse aquaculture research and development institutions in Ecuador have shown interest in developing this activity. At present, institutions like the National Fisheries Institute (INP), the National Center for Aquaculture and Marine Research (CENAIM) and the State University of Santa Elena (UPSE) offer mariculture programs, carry out trials to test the viability of the production of different species, and establish the optimal conditions for their culture, among many other activities. Currently, the INP is developing zone maps to enhance mariculture development.
In addition to the regulatory and technological difficulties, there are other challenges that need to be addressed for sustainable development of mariculture in Ecuador to reach its full potential. Hereunder, we summarize them briefly:
• Seed supply: This is the basis for aquaculture development, but the constant production of larvae has only been achieved in a limited number of species.
• Nutritional requirements of the cultured species: It is fundamental to understand the minimal nutritional requirements of each culture species and life stage in order to make feeding more efficient.
• Training of personnel: Training of human capital will be necessary at all levels, especially those who will be responsible for the day-to-day operation of mariculture projects. It will be necessary to know about feed management, boat operation and scuba diving, in contrast to the expertise required for shrimp culture. Universities will play an important role; they must offer academic programs that prepare technicians with the knowledge and skills to manage marine fish farms.
• Port infrastructure: To achieve mariculture on a commercial scale, it will be necessary to improve the support infrastructure for workboats necessary for daily operation of offshore farms. In addition, storage units for feed, equipment and machinery will be required for the day-to-day management.
• Sources of funding: Mariculture projects require a strong initial investment, so it will be necessary to promote their financing, from both public and private sectors.
• New species: It is important to identify species suitable for this type of production, even if they are non-native species. If the introduction of the new species is strictly controlled during the culture phases, it should not be a threat to the native species.
Ecuador has optimum conditions for mariculture development: availability of natural resources, a consolidated aquaculture industry, high-level R&D centers, availability of human capital and a key factor, government support. With gradual and controlled growth, mariculture can become an important source of income for the country. As an example, we can mention Spain and Turkey, which registered great growth in this sector in recent decades.
Successful development of mariculture in Ecuador will depend on the results and experiences of the first ventures, as well as the incentives promoted by the public sector. Positive results will promote investment in the industry and its development. In a few years, Ecuador could stand out on the global scene not only for its strong shrimp farming industry, but also as one of the main producers of marine fish worldwide (excluding salmonids).
1Prometeo Researcher, Instituto Nacional de Pesca, Ecuador
2Instituto Nacional de Pesca, Ecuador
López-Alvarado, J. et al. (2016). Offshore Aquaculture Development in Ecuador. International Journal of Research and Education (IJRE), Volume 1 Number 1, January-March 2016.