Aquaculture Magazine

December/ January 2016

Shrimp Aquaculture Certification: The Way Forward Part 1

By Claude E. Boyd and Aaron McNevin

Shrimp aquaculture certification has grown rapidly during the past few years, and an increasing percentage of farmed shrimp sold in supermarkets and restaurants is certified.

By Claude E. Boyd1, Aaron A. McNevin2

The purpose of certification is to provide shrimp for consumers seeking foods produced in a responsible manner. Certified farms must be in compliance with environmental, social, food safety, and animal welfare standards ideally developed through a stakeholder consultation process. These farms are audited for compliance with the standards by an accredited auditor, and certification programs may include chain of custody or traceability aspects that should require separation of certified products from other products throughout the market chain. A logo and barcode provided on the certified product package allows its identification by purchasers.

There are rather straightforward guidelines for what constitutes food product safety (WHO and FAO 2009; CCFH 1969) and fair labor treatment (ILO 2014). Thus, reduction of negative environmental impacts is the major focus of most shrimp certification programs. There are, however, no clear guidelines for how to prevent negative environmental impacts in shrimp aquaculture, resulting in a wide range of views on how the environment should be addressed with certification standards. This brings about a great degree of variability in certification standards, monitoring to demonstrate compliance, and how different auditors assess compliance with environmental standards within a single program.

Seafood buyers who import aquaculture products may choose to support purchasing programs or certifications, because there are consumers who seek foods produced by methods that are better than the normal production practices used in producing countries. In essence, purchasing and certification efforts are private businesses that supply the demand for a product. There is an opinion that differentiation of shrimp products by such programs marginalizes small-scale producers. It has been argued that many of the major aquaculture producing countries have seen a dramatic progression towards meaningful regulations and effective enforcement so that certification is no longer necessary (Bush et al. 2013).

Nevertheless, data from the World Bank and the Environmental Performance Index do not support these assertions (Fig. 1 and 2). Environmental regulations in most major shrimp-producing countries are not rigorous, are poorly enforced, or both. Thus, it should be recognized that certifications and some third-party audited purchasing policy programs of individual shrimp buyers are important, because they are the only means currently available for attempting to verify that shrimp aquaculture facilities are producing shrimp by acceptable production and environmental management practices. It seems also that assurances of certification focusing on the major environmental impacts in an effective relatively uniform manner would be equally important.

Certification standards and other requirements were developed in many cases through stakeholder committees, some following the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labeling (ISEAL) Alliance code of conduct for standard setting. Such an effort had never been attempted, and all negative environmental impacts of shrimp aquaculture that were known to or perceived by the stakeholders were addressed with requirements or standards. As a result, certification programs are broad, and in general, minor impacts and major impacts are treated with equal priority. Of course, the more complex a program, the more difficult and expensive it is to implement and audit effectively. Most certification programs claim there are inherent mechanisms for continuous improvement of standards, but it should be remembered that it is not in the best financial interest of a certification business to reduce the number of certified facilities which would likely be the result of increasing the rigor of standards. Regardless, for certification programs to be effective and maintain relevancy, standards must be adjusted based on new findings and experiences. Moreover, it is unlikely that, in their current forms, the “one size fits all” adage applies to effective standards for shrimp farms.

The World Wildlife Fund suggested seven indicators – land use, water use, feed conversion ratio (FCR), survival, wild fish inclusion in feeds, dissolved oxygen in receiving waters and energy use – as a means of assessing resource use and negative environmental impacts of aquaculture production facilities. The logic for using these variables was provided by Boyd et al. (2015). It is based on the assumption that reducing resource use – other than for plant ingredients for feed and possibly for energy – will result in a reduction in negative environmental impacts ultimately affecting biodiversity. Preliminary results from a survey of shrimp farms in Vietnam and Thailand reveal that these indicators can provide an objective accounting of resource use and negative environmental impacts – including acquisition of the information necessary for estimating embodied burdens.

We believe that it would be prudent for shrimp certification programs to begin to re-assess their requirements and standards for certification. By doing so, it may be possible to focus better upon the major impacts and to assure that the standards can be assessed reliably with respect to metrics and interpreted in a meaningful manner. This effort could possibly prioritize standards, streamline programs, make them more understandable to shrimp producers, and lead to a less subjective, simpler, quicker, and cheaper auditing process. In summary, more emphasis seems to be warranted for the major issues, and less on the prescriptive and “accounting” aspects of certification.

We have been involved in the environmental issues related to shrimp farming and in the development of certification programs and standards since the effort began nearly 20 years ago. Based on previous experience and information acquired during the aforementioned survey, we will provide some opinions on early efforts that might be made to enhance the environmental benefits of certification and make certification more feasible for adoption.


Land Use

The major land use issue in shrimp aquaculture is mangrove conversion. Mangroves occur in the intertidal zone in which habitat conversion may result from aquaculture, agriculture, or several other reasons (Massaut 1999). Most certification programs forbid farms on sites that were cleared of mangroves during or after 1999 – the year of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. The intent of a mangrove standard in certification obviously was to lessen the future conversion of mangroves to shrimp farms.

The demand for farmed shrimp apparently will increase in the future requiring intensification or expansion of the current production area (or both). An increase in certification to include the majority of shrimp production – an uncertain assumption at best – could result in mangrove conservation. But, unless governments enforce regulation preventing mangrove conversion, certification can only assure that certified farms are not a party to mangrove conversion.

