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Of Prawns and Men on the Bali Strait

This article first appeared in The Seashore Issue of the culinary magazine Lucky Peach. The piece was funded under the Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative program.

Why is shrimp so cheap? (Answer: it’s not.)

Wednesday’s special ebi nigiri at Sushi Ichiban; chạo sôm (grilled prawns on sugarcane skewers) as a prelude to pho; frozen blocks of “headless and skinless” that could be turned into paella for ten. Back in college, these two- or three-dollar shrimp dishes were my gateway into gourmanderie. Cheap, protein-packed, a quick and forgiving thing to cook, shrimp was the backbone of my formative culinary explorations, my go-to for special occasions on a budget.

Yet, even as a ditzy sophomore, I couldn’t help wondering how something as delicious as shrimp could be affordable even on a Pell Grant budget. But these thoughts were fleeting—far more amusing to busy myself with my dorm room hot plate than to question crustacean bargains or knuckle down to worksheets in O-Chem, Population Ecology, and Economics.

A huge pile of shrimp. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.comA huge pile of shrimp. Photo by Rhett A. Butler /

I should have paid more attention in class. Only after I moved back to my birthplace, Indonesia, did I come to understand first-hand how cheap shrimp could be explained by the Econ 101 concept of “externalities.” The real cost of farmed shrimp never shows up on your restaurant tab or grocery bill. Costs like:

In the U.S it’s common to read this list starting at the bottom. In the United States Department of Commerce’s largest lawsuit to date, the world’s biggest farmed shrimp producers (Thailand, Indonesia, India, Ecuador, Vietnam, Malaysia, and China) were charged, in 2012, with offloading $3.4 billion worth of shrimp—about half of total U.S. shellfish imports by volume. Charges stuck against all but the biggest aquaculture powers, Thailand and Indonesia, whose subsidies to the industry were deemed too low to warrant sanctions. Their market share made up a third of frozen shrimp imports.

Europe, which as a continent consumes less shrimp than Japan (second highest national shrimp consumption) or the U.S. (first), picked a bone with the public health aspect. In 2006, E.U. regulators banned all imports of shrimp that were either treated with antibiotics or tainted with viruses. As though to ratify their sagacity, no sooner was this edict passed than God proceeded to smite the world’s leading shrimp exporter, Thailand, with a biblical plague of Early Mortality Syndrome (EMS), killing off baby shrimp by the hundreds of thousands. Soon the disease spread to every other shrimp producing country.

Only Indonesia was spared, perhaps owing in part to the prescience of Indonesia’s head of state himself. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY, as he is more popularly known) decided to wall off Indonesia’s shrimp industry as a full-service, self-contained enclave of production.

A shrimp farm in Banyuwangi. Photo by Melati Kaye.
A shrimp farm in Banyuwangi. Photo by Melati Kaye.

Archipelagic Indonesia enjoys one incomparable advantage in the global shrimp-farming game: 81,000 miles of coastline, the world’s longest, fringing its 17,000 islands. Key to the country’s bid for market leadership in the global shrimp trade is the National Broodstock Centre, a dedicated crustacean nursery where Indonesia generates its own breed of shrimp, freeing itself from reliance on any alien, EMS-tainted shrimp spawn. This homegrown Indonesian version of the vannamei shrimp species is deemed so crucial to the national push for prawn primacy that SBY personally inaugurated the Broodstock Centre two years ago in the Balinese hamlet of Bugbug.

This is where I received my education in the true costs of the U.S.’s cheap shrimp—at a government facility in Indonesia that has become the national, industrialized shrimp cradle. By looking deep into one of the world’s largest shrimp producers, I hoped to learn what environmental and social costs are really mixed into the modern, farmed shrimp cocktail.


Mention of Bali conjures up images of palm-fringed resorts and white sand beaches. Bugbug, way off the tourist track, isn’t quite like that. The town saddles a dry streambed that winds past an old chicken farm and a field where skinny cows graze among jatropha and cactus. Outside visitors are so rare here that, to welcome me into the lab’s sterile “nucleus core,” my guide drapes me in the very same white lab coat that SBY wore at the opening ceremony two years ago.

