Environmental risk in aquaculture: What do farmers think?

Area-based approaches to address environmental risk are gaining popularity in aquaculture management. New research demonstrates the need to rethink the development and application of area-based approaches, considering how farmers themselves understand environmental risk.

Key challenges faced by the aquaculture sector, including disease transmission and water quality, demonstrate that aquaculture production is not isolated from the surrounding environment. To address these environmental risks, governments and NGOs are turning to area-based approaches.

Despite the increasing popularity of these approaches, there is little evidence of how farmers themselves interpret the location of environmental risk and whether and how they manage these risks with neighboring farmers. Without a farmer’s perspective, there is a danger of misrepresenting how farm-level practices relate to area-based approaches to risk management.

Focus on the farm

To determine the extent to which individual farmers operate beyond the boundaries of their farms to manage environmental risk, researchers in the SUPERSEAS project studied two examples of aquaculture area-based management projects: intensive aquaculture in Kung Krabaen Bay, Thailand, representing an area of closed production systems; and a mixture of integrated mangrove shrimp and extensive shrimp farms in Kien Vang Forest, Vietnam, representing an area of open production systems.

The location of risk-management practices in both areas demonstrated a focus on the farm. The majority of environmental risks farmers identified were those flowing from the environment to the farm and were addressed through on-farm risk-management approaches. 

Although farmers recognized off‐farm risk, this did not translate into proactively shared risk management at a landscape level. The off‐farm strategies they carried out collectively were applied to protect farms from acute environmental risks close to the farm that had a direct impact on production. Furthermore, farmers did not appear able to build relations with surrounding land users. 

Need to rethink area-based approaches

SUPERSEAS is a four-year project funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) and led by Wageningen University and Research (WUR) and WorldFish as part of FISH. It brings together a consortium of public and private partners working on sustainable aquaculture in Southeast Asia. Focusing on Thailand, Vietnam and Bangladesh, it aims to provide better access for small-scale fish farmers to high-value retail markets, notably supermarkets.

“The findings demonstrate that area‐based management is unlikely to emerge at a broad landscape level, where there is maximum diversity of production systems, risk and competition between farmers,” says Mariska Bottema, a PhD researcher at WUR and lead author of the study, which was recently published in The Geographical Journal“As a result, we need to rethink the development and application of area‐based approaches, taking into account the most effective scale, both social and spatial, of shared risk management.” 

‘Areas’ for area management are best defined by the social and spatial extent of farmer networks within which the interpretation of risk is homogenous. 

The area-based management approach observed in these two areas appears as a kind of middle ground between, on the one hand, spatial planning approaches based on an understanding of the landscape's ecological functions and, on the other, utopian views of integrated approaches advocating the full integration of social and economic activities across landscapes. 

“As an alternative starting point for understanding and scaling up area-based management in aquaculture, we propose networked clusters of farmers organized around homogenized environmental risk,” says Bottema (see figure above). 

These findings will inform further research, which will study how private and public actors design governance arrangements for area-based aquaculture management. SUPERSEAS runs until the end of 2020.