Indian shrimp's great success story, interrupted
An eFeedLink Hot Topic 
  • After a frustrating start in the early 2000s, the introduction of hardier species allowed Indian shrimp production to take off at a 31% rate in the five years after 2010
  • Coinciding with a currency devaluation, world shrimp shortages and Thailand's retreat from the world market, exports took off, making India the world's leading shrimp export supplier
  • In 2015 and again this year, high antibiotic levels are hindering exports to America
  • Insufficient rainfall, fungal disease outbreaks, low export prices have temporarily halted the industry's rapid expansion
  • With less than a tenth of brackish water resources under cultivation, there is huge scope for expanding output without significantly boosting stocking densities
  • Despite its bright prospects producers need to reinvent everything from their breedstock sourcing policies to the relationship between antibiotic use and water management
After a five-year boom that exceeded even the most optimistic projections, problems caused by last year's inadequate monsoon rainfall will make India's 2015-16 shrimp production fall by up to 20%. From approximately 434,558 tonnes in 2014-15, most industry stakeholders project the current marketing year's shrimp production to total near 350,000.
With world shrimp demand flattening and domestic production flat, torrid export growth has also come to a halt. In particular, aquaculture shrimp exports had expanded by a 370% from 2000 through 2014.
This year, after rising by 142% in the five years after 2010, total exports are expected to stay flat, near 2014-15's 353,000 tonne level. It is Indian shrimp farming's first serious setback since it taking the world by storm at the turn of the decade.
This is partly due to last year's powerful El Nino event, which resulted in below average rainfall during India's critical monsoon season. Alongside the lower production caused by smaller, shallower ponds, the arid weather also induced India's first major cluster of disease outbreaks since its shrimp output took off five years ago –though the ultimate cause appears to be poor farm management practices.
According to S. Muthukaruppan, president of the Society of Aquaculture Professionals, "Insufficient rains could have affected [cage] flushing in the farms." The resulting waste accumulation resulted in outbreaks of a non-viral disease, microsporidian EHP.  As a result, Muthukaruppan states, that, "The survival rate among shrimps is also low. We expect 10% to 20% per cent fall in production." He did however express confidence that with farmers now aware of the issue, the disease only needs some water management intervention to be brought under control.
The past year has also seen sporadic outbreaks of White Spot Syndrome Virus (WSSV), especially in Kerala state. According to a late 2015 report at the, the disease was reportedly spread "via infected bloodstocks, but also as a result of more traditional aquaculture methods which do not allow as much environmental and water quality controls as many other farms across India."
If all that was not enough, the past year saw the Running Mortality Syndrome (RMS) outbreaks in the Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh states, with the latter accounting for a majority of the country's farmed shrimp production. Similar to Thailand's EMS in its causation of death, RMS strikes late in its growth phase, thereby magnifying monetary losses due to the additional feed given.
To avoid RMS, some farmers are considering returning to tiger prawn production, which while it is not prone to RMS, is at best a short-term solution: By being unable to tolerate white leg shrimp's higher stocking densities, a reversion back to this species would curtail longterm output growth. Among senior industry stakeholders, the consensus is that as Indian shrimp farms boost output, new biosecurity measures will be required to ensure that such diseases do not become endemic.

