Just the city limits the old green bus slowly makes his way up the shore road. On the way to the ecological shrimps farm we are looking upon the shores of Rio Chone. The scenery is dominated by the vast industrial shrimp farms. Over the length of many miles of the coastal region the breeding ponds stretch, bordered by brown dams without vegetation
"Earlier," recounts Nicola Mears, "earlier, here stood mangroves as far as the eye can reach. Thousands of families lived on the rich fish grounds of the mangroves." Until about twenty years ago the shrimp boom set in, promising quick money to a few. Until today about 95% of the total amount has fallen victim to deforestation in order to create new breeding space for the popular shrimps.
The exploitation of resources triggered the ruin of the shrimp industry
At the beginning the production was simple: The ponds were flooded with the water of the bordering mangroves and planted with shrimp-grubs caught from the sea. Eight to ten weeks upon that the grown-up shrimps could be exported to the rich industrialized countries at a good price.
The huge demand for the delicatesse was motivation enough for the breeders to grow more shrimps on less space. The eyes set firmly on the money, the first problems that arose went unseen:
Like in agriculture, monocultures are easy victims for viruses and bacteria. Along with the adding of fish meal as organic protein to increase the production, antibiotics and hormons had to be used excessively in order to protect the shrimp population from diseases.
What is feared to this day is the Mancha Blanca (white stain), a viral shrimp disease. The plague erased whole populations and the survival rate sank from only 35% (which is normal) to a devastating 10%.
Costs for medicine and chemicals rose and were supposed to be carried by a larger output. The vicious circle ended in a total collapse of the shrimp industry. The natural resources were exploited, the grounds of the breeding ponds were excessively salty and exhausted.
Ecuador's shrimp production - formerly the second biggest shrimp exporter- sank by about sixty percent within three years. "The revenge of the mancha blanca," sniggers Nicola Mears. The lack of supply on the world market was quickly filled by other countries like Brazil or Venezuela. At the same time, the rising supply let the price fall again and stopped at a relatively low level in comparison to the peak of the shrimp industry. Now, the breeders have to put up with low prices, weak shrimp populations and exhausted grounds.
Monocultures do not maximize gains in the long run
The industry has not realized in time that an extensive monoculture cannot be maintained lucratively in the long run. In contrast to industrial breeding, shrimps in wild nature grow up in a complex ecosystem, in which a large variety of fish, birds and mammals make up a diverse food chain together with the mangroves.
The breeding ponds, however, resemble a water desert. The breeders will not tolerate water animals apart from the shrimps. Any vegetation on the dams is plucked out, since the breeders fear that the plants might draw on birds that would only feed on the shrimps - and their money.
This is only true for about thirty per cent of the birds in this area, though. And since these mainly prey on ill or weak animals, they indirectly strengthen the population, as Nicola Mears comments on this error. The New Sealandian has been working together with the Ecuadorians César Ruperti and Darìo Proano since 1998 on the idea of a natural living space for the breeding of shrimps. 25 kilometers up the river from Bahia de Caraquez the world wide first certified ecological shrimp farm was built two years ago.
Densely Wooded Farm
With a roaring engine, having passed several cotton fields, we are approaching the Bahía eco-farm. The bumpy road offers a magnificent view of the valley and the breeding ponds. The dams between the ponds are densely wooded with mangroves and reed, and from the distance we can see numerous white herons plodding in the half-empty pond on the search for small crabs.
"We want to have our products certified," explains Nicola Mears. "The search for a partner led to the German organization Naturland. Together, we have devised the standards for a natural shrimp production."
The first major implementation problem was providing enough organic proteins for the farming, without having to resort to fish meal, which is used in industrial farming. About five kilograms fish meal is needed for the production of a kilogram shrimps. According to organic farmers a waste of natural resources. Vegetarian proteins from bean plants should bridge the supply gap. Therefore, carob has been planted on the dams. Its seeds are ground and mixed with other plant products and used as a food additive.
The sustainability of the overall system is based on a well-thought-out interplay of agriculture and water management. The Bahía eco-farm is therefore closely connected with the "Encarnación" plant on the suburbs of Bahía de Caraquez.
Maracuya, yuka, aloe and papaya are cultivated there and a large amount of them is later brought to the food chain of the shrimp farming. Passion fruits such as maracuya provide the shrimps with essential vitamins. On the other hand, the manure for the cultivated plants comes form organic waste of the market and the shrimp farm. This leads to a circle with an optimal exploitation of natural resources.
The aquaculture itself produces so much food for the shrimp population that the addition of nutrients by the farmer could be reduced by two thirds, compared to industrial shrimp production. "At the same time, the addition of proteins could be reduced from 40 to less than 14 per cent," says proudly Pedro, the foreman of the farm.
Two horses graze in front of us on the dam, leaving the road only upon several honks. Black stained pigs stand up to their bellies in water, digging with their noses in the seaweed for something useful.
Above us, a big cormorant heads to the pond where the harvest is reaped. "After eight to ten weeks, the harvest must be reaped, otherwise there is a danger of the Mancha Blanca," says Mears about the progress of production.
No chemicals since many years
Whereas the industry invested in its best times up to USD 500 in chemicals per hectare, not a single gram of chemical substrates has been used here.
"Bacteria and viruses cannot be completely rooted out. It is neither possible nor necessary," adds Mears. "We reap the shrimps when they are adult and refrain from feeding them up. The English market does not require it. In order to strengthen the immune system, we might use Biovirax, a mixture of zinc, germanium and other minerals. A sort of natural antibiotics."
Harvest without hurry
We are approaching the outlet channel of the breeding pond where a large rectangular net is stretched.
Without hurry, a dusky Ecuadorian fishes with a landing net the animals caught in the net and throws them to a blue bucket. His colleague assorts softly the haul: the shrimps go immediately to an ice basket, the chame fish to a red basket destined for the market and the crabs to a blue plastic box.
A third worker leans sleepy beside his shotgun on a carob tree and watches the calm work. Division of labour, Ecuadorian style.
"Few people know about it," the dusky Ecuadorian breaks the silence, "but the shrimps drop their shields when growing. Regularly short before the full moon. The harvest takes place at full moon when the new shields are particularly hard and the animals are more resistant for the harvest and the following transport." The foreman adds proudly: "Our farm can prove a sevenfold higher survival rate than the industrial farms."
Lack of will and money for sustainable production
The cameraman of a Japanese television team that wants to make a documentary about the eco-farm wonders whether other farms also intend to change to organic farming.
Nicola Mears looks thoughtfully at the shrimps in her hand: "We organize training for interested shrimp farmers. Two further farms are about to be certified. Maybe they will export their goods to Germany too. But the most farms at the Rio Chone lack not only the will, but after a long period of mismanagement also the money."