Shrimp farming industry in Ecuador, part 1

Historical evolution, genetic improvement, mangrove reforestation, sanitary barriers and other developments Ecuador’s shrimp farming industry has grown to almost 220,000 hectares and its exports represent the top, non-oil-related, foreign income for the country.

Dr. Xavier Romero Martínez Shrimp farming began in Ecuador almost 50 years ago in a casual manner.

Shrimp farming began in Ecuador almost 50 years ago in a casual manner. The first shrimp farms were established in the southern part of the country and, since then, almost 220,000 hectares of production ponds have been developed, which today are part of an industry that is the first source of non-oil-related foreign income in the country.

Little was known in the 1970s about shrimp farming, but through sheer will and mostly by trial and error, shrimp farmers overcame their operational and commercial limitations. The lack of scientific knowledge and initial production methodologies did not prevent Ecuadorian producers from converting the country into one of the world’s main suppliers of farmed shrimp. In the first 15 years nearly 90,000 hectares of shrimp farms were built, and by 1995 almost 180,000 hectares were in operation.

Despite its casual origins, development has not been the result of improvisation. A long and sometimes painful journey has taken place to establish an industry following its own path, which has been differentiated by its open, low-density farming systems, and by using disease-resistant animals instead of the intensive systems and pathogen-free genetic lines that mostly characterize shrimp farming elsewhere.

From the first farmed shrimp crops until 1998, the country’s production had been growing more or less continuously and reaching nearly 115,000 metric tons (MT) in 1998, with some temporary drops due to problems caused by diseases such as the so-called “gull syndrome” in 1989 (caused mainly by Vibrios) and by the Taura Syndrome (TSV) in 1994. The story takes a negative turn in the year 2000, when, with the arrival of the White Spot Virus (WSSV), exports fell to 37,700 MT and the industry suffered a contraction of 70 percent in the midst of an acute economic crisis and the change of the national currency (Sucre) to the U.S. dollar.

Fig. 1: Evolution of Ecuadorean shrimp production and trade, 1979-2016, showing major environmental (El Niño) phenomena and disease epidemics and their impacts.

Given the high mortalities during production, the breeding centers doing broodstock maturation began to use pond animals that survived the viruses and from these animals they developed the new generations that were then taken to the grow-out ponds to produce the new crops, repeating the process over and over. This mass selection based on shrimp resistance to the diseases progressively gave way to the production of animals with better survivals in the farms, and in 2006 the industry was able to recover to production levels prior to the onset of WSSV.

In the last decade, the industry has experienced production and price increases, increased regulations and improved environmental stewardship. Starting in 2007, Ecuador has maintained a steady annual growth rate of approximately 12 percent, achieving exports of 246,000 MT in 2017, tripling exports and becoming the main producer of farmed shrimp in the continent, accounting for more than 50 percent of the production of the Americas region.