The smock’s a bit roomy in the shoulders, but nicely matches the white gum boots we wear as we clomp through a little moat of grape-colored disinfectant to enter a bare cement building with zero ventilation. Under a blazing overhead skylight, a miasma of evaporating saltwater rises from rows of plastic-lined concrete vats. My skin instantly chafes with sweat around the collar of the lab coat.

A shrimp farm in Banyuwangi. Photo by Melati Kaye.
A shrimp farm in Banyuwangi. Photo by Melati Kaye.

Why these hellish conditions? To inure the vannamei against what they’ll be facing in Indonesia’s commercial shrimperies, explains Bugbug researcher Wayan Arnawa. The warm, watery milieu of a typical 27o C aquaculture tank makes for a hotbed of shrimp disease. But, Wayan says, if you crank up the tank temperature even higher, your new-fledged heat-hardened vannamei might be able to survive in an environment that kills off their pathogen attackers, since “bacteria don’t do well at super high temperatures.” So by expressly raising the founding vannamei forebears in sauna conditions, “the hope is their offspring will inherit their ability to survive.”

Aquaculture entrepreneur Hary Pitoyo sure hopes the Bugbug researchers are right about this. In fact he’s betting the Sun and Stars on it. That’s the name of the shrimp farm (Karthika Surya, in Indonesian) that he founded with four friends fresh out of college twenty-eight years ago. In that time, he’s had to switch to three different shrimp species—giant tiger prawns, banana prawns, and now vannamei. Each overhaul was the result of a disease epidemic. He hopes that soon he will be able to seed his shrimp ponds, on the east coast of Java, with new and even more resilient breeds from the research institute.

At the farm, we stand above a cement-lined pool full of shrimp as he directs a somber minion to scoop up a bamboo basket of twenty squirming crustaceans from the murky, brown water. Ten ponds separate us from the ocean. Each could fit a high school running track. Nothing shades the expanse except the guard tower standing at center; and a lone bougainvillea tree erupting in red flowers—a classic sign of unloamy, fast-draining soils.

The translucent shellfish in the bamboo basket claw the air with their whiskers and legs, groping to return to the safety of their tank. “If they jump, they’re healthy,” Pitoyo explains. “If they’re slow to move, we’ve got a problem.”

Sluggishness is the first sign of disease, he says. So Karthika Surya will raise its shrimp as long as they are lively—the bigger they are, the higher the price, after all. Farmers can get anywhere between two to six dollars more for larger U-12 (12 shrimp per pound) versus smaller U-41/50, depending on the species and competition. But as soon as the shrimp start to look the least bit droopy, they’re harvested before they can display any symptoms of diagnosable, market exclusionary disease. Then the tank gets reseeded. Just now, the shrimp look frisky enough to live another day, so Pitoyo orders his staffer to go ahead and feed them. The workman boards a Styrofoam raft and pulls himself across the tank, strewing feed pellets.

The pellets are two-thirds cereal and one-third “marine-derived protein”—basically heads and guts from “trash fish” species like herring, sardines, and anchovies. The feed is Sun and Stars’ “biggest expense,” Pitoyo sighs, and it gets costlier year by year.

Broodstock shrimp eating their dinner. Photo by Melati Kaye.
Broodstock shrimp eating their dinner. Photo by Melati Kaye.

Sardines used to abound in the Bali Strait that runs right in front of Karthika Surya. So plentiful were they that dozens of fish pellet plants sprang up along the East Java coast, gleaning the discards from canneries. To supply these factories, local fishermen stopped going after the varied marine life of the Strait and converted their colorful, wood-hulled slerek boats to wholly dedicated sardine seiners.

But then overfishing decimated the Bali Strait’s sardine schools and the factories had to source their ever-costlier feedstock from as far afield as Pakistan, Yemen, or even Peru. And, soon enough, “trash” fleets in those countries, too, began to feel the pressure of declining fish populations. Since the “trash” species comprise the very foundation of marine vertebrate food chains, their depletion threatens whole oceanic ecosystems—a crisis grave enough that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has called for a total ban on marine-derived protein for aquaculture.