Mangrove areas have many features unfavorable for shrimp farms (Massaut 1999; Sonnenholzner and Boyd 2000). The attraction of these areas for farm sites apparently is the low cost of such land in many countries and the ability for producers to take advantage of tidal forces to fill ponds and exchange water. An environmental case for excluding shrimp farming (and agriculture) from the intertidal zone can be made based on the ecological value of this zone and the many land and water management challenges inherent to its use.

Many farms, and especially the larger ones, are situated in the fringe between the upper limit of the tidal zone and the upper limit of intrusion of brackishwater into coastal waterways. Development of new shrimp farms in this zone seems more preferable – in spite of the need to pump water into farms – than to allow siting them in the intertidal zone irrespective of the “grandfather clause” in most certification standards permitting certified farms in mangrove area cleared before 1999. Of course, intensification also would allow production to increase without the need for a great amount of new farm construction.

Some certification programs require assessments of the former biodiversity of the landscape into which shrimp farms are superimposed and to develop plans favorable for biodiversity such as corridors for animal movement across farms. The ecological quality and biodiversity of native habitat declines considerably when it is converted to agriculture (Reidsma et al. 2006), and the same happens in aquaculture (Boyd and McNevin 2015a). The effect of construction of a new farm in natural habitat is greatly diminished biodiversity within the farm area. Certified shrimp farms usually are located in areas with non-certified shrimp farms or with agriculture and other activities (Fig. 3). Requiring complex assessments in these areas is not likely to improve their biodiversity, and there is little left to protect compared to native habitat. For example, the terrestrial biodiversity for the site depicted in Fig. 3 has already been greatly compromised – a biodiversity assessment of one or more farms in the area that are seeking certification is meaningless. Also to try to develop a corridor for animal movement would be impossible through the efforts of certification alone.

The high cost of biodiversity assessments – farms have spent $5,000 to $85,000 for these documents – is likely a major deterrent to producers seeking certification. Thus, biodiversity assessment probably should be required only for specific farms where it conceivably could result in environmental benefit and be cost effective. For example, biodiversity assessments may be useful in the case of large farms located in relatively undisturbed areas without many neighboring farms.

The upshot is that there are limits on the beneficial land use changes (and terrestrial biodiversity improvement) that may be expected from certification. The only improvements in land use that can be expected are limited to the farm area itself, and this benefit results mainly from refusing certification to farmers who contributed to mangrove conversion from 1999 onward. But, certification will not prevent a non-certifiable shrimp farm from operating or being constructed in post 1999 mangrove areas. Only governments can impose uniform land use restrictions on farms not seeking certification or upon other activities within the mangrove area and the intertidal zone as a whole.

New concepts referred to as zonal management (URL) and landscape management (Chaplin-Kramer et al. 2015) have been proposed for use in shrimp certification. These schemes appear to be a revision of the old idea of “cluster farm” certification (Boyd 2003). Implementation of these concepts depends on certification of a contiguous block of farms, and the overall management of the zones or landscape units requires collaboration with governmental agencies. It is prudent to remember that certification originated primarily because the majority of stakeholders believed that government agencies were not effective in developing and enforcing regulations. Moreover, if these new concepts go forth, they certainly would benefit from more concise certification guidelines and standards.

Shrimp farms outside the intertidal zone also influence the environment. For example, if placed into natural habitat, farms will greatly diminish terrestrial biodiversity – as will nearly any kind of agriculture (Reidsma et al. 2006). Again, it may be prudent to favor intensification of production over expansion of production area to meet the increasing demand for shrimp.

Seepage from ponds and discharge of saline water from ponds can cause salinization of both surface and groundwater. The standards addressing salinization should assume more importance at farms outside the intertidal zone – especially those in areas with highly permeable soils – than those within this zone. There is growing interest in inland culture of marine shrimp in low salinity water common in many countries (Roy et al. 2010). Certification standards should be assessed and modified as necessary for this application.

There appears to be no way of avoiding a decline in terrestrial biodiversity when shrimp farms are constructed in natural or relatively undisturbed areas. The decline will be much less when farms are located on former agricultural land, because most of the impact of shrimp farms on terrestrial biodiversity results from the initial clearing of the land.


Water Use

Shrimp are cultured primarily in water that is too saline for domestic or agricultural use. Nevertheless, water use is important because it is necessary for estimating energy use for pumping, and water intake volume often provides a reasonable estimate of effluent discharge from a farm (Boyd et al. 2015). Some farms may introduce freshwater from wells into ponds to dilute salinity during the dry season. This practice is not allowed in some certification programs. However, there is a growing tendency to operate closed systems or semi-closed systems from which water is discharged only during harvest. Such systems obviously are environmentally desirable, and in locations where surface freshwater is unavailable, an exception for using freshwater from wells to dilute salinity in closed or semi-closed systems is reasonable other than where groundwater resources are limited.


1School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic 

Sciences. Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, 36849 USA.

2Director of Aquaculture World Wildlife Fund, Washington, D.C. 20037 USA


Claude E. Boyd  and Aaron McNevin

Claude E. Boyd and Aaron McNevin

** Boyd, C. E. and McNevin, A. A. (2015) Aquaculture, Resource Use, and the Environment, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ, USA. doi: 10.1002/9781118857915 ISBN: 978-0-470-95919-0.

Along with Mike Picchietti, we are pleased to welcome Aaron McNevin with WWF and Dr. Claude Boyd as guest columnists in this issue.


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