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SHRIMP is not only the most popular seafood in the West, but is also an alternative to replace the loss due to the exhaustion of global fisheries. The annual global shrimp trade is valued at more than $10 billion at the farm-gate and more than $60 billion at the point of retail.

The coastal zones of some tropical countries, including Bangladesh, are dominating the production of commercial shrimp, and export to the United States, Europe, Canada, Japan and other wealthy countries.

For many developing countries, including Bangladesh, shrimp has become a major source of foreign exchange and has transformed often previously marginal coastal communities into high-value commodity networks. However, the producing countries are facing increasing challenges, particularly concerning quality.

Among the recent transformations of the global agro-food system, quality rather than price or quantity has become the basis around which production, commodities, and markets are increasingly organised. Under increasing pressure from various actors, such as environmental and labour activists, multilateral organisations, and regulatory agencies in their home countries, multinational firms are implementing certification arrangements that include codes of conduct, production guidelines, and monitoring standards that govern and attest to not only the corporations' behaviour but also to that of their producers and suppliers around the world.

While previous quality assurance was confined to only the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) manual, recent movements have extended quality assurance to traceability, environmental sustainability, labour rights, and community-based resource management in production sites. As major buyers such as Wal-Mart, Darden and Lyons recently committed to buy only certified seafood, including farmed shrimp, it is anticipated that other buyers will also follow the same path, and a major portion of shrimp production will soon come under third-party certification umbrella. This trend poses both opportunities and challenges. While it offers an opportunity to move towards a sustainable aquaculture, the producers who fail to meet the shifting private regulations will eventually lose out in the market.

The FishSite (January 20) revealed that Bangladesh's shrimp exports continue to be the country's second largest foreign exchange earner (after ready-made garments), earning $515 million from exports during the fiscal year of July 2006-June 2007, and contributing to around 5 percent of the world shrimp production. Though the Bangladesh government was hoping to earn over $1.5 billion from shrimp exports annually by 2010, various challenges are still confronting the industry.

The challenges include: environmental movements countering the aquaculture due to its social and environmental harms, failure to meet environmental and social qualities of shrimp required by the buyers, trouble with gender and labour standards in aquaculture, particularly in shrimp processing factories, corruption and malpractices in the sector and viruses and other calamities that are responsible for declining production, and so forth. It is anticipated that failure to address these problems in a smart and timely manner would result in the demise of this lucrative sector.

My observation and analysis show that Bangladesh can easily earn about $2 billion from the shrimp industry. While many neighbouring countries such as China, Thailand and India are genuinely working with pragmatic plans and policies to capture the lucrative shrimp markets, Bangladesh -- despite having enormous prospects -- is now struggling to survive because of numerous problems and malpractices.

The Bangladesh shrimp sector needs immediate policies and programs in the following areas: establishing research institutes for intensive shrimp culture to increase productivity, and to invent cures for viruses; hatcheries to supply shrimp fry to the farmers at a lower cost; loans for the farmers; creating shrimp-friendly environment; to the standards of Aquaculture Certification Council (ACC) or other globally trusted labels of certification; removing corruption and various other malpractices; adherence to quality standards -- both freshness and credence (environmental, labour, and social) -- as required by the buyers; negotiation and consultation with NGOs opposing the shrimp culture; and knowing the shifting regulations, global market trends, power dynamics, global commodity networks and so forth.

Dr. M. Saidul Islam, Department of Sociology, York University, Toronto, Canada.

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