Can technology clean up the shrimp farm?


  • By Priti Gupta in Mumbai & Ben Morris in London
  • business reporter

image source, Debabrata Khuntia

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Water pollution threatens Debabrata Khuntia’s livelihood

For generations, Debabrata Khuntia’s family made a living from fishing in the Bay of Bengal and the rivers and canals of Purba Medinipur in West Bengal.

He recalls being able to catch 10 tons of fish a year, some of which he would keep and sell the rest at the market.

But those times are over. Fish are few and Debabrata now earns a living growing tomatoes and eggplant.

No doubt it’s his fault. “Excessive shrimp farming.”

Many farmers have switched to shrimp farming because the money is better, he says. But that involves building shrimp ponds, feeding the shrimp, and treating them with antibiotics.

At the end of the growth cycle — when the shrimp are ready for market — the untreated water is washed into the river, which Debabrata says has caused pollution.

“The water turns black and stinks,” he says. The poor water quality has even affected his vegetable crops.

Despite these problems, India is unlikely to turn its back on the industry.

Prawns or Prawns?

image source, AquaConnect

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Farmed shrimp from India

Crustacean enthusiasts among you will have noticed that we used the term shrimp throughout this article.

For many people, the terms shrimp and shrimp are used interchangeably.

Jenny Mallinson, who ran the aquarium at the University of Southampton for 43 years, makes these distinctions:

  • For the UK food industry, shrimp are small and prawns are large
  • In the wild, British shrimp lie flat on the ground, legs apart, and are gray with black markings
  • Live British shrimp stand on their legs, usually with a curved body and a single pointed rostrum (a beak-like tip) between the eyes
  • Shrimp are also transparent, sometimes with red markings, and some can take on the color of the red or green algae they live in.

It should also be noted that in the US, India and other parts of the world the plural shrimp is used rather than shrimp.

Shrimp farming has helped increase incomes in rural areas and has become a valuable export business. India is the world’s largest exporter of frozen shrimp, a trade worth nearly $5bn (£4bn) a year.

However, some think it could be done in a way that has less impact on the environment.

“Around one million rural farmers and coastal communities depend on aquaculture for shrimp and fish, but traditional farming methods prevent them from achieving efficient production and are unable to predict disease,” said Rajamanohar Somasundaram, CEO and co-founder of Aquaconnect.

Mr. Somasundaram is betting that better data quality will increase productivity across the aquaculture industry.

His company Aquaconnect, founded in 2017, collects data and offers it to all parts of the industry. For farmers, it has developed an artificial intelligence that considers the farmer’s resources and can give advice on the optimal amount of feed or improve the water quality.

The company provides information for seafood retailers and buyers, including demand forecasting and harvest forecasting. Aquaconnect also collects farm data useful for banks and insurance companies working with farmers.

“The dominance of unscientific farming practices, lack of access to quality inputs and finding the right buyer to sell harvested produce is always a major challenge,” says Mr. Somasundaram.

image source, AquaConnect

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Most of the shrimp farming in India takes place in ponds like this one at Jagatsinghpur in the eastern state of Odisha, or in sea cages

Other entrepreneurs want technology to take even more control of aquaculture production.

Currently, the vast majority of Indian fish and shrimp farming takes place in ponds or sea cages, but there are other ways.

Recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) involve circulating water through tanks. Water is continuously filtered and monitored so very little is wasted.

Conditions can be closely controlled with much less risk of polluting the local environment.

Since no natural water source is required, the tanks can be placed anywhere, perhaps near major cities – a potential market for fresh produce.

Shaji Baby John is Chairman and CEO of Kings Infra Ventures, one of the pioneer companies in the Indian aquaculture industry.

His company has developed a RAS for shrimp farming and built two pilot plants in cooperation with a Japanese company. One is outside, one is inside.

Because water conditions can be tightly controlled and shrimp closely monitored, John says his RAS can produce five cycles of shrimp per year. A typical pond-based shrimp farm may only manage two.

This increase in productivity means that a 1,000m² facility could produce up to 45 tons of shrimp per year.

“Because it’s a controlled environment, production quality is better and losses are limited,” says Mr. John.

But all that technology is expensive, and many doubt RAS for shrimp will launch in India.

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Shrimp farming in ponds has lower start-up costs than high-tech alternatives

“The potential for RAS to become the mainstream shrimp production technology in India is very limited,” says Victor Suresh, President of the Society of Aquaculture Professionals.

“RAS has very high investment and operating costs,” he emphasizes. He says RAS could compete near major cities where there is a demand for high-priced fresh and live shrimp.

But right now, that’s not a big market for India’s shrimp farmers.

“For a country like India, where hundreds of thousands of tons of shrimp are farmed by mostly small farmers to be processed and sold in export markets, soil ponds are the most economically viable option,” he says.

Mr. John acknowledges that the initial investment costs of RAS farming are high but says the quality of the fish from his RAS systems is better and the cost per shrimp is lower than in traditional ponds.

By using solar panels to generate electricity, he believes the new plants should also have a low carbon footprint.

“We chose aquaculture and fully focused on sustainable and environmentally friendly practices with no antibiotics and no waste,” he says.

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