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Venezuela’s shrimp farms push for sustainability against hardship and oil spills

shrimp farm
  • Venezuela’s aquaculture industry used to go unnoticed in a national economy revolving around the oil industry, but has gained prominence since 2019 despite revenue cuts and the economic crisis.
  • Oil spills from disintegrating crude infrastructure compelled shrimp farms to move from an open system that took water from Lake Maracaibo and the Caribbean Sea, to a closed system that’s not only more profitable but also provides environmental benefits for communities and yields healthier shrimp.
  • In 2023, farmed shrimp was Venezuela’s sixth-largest export by value; while the top export markets are in Europe, China has become the industry’s fastest-growing destination.
  • While the industry has found ways to thrive amid adversity, it says it needs more help from the government, including on supplies of fuel and electricity, on research, and on nurturing a more secure and stable regulatory climate.

Most of Venezuela’s shrimp farms sit on the eastern shore of Lake Maracaibo, a brackish lagoon covering an area larger than the island of Sicily in the country’s northwest. This region is also Venezuela’s oil-production hub, and throughout the years, hundreds of oil spills have polluted the waters near the farms and damaged marine ecosystems that host native species of crustaceans. Yet despite this, Venezuela’s shrimp industry has grown exponentially in the last 25 years.  

The sector, which exports about 95% of its production, has managed to tackle environmental threats from a deteriorating oil infrastructure and economic difficulties by switching its practices. But while recognized abroad for their progress, shrimp farmers still face hurdles at home.

Shrimp farming in Venezuela reportedly began in 1972, with the first experiments in the cultivation of native species of white shrimp (Litopenaeus schmitti) and pink shrimp (Litopenaeus brasiliensis), followed by the first imports in 1986 of immature Pacific white shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei) from Texas, and the first spawning the following year. This was the first step by the Venezuelan government to initiate commercial shrimp farming in the country.

During the 1990s, production grew rapidly due to several political, economic and environmental factors: government facilities to obtain production permits, domestication of imported shrimp species, absence of viral diseases, increased investment, and attractive conditions for imports. By 1995, seven farms and one independent larviculture laboratory were operating; four of the farms and the lab were in eastern Venezuela.

With the turn of the century, the industry expanded westward, mainly due to greater land availability to create ponds, higher organic content in marine and lake waters, and a warmer climate, which favors rapid marine life growth.

Shrimp farms in the state of Zulia. Image courtesy of Asoproc.

Currently, there are more than 19,000 hectares (47,000 acres) of shrimp ponds across the country, spread among some 700 farms, according to Arnaldo Figueredo, executive director of the Venezuelan Aquaculture Society; half of them are closed or otherwise not operating due to the country’s economic crisis. Those able to survive and grow through economic hardship are owned by a little more than a dozen private companies.

Environmental challenges drive change

The biggest environmental problem facing shrimp farmers are the constant oil spills that pollute the waters of Lake Maracaibo and the Coro Gulf in Falcón state, Néstor Pereira, an expert in aquatic ecology and professor at the University of Zulia, told Mongabay. The spills keep occurring as the oil industry fails to maintain its infrastructure, especially following the wave of expropriations of the companies that repaired and maintained the 25,000 kilometers (15,500 miles) of underwater pipes in Lake Maracaibo.

In 2023, Venezuela recorded 86 oil spills, of which 84% occurred in the northwestern states of Zulia and Falcón, which host most of the shrimp farms and shrimp larvae production labs.

Until 2012, the impacts of these spills on marine and lake species were well documented, said Eduardo Klein, environmental impact assessment specialist and coordinator of the Center for Marine Biodiversity at Simón Bolívar University. But since then, the lack of funding for scientific research has left experts with a data gap on how species, including farmed shrimp, have been affected.

These obstacles pushed the industry to develop a more sustainable and efficient production system, while reducing costs and increasing productivity.

Satellite images from March show at least 18 oil spills in Lake Maracaibo covering more than 900 km². Image courtesy of Eduardo Klein via Sentinel Hub.

“The spills have led the industry to move from an open sea system to a closed hydraulic one using probiotics, which also improve the shrimp’s digestive system and metabolism, their physiology, making them stronger and more vigorous to face the problems that the water may have,” Pereira said. “With this Recirculation Aquaculture System (RAS), the shrimp farms — although not all of them have it — have stopped taking and discharging water from Lake Maracaibo.”

Production is also getting more intensive, with farms cultivating between 50,000 and 300,000 shrimp per hectare, Figueredo said, or about 20,000 to 121,000 shrimp per acre. Meanwhile, the time to grow the shrimp to maturity has been cut.

Oil spills caused by PDVSA in Lake Maracaibo occur generally on the East Coast. Fortunately for the shrimp industry, that is far from the lake’s western shore, where most of  shrimp farms are located. Image courtesy of Eduardo Klein via Sentinel Hub.