“Ridiculous,” snorts Pitoyo. After all, what else are his shrimp supposed to eat? A protein-free diet? How healthy would you be, he wonders, if you ate nothing but cereal? Or should Karthika Surya feed its shrimp some other sort of animal protein? Chicken, perhaps? Beef? But those animals, in turn, bulk up on “trash fish” pellets, anyway, so it all still comes down to marine-sourced nutrients.

“What’s the point?” Pitoyo shrugs. Meanwhile, his morose minion goes on crisscrossing the pool on his Styrofoam raft, a glum Charon plying a stagnant Styx.


A brighter prospect greets me as I ascend the Banyuwangi highlands above Karthika Surya. A lush carpet of green rice paddies unfurls from a backdrop of forested volcano slopes all the way down to the coastal fishing villages nestled amidst coconut groves. Offshore, a parti-colored, high-prowed slerek bobs on the glinting Strait like a gaudy, aquatic toucan.

Back in the day, fishermen would be hauling in nets full of sardines and octopus, not to mention “free range,” ocean-going prawns as big as the palm of your hand, as opposed to Pitoyo’s finger-sized vannamei. Villagers may have been cash-poor, but they still produced such surf-and-turf feasts as sambal udang petai (chili-fried shrimp with “stink beans”) or udang bakar (skewered prawns grilled over coconut husks).

What’s missing from this seemingly idyllic vista? Mangroves, the marshy swamp forests that once rimmed the entire coast. Karthika Surya is one of a line of sun-baked shrimp farms that have supplanted the mangroves in Banyuwangi.

That’s just as it should be, according to Iwan Sutanto, president of the Shrimp Club of Indonesia, an industry association. “Indonesia has the world’s longest coastline,” he says. “This could all be shrimp farm.”

An overhead view of shrimp aquaculture in Java, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler /
An overhead view of shrimp aquaculture in Java, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler /

But, for another perspective, I turn to Ratna Fadhila, an Indonesia-based regional director for the Mangrove Action Project, a conservationist NGO out of Port Angeles, Washington. Traditionally, she explains, no one claims ownership of the mangrove forests. But that hardly means they’re of no value to coast dwellers. They mitigate tropical heat and buffer against storm surges—problems that will only worsen with accelerating climate change.

And the coastal swamps nurture richly diverse ecosystems. Ratna cites studies showing that fishermen from mangrove-fringed villages enjoy varied bumper catches. Conversely, she adds, where mangroves are supplanted by shrimp farms, local communities net measurably fewer fish. Mangroves comprise an invaluable, but vanishing “commons” for dwellers along Indonesia’s waterways.

Since nobody previously claimed the mangroves, government officials negotiated usage rights with outside investors without consulting locals. And, once they’ve secured such an easement and a building license, shrimp farm operators can press on for outright ownership of their coastal tracts.

What’s worse, Ratna adds, if a shrimpery goes bust—more than possible in such a competitive and pandemic-prone industry—the newly privatized land can pass into the hands of its creditor banks, who can then resell it for housing, office, or factory complexes. “When the mangroves are removed,” she explains, “these coastal villagers, the poorest of the poor, get cheated of their regular fish catch. They’re forced to work for the same investors who cleared the land for shrimp farming in the first place.”

For a glimpse of what that work looks like, I visit a shrimp processing plant in Banyuwangi city. Horror tales of working conditions in pre-EMS Thailand’s processing plants—Burmese refugees forced into 12–15 hour workdays under threat of sexual violence—prepared me for the worst. But the scene is far less lurid at PT Istana Cipta Sembada, which roughly translates into “Self-sufficient Dream Palace.” Although far from dreamy, the place is at least antiseptic.