National Centre for Sustainable Aquaculture CEO K. Shanmukha Rao states that while no cure for EHP exists, outbreaks of diseases such as this, RMS or WSSV can minimized through water management and biosecurity measures. According to his organization, this entails, "Physical removal of organic matter and the use of disinfection in ponds prior to stocking, and continual removal of organic matter from ponds during production to reduce potential reservoirs for fungal spores."
In the world of scientific research, there is also mounting evidence that outbreaks of EMS –and possibly other diseases– are caused by farmers attempting minimize costs by in-breeding broodstocks, which over several generations has been shown to weaken shrimp immune systems. Mounting issues with diseases caused by poor immunity implies that Indian shrimp farmers, like their Thai competitors before them, could be cutting costs by using cheaper, inbreed broodstock.
Similarly, in his keynote address at Aqua India 2016, Global Aquaculture Alliance president Dr. George Chamberlain that to mitigate EHP outbreaks and avoid Thai-like EMS devastation, Indian shrimp farms must introduce a variety of new measures. Chamberlain listed among them the use of genetically resistant breedstock, pond sumps to remove organic matter, and special hatchery disinfection to remove EHP's chlorine resistant spores.
Another symptom of the need to avoid cost-cutting production shortcuts comes from an escalating number of export shipments banned from entering the United States for containing illegally high antibiotic levels. According to the NGO Southern Shrimp Alliance (SSA), the number of Indian shrimp shipments rejected by America's FDA for containing excessive antibiotic residues totaled one in 2012, 7 in 2013, 19 in 2014 and 34 in 2015.
On June 6th, SSA reported that from January through the end of May 2016, "The FDA has already reported 39 entry lines of shrimp from India refused for the same reasons." –In all, 39 of the 54 foreign shrimp shipments rejected for entry into the United States for excessive antibiotic levels in the first five months of this year came from India.
Clearly, Indian shrimp exporters are coping with rising stocking densities by boosting antibiotic use rather than reinventing farm management practices. On the other hand, India's success as the world's leading shrimp exporter was built on its attaining its status as a leading supplier to the US market in just a short five years.
For now, Indian shrimp exporters have agreed to be trained by US FDA inspectors in what is required of them to meet antibiotic residue compliance norms. Over the longterm, this implies that Indian shrimp farming may need to reinvent an entire array of shrimp rearing practices, ranging from breeding methods to water quality management.
Over the short term however, Rao warned that, "Due to EHP fungi, the weight of the shrimp will come down and farmers will suffer losses." Alongside production losses due to disease, the intersection of recent rupiah devaluations and poor feed crop harvests inflated feed costs. Coinciding with last falls 30% to 40% drop in export prices (from which the market has not yet recovered), this undercut profit margins, making it uneconomical to grow shrimps of 40 to 50 count size.
For years, India's shrimp production was stagnant, opening at an FAO estimated 96,715 tonnes in 2000, peaking at 144,000 tonnes in 2005, before a combination of diseases, high feed costs and low returns made it slump back to barely above 100,000 tonnes in 2010.
The industry's turning point came in 2009, when producers received official permission to Pacific white shrimp (Penaeus vannamei) broodstock, which came to dominated the industry's output profile. Previously relying on black tiger shrimp (Penaeus monodon) cultivation, Pacific white shrimp's high disease resistance enabled India to boost stocking densities, thereby enabling production to take off. Its shorter growing period not only lowered feed costs but also meant that more than crop could be raised in parts of the country too.
While its higher productivity and robust health minimized production costs, Pacific white shrimp's 25% higher selling price boosted revenues too. The new shrimp species' lower cost and higher revenues profoundly motivated producers to boost production from 2010 onwards. Moreover, with exported shrimp priced in US dollars, the latter rose 40% against India's currency from 2010 through 2015, boosting the profits to be made from exporting by that much more.

Finally, a few years after the resulting higher returns, shrimp performance and US dollar per earnings took off, EMS outbreaks knocked reduced exports from Thailand, formerly the world's top shrimp exporter, by 70%. With its top competitor knocked out of the world market, all India had to do was produce more shrimp, as there was suddenly record export prices and no export competition. This coincidence of technological innovation, economic factors and just plain luck made Indian shrimp rearing returns skyrocket; production and export volumes could not help but respond.
From 103,810 tonnes in 2009-10 when Pacific white shrimp was initially introduced, output grew at a 31% rate over the next five growing seasons, rising 285% to approximately 400,000 tonnes by 2014-15. The output increase was powered by white leg shrimp, which now accounts for 80% of shrimp aquaculture production. The good news is that the past year's weather and disease woes slowed down progress over the short-term, Indian shrimp's longterm growth rate is not yet strained by resource shortages.
While many of the easiest-to-exploit coastal areas have been developed, the country is not yet faced with a Thailand or China trade-off between riskier higher stocking densities and higher output. According to the Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), only 9% or 100,000 hectares of over 11 million hectares of brackish water zones suitable for growing shrimp is currently being cultivated. Essentially, this means that rather than reform itself, the industry can continue with cost-cutting production shortcuts and opt to expand its cultivated acreage rather than stocking densities.
For example, at 400,000 hectares, West Bengal contains over a third of India's brackish water zones suitable for cultivating shrimp. Out of this endowment, only 47,500 hectares or less than 12% have been developed for shrimp cultivation. Similarly, Gujarat, at 375,000 hectares, has the second most brackish water resources available. At this time, less than 1% or 2,500 hectares of these marine resources have been brought into shrimp farming production.
On one hand, this implies that once the industry's present woes abate, so long as the incentive to set up new shrimp farms exists, huge output increases can be achieved without profoundly boosting stocking densities or disease risks, for at least another ten years. On the other hand, for the sake of the industry's international reputation, the temptation to employ penny-pinching shortcuts such resorting to inbreeding in place of importing new broodstock or using antibiotics in place of better pond management must be avoided.
In retrospect, the past year's struggles with disease epidemics and banned import shipments were Nature gently tapping India on the shoulder, politely warning shrimp farms to clean up their act. In truth, with so much untapped shrimp farming resources, producers do not need to reform themselves overnight in the manner Thailand's more mature shrimp sector needs to. Nevertheless, far-sighted Indian shrimp producers will realize that investments in sustainable, ecologically friendly preventative measures will easily pay for themselves in longterm market share gains.

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