Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2008

Jurgenne Primavera

Love shrimp cocktail? So do lots of others — and that's the problem. Jurgenne Primavera, whose groundbreaking studies on the life cycles of tiger prawns in her native Philippines helped galvanize an aquaculture revolution, doesn't want to impose a global ban on shrimp tempura. But the former senior scientist at the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center on the Filipino island of Panay is campaigning for sustainable fish-farming in order to protect the mangrove forests that act as a crucial buffer zone between land and sea.

Aquaculture has transformed the way we eat. In the mid-'70s, when Primavera began researching the vital ecological role played by mangrove forests, such farming made up less than 10% of aquatic food bounty. Today, more than a third of the fish and shrimp we ingest is harvested from aqua-farms. While aquaculture has provided livelihoods for millions of people, it has also ravaged the world's mangroves. Roughly 20% of mangrove forests have disappeared since 1980, and aqua-farming is one of the main culprits of deforestation.

Mangroves, of course, aren't as beguiling an oceanic victim as, say, coral reefs. While atolls burst with color, these intertidal forests are distinguished by exposed roots, mucky water and clouds of mosquitoes. But when aquaculturists clear mangroves to make way for shrimp or fish farms, they are contributing to land erosion, removing a crucial nursery for wild fish, and destroying a plant network that acts both as a giant sponge (by absorbing nasty effluents) and as a barricade (by blocking the wrath of typhoons and tsunamis). The propensity to introduce exotic seafood species into local habitats — as opposed to farming native species — can also badly damage delicate ecosystems.

So what's a shrimp lover to do? Primavera recommends a simple strategy: save some mangroves so that aquaculture flourishes sustainably. Since mangroves naturally filter water, their forests eradicate farm waste far more efficiently than expensive equipment can. By keeping a four-to-one ratio of mangroves to farm ponds, Primavera believes we can protect nature and enjoy an occasional prawn cocktail, too. "People might think the mangroves are just wet trees," says Primavera, "but they give us so much. All we have to do is use them."