My tour of the Palace starts with a bleach bath for my rubber-booted feet. Then I’m led down a staircase into a warehouse crowded with hundreds of workers in caps, facemasks, hair scarves, rubber boots, and aprons. Swaddled as they are in their uniforms, the Dream Palace’s seafood shuckers look as undifferentiated as the breaded and seasoned shrimp cubelets they churn out. Their workday goes on for hours at a stretch, interrupted only by the periodic tinkling strains of “London Bridge” over the factory loudspeaker, which serve as a reminder to wash their rubber-gloved hands.

I watch a thin girl, the frilly white fringe of her jilbab peeking out from under her sterile wrappings. Only her eyes are visible between her mask and her hairnet. She’s too busy to talk, as she picks up a gray-fleshed crustacean and strips it of its four-segments of carapace in eight seconds flat, slides it across the aluminum table to the “done” pile and reaches for another shrimp.

At such a rate, each worker can prep 6–7 kilos an hour. It adds up to a plant-wide throughput of 100–200 tons of seafood a month, Dream Palace general manager Gunawan Mulyono estimates. Workers’ shifts run to just eight hours a day, he assures me, with only occasional overtime. They start at $100 a month, with possible raises up to $180.

That’s not a bad income for rural Java, only slightly below the minimum wage in glittering (and pricey) Jakarta. And it’s far enough below the pay rate for comparable work in Europe or America to give Indonesia an advantage in the global shrimp trade. But while shrimp is cheap by Western importers’ standards, it’s still well beyond the reach of the workers producing it.

That same evening, I have dinner at the curbside warung in front of my Banywangi hotel. Shrimp is not on the menu. In fact all that Mbondok, the stall owner, can afford to serve is rice, chili-drenched eggplant, and some kind of fish that’s been flash-fried to an unidentifiable crisp.

The only other diner tonight is an eleven-year-old girl, Vinca, whose mother, it turns out, works as a shrimp shucker in one of the local cold storage plants. Does her mother like the work? The girl shrugs. At least it’s a job. With evident relish, she tucks into the same vaguely piscine gristle that I find so unappetizing.

What is this stuff, anyway? I ask Mbondok. “Lemuru, what else?” she replies, referring to the Bali Strait’s signature species of “trash fish” sardines.

A technician checks on health of the shrimp at Indonesia's national shrimp and mollusk broodstock center. Photo by Melati Kaye.
A technician checks on health of the shrimp at Indonesia’s national shrimp and mollusk broodstock center. Photo by Melati Kaye.

Lemuru again headlines the menu a couple of days later at lunch with the crew of one of the fishing slereks. But, this time, the sardines are fresh and delicious, roasted over a grill set up dockside. The slightly charred fish skin reminds me a little of grilled apples—slightly salty, slightly sweet, a perfect complement to the tart and spicy tomato sambal that the cook grinds in a flat stone mortar. The slerek fishermen reach for endless helpings, replacing the protein and calories expended in a long night of pulling nets.

I’m delighted with the meal, but the sailors’ mood is sullen. They had been chipper when we set out about 4 p.m. the previous afternoon. They huddled on the leeward side of the forty-five-foot vessel’s sky blue deck, smoking and mending sections of net held between their toes. Our captain climbed to his crow’s nest to scan the horizon. Over the course of the night, he made three separate sightings of fish. Each time, the 55 crewmen had to strip down to their underwear and spend more than an hour hauling the seine net.

In the U.S, seine boats chasing herring and sardines only require five crew members. Here, with underpowered engines propelling massive wooden hulls, there’s no motor power left for net hauling. It’s all done manually, by scores of deckhands to the tune of improvised sea chanteys—a scene straight out of Moby Dick.

And, after all that heroic effort, we barely land a quarter ton—way short of the minimum threshold to interest Banyuwangi pellet factories. Nothing for it but to broker off as much as can be sold by the bucketful to the fishwives who swarm the beach to meet the slerek fleet upon its 6 a.m. return. And then to eat whatever’s left over.

“So it’s lemuru for breakfast again,” sighs the captain. Well, I ask, what would you have eaten if you’d gotten luckier last night? “Ah, then,” he replies with a wistful gleam in his eye, “I could have had grilled shrimp.”

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