New study examines how aquaculture improvement projects address risk beyond the farm

Building on the more developed model of fishery improvement projects, aquaculture improvement projects (AIPs) have emerged as an innovative form of market-based sustainability governance in the aquaculture sector. AIPs are being promoted as a way for the private sector to address area-level production risk associated with aquaculture, such as disease and water pollution.

Motivated by the lack of consensus about the definition and scale of AIPs among practitioners, a study was conducted as part of the SUPERSEAS project to explore the extent to which different AIP models enable farmers to address production risk and environmental concerns beyond the farm scale. 

Aceh black tiger shrimp. Photo by Toby Johnson, WorldFish.

SUPERSEAS is a four-year (2016–2020) project led by Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and FISH and funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. It brings together a consortium of public and private partners working on sustainable aquaculture in Southeast Asia. Focusing mainly on Thailand and Vietnam, it aims to improve the design of area-based management for aquaculture production to reduce the social and environmental risks associated with smallholder aquaculture, and to improve the terms under which smallholders are incorporated in retail-led value chains. 

Recognizing that the risk of any one farm is dependent on the quality of the wider environment within which that farm is embedded, SUPERSEAS explores the concept of area-based management as a means of capitalizing on the collective power of a number of farmers to better cope with risk.

Models in Vietnam and China compared

For the recent study, two Asian AIP models were compared: a buyer-driven public-private partnership in Ca Mau, Vietnam, designed to certify black tiger shrimp farmers to a sustainability standard; and an NGO-led multistakeholder alliance of actors in the tilapia value chain in Hainan, China.

Results from the study raise questions about the capacity of private sector actors to institutionalize area-level production risk management and the scale at which this should take place. Leading actors in both cases struggled to effectively align the institutions they designed with the social and environmental conditions of farmers.

Intensive tilapia farming, Malaysia. Photo by J. Thodesen, 2002

“Inducing collaboration between farmers is key to managing area-level production risk. However, in both AIPs there was a mismatch between the way private actors leading the AIPs institutionalized risk management and the way that farmers themselves experienced risk,” says Mariska Bottema, a PhD researcher at WUR and author of the study, which was published this month in Aquaculture.

Furthermore, the capacity of leading actors to make quality claims in the market and link this to a price incentive is key for binding farmers to an improvement project. This appears to be more challenging when risk is defined at an area level than when it is defined at a farm level. This suggests that the more amorphous quality claims are, the more difficult it is to link them to a price incentive.

Finally, the research demonstrated that there appears to be a disconnect between the scale at which production risk management is institutionalized by the private sector and the scale at which this is organized at a local level by farmers.

Toward more socially integrative AIP models

Moving forward, for AIPs to make a contribution to area-level risk management, a fundamentally social approach to organizing collective production risk management is needed. This starts with an improved understanding of the social networks through which farmers already manage locally shared production risk, to inform the scaling and design of more effective ways to facilitate collaborative risk management between farmers.