October 08, 2018

By Zoe Koestel, Intern, Institute for Conservation Medicine

Have you ever wondered how, exactly, that shrimp ended up on your plate? Chances are, it came from a shrimp farm in a coastal country. Aquaculture has grown faster than any other food producing industry in history, and as we struggle to feed a growing human population, aquaculture becomes increasingly relevant. As part of my veterinary public health education, I worked as an intern with the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine (ICM). During my internship at the ICM, I ventured to the southern part of Ecuador, near the Peruvian border, to work alongside Gober, a shrimp farmer living outside the town of Santa Rosa. While there, I descended into the magnificent mangrove forests to observe the aquaculture process required for every shrimp that ends up in someone’s cocktail.

All food animal industries are affected by any number of infectious agents (think bacteria and viruses).  Shrimp farming is no different. Thus, a major responsibility of Gober’s job is to try to minimize disease in his shrimp. Using little blue canoes and nets, we collected samples from the shrimp ponds for examination. The industry is still reeling from the viral pandemics of the 1990s, which wrought havoc on shrimp production. The most significant of these viruses was White Spot Syndrome Virus, a disease that can cause up to 100 percent death of shrimp in ponds. The industry has since recovered, but now there is a new peril:  Acute Hepatopancreatic Necrosis Disease (AHPND). First discovered in Asia, the causative agent of AHPND has now spread globally. Another threat to the industry is the ever-present relationship between the job at hand, humans and domestic animals present in the mix. In Ecuador, “La cameronera,” or “the shrimp farm,” where I spent most of my time is also called “Las Casitas,” or “the houses.” These fishermen and their families are there for the shrimp, but Las Casitas also serves as home to chickens, pigs, cats, dogs, goats and more. Each of the farms and hatcheries we visited had its own menagerie of canine guards. None were spayed/neutered or vaccinated, and each dog was flea-ridden, but obviously well-loved and essential to the operation.  

A primary threat to successful aquaculture practice is loss due to disease, and the emergence of AHPND reminds us that there is still progress to be made. Veterinarians can help facilitate diagnosis and prevention of infectious diseases. For example, salmon farming in Scotland represents a promising example of veterinary involvement in aquaculture. Veterinarians have helped the industry combat pathogens such as the bacterium Aeromonas salmonicida and sea lice, improving the profitability and productivity of the industry.

Shrimp, like any other natural resource, are not endless, and the rampant growth of aquaculture has come at the expense of one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in existence: mangrove forests. For millennia, mangroves have provided coastal people with a multitude of resources and ecosystem services, but now these forests are disappearing at astounding rates. Within the last two decades, an estimated 38 percent of mangrove forests have been destroyed worldwide, and shrimp farms are considered the most pressing threat. Thinning mangrove forests close to agricultural operations decreases the amount of runoff that can be sequestered, which further degrades water quality. The ability to catch wild shrimp declines in areas surrounding shrimp farms due to overexploitation and loss of mangrove habitat. If mangrove forests are to remain in existence for coming generations, people from all sectors must collaborate to make aquaculture sustainable and pursue fierce reforestation efforts.

Humans have a responsibility to devise ways to prosper without destroying the Earth for the future. Striving for intergenerational equality requires that we preserve the planet so our children and grandchildren have the necessary resources to survive. To achieve this, it is imperative that aquaculture be conducted sustainably, with a respect for mangrove forests and the role they play on our planet.

This is One Health – the idea that the health of every species on the planet is interconnected, and that if we work together, we can move towards a collective welfare. Groups such as the ICM are essential for a future of One Health. They bring people together from varying backgrounds and fields to facilitate progress towards a more sustainable existence for humans.

Amidst a world that sometimes seems overtaken by impending doom, it is essential that we celebrate every bit of goodness we encounter. Gober’s openness and willingness to work with me is an example of this. I was overwhelmed by the kindness of his family and all the people I met in Ecuador. They welcomed me into their lives and homes, encouraged me to learn everything I could about their country, and implored me to return when I can. Interactions with individuals like Gober, doing important and challenging work, are invaluable resources. This experience, my internship with the ICM, is something I will treasure for the rest of my career and life.

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