“Before, the fattening cycle was longer, between four and five months, but now, to try to speed up production and detect any problems, a shorter cycle is used: a pre-breeding cycle and a fattening cycle, which usually last two and a half months each,” Figueredo said.

Changes in production and improved water management in the pre-breeding and rearing processes have helped the industry stop discharging polluting effluents into Lake Maracaibo, while conserving regional mangrove ecosystems.

Legislation has also prevented shrimp farming from harming the environment, while maintaining mangroves near ponds. A 1995 governmental decree established quality control norms for water bodies and liquid discharges, while a 1996 law made environmental impact studies mandatory prior to developing productive projects.

The industry hasn’t suffered as much from institutional conflicts as other sectors. Although there were some expropriations more than a decade ago, the government at present doesn’t officially have such policies for companies in the shrimp-farming industry.

Eleven Venezuelan shrimp companies are certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), one of the world’s leading certification bodies for the industry, which assesses companies on worker welfare, community involvement, resource efficiency, and environmental responsibility.

Marine biologist Robert Tenia, head of production between 2018 and 2022 at Inmarlaca, Venezuela’s largest shrimp farm, saw four visits from certifiers. “They checked working conditions, where the workers slept, what the canteens were like, the state of the surrounding mangroves, the water replacement filters, and that there was no leakage of animals from the pools into natural areas,” he told Mongabay.

Gas and oil leaks from PDVSA’s underwater pipes have persisted for years near inactive shrimp farming pools in Golfete de Coro, in the state of Falcón. Image courtesy of Eduardo Klein via Sentinel Hub.

“If they saw any flaw, they gave the company one month to correct it. Every year they were improving the aquaculture practices, but also [providing] better sanitary facilities for the workers, air-conditioning in all areas, bigger working spaces to have more space per person,” he said. By the time Tenia retired in October 2022, Inmarlaca was implementing a protocol for mangrove planting and migratory bird assessment, similarly to one of its competitors, Camalago.

Production explosion amid economic crisis

In 2023, shrimp accounted for Venezuela sixth-biggest commodity export by value, worth $214 million. The main destinations were the Netherlands, France and Spain, although the fastest-growing market is China; exports to that country increased from $15.6 million in 2021 to $32.8 million in 2022.

The industry’s sustainability and productivity shifts have opened new international markets. According to Fernando Villamizar, president of the Western Shrimp Producers Association, the industry has its sights set on Asia, the Middle East and Russia, where it’s targeting massive growth potential.

Villamizar told Mongabay that in 2024 Venezuela would produce 60,000 metric tons of shrimp, 50% more than in 2023. This increase in production would place Venezuela among the world’s top 10 shrimp exporters.

According to Villamizar, the final 2024 production could be about 100,000 metric tons — an achievable goal, given that in January there was a 12% increase in production from a year earlier.

Although shrimp farms don’t receive any state incentives or subsidies, until 2019 they benefited from access to dollars at preferential rates granted by the government to the productive sector through its exchange control system. According to an Inter American Development Bank report, “especially in the period 2004-2019, shrimp companies managed to structure an exchange arbitrage that allowed them to obtain indirect subsidies and informal profits that were key for reinvestment in their productive capacity.”

Need for policy to keep pace

A key step that shrimp producers are pushing for is to agree with the authorities on a stable supply of diesel and electricity. In a country with frequent blackouts and paralyzed refineries, the government can’t guarantee these basic services, instead requiring shrimp farms to finance a natural gas and electrification network for farms and communities, as well as the paving and expansion of road infrastructure near the shrimp farms.

“We have asked the national government for a 50% reduction on the export tax, which would allow us to be more competitive, which in the long run would imply a greater fiscal contribution, because it would allow us to use 30% of the current idle capacity,” Villamizar said.

Pereira pointed out the importance of both state and private investment in aquaculture research in Venezuela. “In order to move forward, research is needed. Currently there is no coordinated research policy between academia, producers, and the state, in order to better understand the behavior of this farming system, to make it more efficient and sustainable. We have advanced through trial and error, which is not ideal,” he said.

Sunrise over Lake Maracaibo. Image by Wilfredor via Wikimedia Commons. 

Figueredo, the aquaculture society head, is currently promoting an upcoming event that will bring together academics, authorities and even related agricultural producers to find ways of cooperating. “Many of the solutions to the problems we face are in the research groups of the universities,” he said, though he added he also hopes for a total exoneration of local taxes.

What the industry needs to boost production, he said, is “to incorporate legal figures such as marine-coastal concessions, like those granted in Venezuela exclusively with oil.” This change would imply a regulatory climate that’s secure and stable, reduce the potential for arbitrary government policies, and do away with the hassle of having to renew annual permits, Figueredo said. “Nobody wants to make a new investment of millions of dollars if they don’t know if in a year the government [will] tell you that you have to leave the country.”

Banner image: Water treatment plan for shrimps farms in the state of Zulia. Image courtesy of Asoproco.

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