The story of India’s shrimp aquaculture sector over the last decade is stuff that dreams are made of. From facing near closure, the industry has emerged as the country’s agricultural exports leader, generating prosperity to the lakhs involved in its farming, hatchery and processing operations. A growth of 800% and more over 10 years isn’t an everyday story.
After almost trebling from 35,500 tonnes to 97,100 tonnes between 1990-91 and 2000-01, shrimp production started initially showing stagnation, before plunging to below 76,000 tonnes by 2008-09. This had largely to do with the monoculture of Penaeus monodon, commonly known as Tiger Shrimp/prawn. The absence of a proper breeding programme meant that the hatcheries — producing the nauplii and post-larvae (seed), which farmers grow to marketable size in ponds — had to use wild parent brood stock. These brooders were vulnerable to disease when introduced in a domesticated environment. That was exposed with the striking of the deadly white spot syndrome virus, leading to several shrimp hatcheries and farms shutting down. Estimates of closures across the value chain ranged from 50 to 80%.
Meanwhile, other prominent shrimp-producing countries had shifted to Litopenaeus vannamei or White Shrimp. Genetically improved SPF (specific pathogen free) brooders of this prawn species were first developed and commercialised by Shrimp Improvement Systems, a Hawaii-based company. Apart from being disease and virus resistant, it was far more productive. A section of Indian seafood processors, hatchery operators and farmers had, for long, been clamouring for importing this brood stock. But there were equally those vehemently opposed to bringing in a species native to the eastern Pacific Ocean. They claimed it would result in new and unknown diseases invading our waters. It was another matter that the Indian shrimp industry was already on its deathbed. The opponents, incidentally, included leading scientists as well.
After prolonged debate and acrimonious discussions, Litopenaeus vannamei got introduced, while being subjected to a very tight regulatory regime and oversight. Even if it may have come a decade late, the Pacific White Shrimp produced a miraculous turnaround. From $1.91 billion (Rs 8,607.94 crore) in 2008-09, India’s marine exports zoomed to $7.08 billion (Rs 45,106.89 crore) in 2017-18. Out of the total $7.08 billion, as much as $4.85 billion (Rs 30,868.17 crore) comprised frozen shrimps. And our entire shrimp exports is today from Pacific White Shrimp. Also, the country’s output of 76,000 tonnes in 2008-09 came solely from Tiger Shrimp. A decade later, shrimp production had gone up more than nine times to roughly 7 lakh tonnes, of which the share of Litopenaeus vannamei was 6,23,000 tonnes.
The above story is, no doubt, very impressive. But sustaining the growth is a challenge we do not seem adequately prepared for. The one lesson to be learnt from the doom the shrimp industry faced only a decade ago is not to rely on a single species. At that time, it was Penaeus monodon or Tiger Shrimp. But the subsequent turnaround and prosperity has also been courtesy a single species, that too, exotic. India is, moreover, completely dependent on the import of its brood stock for seed production and farming. What to say of a breeding programme, we are yet to even establish brood multiplication centers for Pacific White Shrimp.
Now that the current government has created a new Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry & Dairying, establishment of such centers for Litopenaeus vannamei, in order to liberate hatchery owners and farmers from overreliance on a handful of overseas suppliers, should be accorded priority. Simultaneously, revival of Penaeus monodon should feature high on the agenda. Periodic diversification is an elementary strategy for staying afloat — more so, in an inherently risk-prone venture such as shrimp farming. India has a unique opportunity to be world leader in the production of both Pacific White and the native Tiger Shrimp.
This is also the time to review our existing regulatory framework governing import of SPF brood stock or juveniles. These regulations, which restrict the quantities of not only the imported brooders, but also the commercial shrimp produced from them, were put in place at the time of introduction of Litopenaeus vannamei. The same restrictions today are, however, stifling growth and innovation in the industry. The Coastal Aquaculture Authority and other regulatory agencies must evolve their guidelines with time, while addressing issues of emerging pathogens and diseases, on which little is known beyond the symptoms. The industry, too, needs to be strictly disciplined against the reckless use of antibiotics. If India hasn’t made much headway in penetrating the biggest of all export destinations for shrimp — European Union — it reflects our inability to meet their stringent quality standards. The overdependence on the US and Chinese markets has only led to depressed export price realisations over time.
It would also serve the sector well if the obsession with exports is shelved and efforts are made to develop the huge domestic market — which the world is eyeing, but our own industry has ignored. Transporting shrimp from Visakhapatnam to Delhi or Chandigarh is surely cheaper and easier than to the US and China. A simple Google search would reveal that shrimp prices in the Delhi market are higher than in London or New York. This probably holds true in many of our other agri export products as well — including basmati rice.
The recent history of shrimp farming in Ecuador may be useful in this context. Ecuador’s industry went through a similar crisis like ours during the Nineties, with its production dipping to a mere 20,000 tonnes by the decade-end. Yet, an ambitious breeding programme was launched and homegrown tolerant stocks developed. Today, this small country produces high-quality shrimp to the tune of five lakh tonnes a year.
Introducing new genetics, maintaining species diversification, multiplying brooders within the country, and tapping the huge domestic consumer base is what will ensure continued growth and sustainability in shrimp aquaculture. Fortunately, India now has a large number of private players in the sector at all levels — from well-qualified professionals to highly-experienced aquaculture farmers; seldom do they demand any subsidies or financial incentives. What we require are pragmatic policies and an ecosystem conducive to entrepreneurship that is unique to this industry and holds a shining beacon for the entire agricultural sector.
The writer is former Secretary of the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry & Dairying, Government of India