THAILAND – Driven to despair by a plague that has laid to waste young shrimps across east Asia, Suraphol Pratuangtham, a seafood farmer in southern Thailand, suspended operations at his ponds for more than three months over the summer.
“This year is the worst for our shrimp production in the past 30 years,” laments Mr Pratuangtham, who is also president of the Thai Marine Shrimp Farmers Association and expects Thailand’s 2013 exports to halve from its peak levels.
The disease, known as Early Mortality Syndrome (EMS), has for more than two years savaged Asia’s shrimp industry, including Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and China. But this year’s plunge in supplies from the region – which accounts for 80 per cent of global production – is the worst yet, and led to a sharp rise in global shrimp prices to a 12-year high.
The fall in exports, mostly of species such as white and tiger shrimp – known in the UK as king and tiger prawns – could cost the region’s seafood farming industry $1bn a year, according to the Global Aquaculture Alliance, a US-based trade group.
But 12,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean in Ecuador’s leading crustacean producing region of El Oro in the south west, Segundo Calderón, a shrimp fisherman for a quarter of a century, is having a stellar year. is revenuehave jumped 40 per cent in the past two months.
Shrimp is the most traded fish in the international market ahead of salmon and tuna, and EMS has opened the market for other producers, including Ecuador, Indonesia, India and Bangladesh, which have not been hit by the disease.
“We have experienced benefits in the pricing, also we are having very good production levels and more demand, particularly from the US. So the lack of Asian shrimp has benefited us,” says Mr Calderón.
Researchers believe EMS spreads through infected juvenile shrimp bought to stock ponds, as well as spreading through areas where high-density farms are built close together.
This is seen as one of the key factors behind the contrasting fortunes of Mr Calderón from Mr Pratuangtham in Thailand.
Ecuador opted for low-density shrimp farming after the outbreak in the late 1990s of the White Spot Syndrome, a disease which devastated the shrimp industry worldwide. The South American country now produces about 200,000 tonnes of shrimp a year using space totalling 190,000ha.
That contrasts with Thailand, which in a normal year would produce the same amount from ponds with a total area of only 60,000-70,000ha, according to Mr Calderón.
EMS – which was recently confirmed in Mexico – has led to a dramatic change in trade flows for shrimp. José Antonio Camposano, head of the Ecuador’s National Chamber of Aquaculture, notes the country has gained from the shifts in Asian demand caused by the disease as well as the rise of Chinese consumption.
He says Vietnam, which processes shrimp, now imports from Ecuador due to the lack of crustaceans from Thailand. “Until 4 years ago, Asia represented only 2-3 per cent of our exports while today that number stands at 17 per cent,” says Mr Camposano.
Exports to Asia have offset the drop in demand from recession-hit Europe. High prices have discouraged European packers from signing big contracts, and most European countries led by the largest importer Spain, have cut back on their imports in the past year.
“Asia has been filling the hole left by Europe. If not for Asia, we would have an excess of shrimp,” adds Mr Camposano.
Ecuador and other exporters have also been lifted by China, which has increased its imports in the face of rising in demand at a time its own production has been hit by EMS.
Despite slower economic growth and the government’s drive against lavish official spending, Chinese demand for shrimp has continued to grow strongly, with frozen shrimp imports rising 45 per cent in the first quarter from a year earlier, says the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
“Although it will take many years before China becomes a net importer anywhere near the levels of the EU, US or Japan, it is clear that Chinese shrimp consumers are having an increasing impact on global shrimp markets,” says Gorjan Nikolik, an analyst at Rabobank.
As for Thailand, its shrimp farmers have received some good news during the past few months when the FAO announced that researchers from the University of Arizona had identified the bacterium responsible for the plague.
The question is how long it will take them to find a cure, and once it is found, what impact it will have on world markets, as the return of the leading exporters may mean a glut in supplies and a fall in prices.
For Mr Pratuangtham, the Thai shrimp farmer, that may be too far in the future. He has adopted a system of isolating his young shrimps in what he calls an “intensive care unit” pond and is one of many farmers hoping this devastating disease can be mitigated, if not yet eradicated.
“Next year will be better than this year,” he says, but adds mournfully: “We can’t get back to the good old days of 600,000 tonne production. That’s impossible.”
By Michael Peel in Bangkok