I’ve mentioned this before, but it feels so important that it bears worth mentioning again. The aquaculture industries in Southeast Asia are so incredibly complex and diverse that trying to parse apart all of my understandings feels like trying to separate out each of the individual neurons on our brain. I knew this going into the region, but it really has taken my physical presence and experiences to grasp just how labyrinthine all of the aquaculture industries are. Encountering so much diversity has been challenging because there are few, if any, generalities. And, since I have chosen not to focus in too closely on one specific region, fish, or aspect of aquaculture (e.g. food production, processing, etc.), my experiences feel at once irredeemably distant from and eerily identical to each other. The categories of understanding that I am constantly re-shaping hardly take into account the myriad complex sites where diversity defies categorization. I recently stumbled upon a passage from an FAO document on aquaculture that summed up this frustration quite nicely. With respect to the different categories of aquaculture, the FAO writes “These categories may be compared with the more common classification of aquaculture based on productive technology, particularly feed, dividing culture systems into extensive, semi-intensive and intensive. These terms are widely use[d] but defined in various ways, often imprecisely, or not at all.” 1 My biggest draw from this quote, which I’ve found to be true in my own experiences, is that the categories of understanding I use are highly versatile. Ideas of traditional and modern, labor intensive and labor extensive, scientific and natural seem to mold (quite form fittingly) to the very specific contexts in which I use them. So what am I to do, or write, or say, about all of this diversity? I’m still waiting to see how it all shakes out, but in the mean time I want to write about what this diversity might mean for seafood consumers in the Western world.
Aquaculture in Thailand often gets a bad rap in the United States. This is not unfounded. The Associated Press released an article on slave labor in Thai shrimp peeling facilities in 2015 as part of a series of human rights violations in the Thai fishing industry that went on to win a Pulizter prize. The Guardian continues to report on slavery on fishing boats that supply raw feed material to large shrimp farms in the country. I am trying to fit my own experiences of aquaculture in Thailand into this picture, because they have been completely different. There are a few things worth nothing in these articles that help explain this contrast in experience. These articles (and the myriad others discussing human rights violations in the Thai seafood industries) almost universally regard shrimp and do not discuss many of the species farmed for domestic consumption: tilapia, carp, catfish, snakehead, and giant gourami go unmentioned. Aquaculture is not practiced evenly; the labor practices, requirements, and approaches for one species cannot be easily transferred to the myriad other species that are cultured in Thailand.
I think it’s also important to identify where in the supply chain these human rights violations occur. As best I can tell, these articles do not mention anything about the actual culture of shrimp (growing them in ponds) but instead focus on the auxiliary industries (raw materials for feed and processing) that support shrimp culture in Thailand. Shrimp culture itself is an artisanal industry in Thailand. The physical pond spaces are owned and operated by families or individual farmers. Shrimp processing, however, is done by middlemen that buy shrimp from local farmers en masse and peel them for export. Shrimp feed is primarily produced by a single multinational company: Charoen Pokphand (CP) that buys raw material from fishing vessels to mix into feed pellets. What I want to try and convey is that the human rights violations have existed within very specific sites of aquaculture. Of course shrimp farming is inextricably connected with the auxiliary industries, but it’s important to recognize the difference between feed production, processing, and farming itself so that we might better target certain areas for improvement.
Here I will readily admit that I am not an active reporter that has followed shrimp freezer trucks or carried a stake out late at night near fishing ports to reveal these problems. My experiences have not been guided by a desire to expose slavery, but instead to learn as much as I can from those willing to talk with me. Certainly this has guided me away from the specific sites where slavery does exist. But this does not invalidate what I have observed. For me at least it confirms the complex diversity within Thai aquaculture. That the story that the Western media paints of aquaculture in Thailand, while true, does not and cannot stand for the entirety of aquaculture in the country.
It is also worth noting that the human conditions surrounding shrimp production are deeply interwoven with the biology of shrimp itself. A peeling facility pops up because global markets demand a shrimp product that is devoid of the natural exoskeleton that shrimp produce. And the need for raw fish meal in shrimp feed arises from shrimps’ demand for higher levels of protein in their diet as opposed to something like catfish. This is what I mean by species specific understandings of aquaculture. Large scale production of catfish and carp does not necessarily exert the same demands for raw fish meal because these species can grow quite well using other food sources and technologies. The auxiliary industries that help fuel shrimp production do not necessarily connect so directly to the production of other species.
To say that slavery is systemic in Thai aquaculture feels a bit precarious. It is true with regards to specific sectors of the supply chain for shrimp aquaculture. But because aquaculture in Thailand is so diverse with respect to the species produced and the different sectors contributing to production, I think it is important to be careful how we (as Americans) talk about Thai aquaculture. I think we can begin by recognizing that there is no single, monolithic aquaculture industry in the country but rather a diverse array of industries in Thailand that fall under the term aquaculture. Aquaculture industries for domestic production are very different from each other and from industries for export. The histories and challenges of farming tilapia should be recognized as different from those for farming shrimp. Lumping all of these industries together, turning up our noses at all forms of aquaculture flattens out this diversity and reveals our own myopia in understanding industries that we have very little personal experience in.
From this diversity it is also important to recognize how we (as consumers) are implicated in some of the sites of aquaculture that we find so unsavory. Imagine if your favorite “all you can eat shrimp buffet” was replaced with tilapia or catfish. Perhaps some of the allure has been lost? The Guardian and AP traced slave labor in shrimp supply chains to common American brands like Red Lobster, Wal-Mart, and even Costco. As consumers we demand shrimp, a species that is already fairly labor intensive, as opposed to catfish, a species that can get by with much less effort. These two pressures seem to compound each other, placing stress on a type of aquaculture that is already vulnerable to questionable labor practices. With this in mind, it does not seem accidental that human slavery is most relevant to sites of aquaculture that involve global food supply chains and the high demand for shrimp in the global West. Our financial support of cheap seafood maintains the kinds of bad practices in aquaculture that we are so eager to distance ourselves from.
So aquaculture, especially in SE Asia, is not just aquaculture. It is a multiplicity of industries. It is the biological requirements and behavior of the species that are cultivated. It is market and labor demands. It is systems of international power and privilege. It is technological resources and developments. Aquaculture exists not as a singular entity, but at powerful nodes of interaction (synapses, if you will allow me to return to my brain metaphor) between all of the factors and variables I have described (and then some)! I still find myself grappling with the question of what to do with all of this diversity. I hope I’ve conveyed some of this complexity for you here. In the space of this one short blog post I haven’t dug into this complexity as much as I hope I’ll be able to much later in the year, but I hope I’ve done something small to help open up a new possible understandings of aquaculture. It seems crucial to do so if we want to more accurately recognize the diversity that exists and the ways we are implicated in harmful systems.