It was a sunny day with partial clouds, in Rameswaram, an island separated from the mainland of Tamil Nadu. Behind the APJ Abdul Kalam Memorial, a president’s mausoleum and a tourist attraction, lies the village of Ariyankundu. Beyond this village is a stretch of land with muddy roads, that lead to the sea. On either side of these roads, pools of black and greyish-green water lie stagnant. They are full of effluents released from some shrimp farms in the area.

The landscape which was once fertile with coconut and palm trees and crops such as groundnut, corn and millet, now stands barren. Instead, the coast is now dotted with shrimp aquaculture farms. Bubbles form where the polluted water from the shrimp farms stagnates. Dead trees, polluted soil, algal blooms and empty waterbodies are visible all through the area.

“This is Panchkalyani, an important water source for this locality,” said Karunamoorthy, secretary at Centre of Indian Trade Unions and a resident of Rameswaram, pointing to an almost empty water body. He has been protesting the expansion of shrimp farms on the island for decades.

Rameswaram island between India and Sri Lanka. Credit: Map made with Datawrapper

Residents of Ariyankundu and the surrounding villages are mostly Christians, a religious minority in Rameswaram, where Hinduism is the predominant religion. This is an unspoken layer in their quest for environmental injustice. The artisanal fishers of the village, who traditionally practised near-shore fishing and farming, have now resorted to odd jobs on the island. The fishers, who were once promised jobs with the arrival of shrimp farms in the area, said that they have lost agricultural lands, salt pans, freshwater resources and other commons to these shrimp farms.

The fishing community of Rameswaram has been historically hit by frequent cyclones and is often in the news for disputes in the Sri Lankan maritime borders. While braving many social and environmental issues, they have unanimously resisted the expansion of shrimp farms on the island.

“The owners of these shrimp farms are not fishers from Rameswaram but are big businessmen from different parts of the state and people with political power. They don’t employ the local fishers on their farms and there is no economic benefit for the artisanal fishers,” shared Karunamoorthy.

Rameswaram fishers bringing their catch to the shore. Credit: Narayana Swamy Subbaraman/Mongabay

Environmental violations

Ariyankundu residents highlight several violations from the shrimp farms behind their village, which has also threatened their livelihood.

First, the shrimp farms are in violation of the Coastal Aquaculture Authority Act, 2005, which says, “no coastal aquaculture shall be carried out within two hundred metres from High Tide Lines.” These farms, situated right on the shore at Ariyankundu have not adhered to that limit. “The giant mechanical diggers and excavators that were used initially to make the land surface even, destroyed many precious coral formations (called pavazha paarai locally), which protect the sea from erosion,” said Karunamoorthy. Damaging these coral formations, which hold ecological importance is illegal, he claimed.

“These pavazha paarai closer to the shore are usually where fish populations come to breed. By destroying these coral formations, the livelihood of near shore fishers is getting lost,” Karunamoorthy said.

Pipelines draw water from the ocean to supply shrimp farms. Some farms situated right at the coast in Ariyankundu have not adhered to the Coastal Aquaculture Authority Act rules, say activists. Credit: Narayana Swamy Subbaraman/Mongabay

The second violation is not adhering to the Coastal Aquaculture Authority Act requirement which says that the shrimp farms must treat the post-harvest water before releasing it back into the ocean, in order to avoid adverse impact to the environment and the ecosystem. The shrimp are harvested from the growing ponds about 90-120 days after stocking. The quality of the shrimp pond water tends to deteriorate through the grow-out period, as the feeding rate increases with shrimp size and biomass. Therefore, the highest quantity and poorest quality of wastewater (in terms of nutrient load, total ammonia and ionised ammonia and total suspended solid) are typically found just before harvest time, when shrimp biomass is at the maximum.

The guidelines for effluent treatment from shrimp farms provided by the Centre, read, “Shrimp aquaculture wastewater comprises both living and dead plankton, feed waste, faecal matter and other excretory products of shrimp…the wastewater produced during the post-harvest cleaning operations of shrimp farms can have a much greater impact on the ecology of the open waters, although it may be for a shorter period.”

But many of these shrimp farms in Ariyankundu have not treated the water properly before releasing it, said Karunamoorthy.

A shrimp farm in Ariyankundu close to the coast. Activists allege that some farms are less than 200 metres from the high tide lines. Credit: Narayana Swamy Subbaraman/Mongabay

While the Coastal Aquaculture Authority regulations mandate farms above five hectares area to set up effluent treatment systems to reduce the nutrient levels of the water, farms below five hectares don’t have any mandatory regulations for effluent treatments. A 2020 study published in Reviews in Fisheries Science & Aquaculture, which reviewed the future implications of aquaculture on aquatic ecosystem and biodiversity found that, “Many farmers have fragmented their farms to be classified as small farm areas and to avoid the requirement to invest in effluent treatment systems.”

Stephen Sampath Kumar, a professor from the Directorate of Sustainable Aquaculture, Tamil Nadu Fisheries University (a government-run institution), elaborated, “The water released from the shrimp farms after crop harvest, contains waste and nutrients and when this water is stagnated with excess waste, it needs to be degraded by microorganisms. Algae, that make use of these micronutrients, survive. This is why you find a lot of algae in the water.”

When approached for a comment about how they treat the water or how they plan to address the pollution, the migrant labourers working at the shrimp farms behind Ariyankundu, did not have an answer. The owners were not available for comment on-site at the time of this correspondent’s field visit.

Harvesting shrimp in an aquaculture farm. Credit: R Dinesh

Roshan V, an aquaculture farmer from Rameswaram, presumes that some of these older farms in Ariyankundu might have built their farm closer to the coast to avoid investing extra in installing pipelines for a longer distance. “The investment cost for the pipelines that draw water from the sea is heavy. The new entrepreneurs are taking that effort to install pipes for a longer distance and maintain them, but it’s challenging,” he said.

Ariyankundu residents also allege that the boom in aquaculture has destroyed agriculture and grazing habitats in the region. It has polluted their drinking water, displacing families from the only home they’ve known for generations.

A few kilometres east of Ariyankundu lies Pillaikulam. Once a thriving village that had more than 60 families residing and practising near-shore fishing, agriculture and other activities, Pillaikulam is a ghost village now. Only three houses remain inhabited and the residents allege that the shrimp farms in the area polluted the groundwater and turned it saline, making it impossible for the cattle and the people to consume. They were no longer able to irrigate their fields. Slowly people started migrating, leaving their homes behind.

“Previously we used to practise agriculture here. We had an abundance of kezhvaragu (ragi), kambu (pearl millet), kathirikai (brinjal), thakkali (tomato) fields. There were also coconut and palm trees in hundreds. Now, only the invasive seemai karuvelam (Prosopis juliflora) remains,” Johnson Peter, one of the three residents from Pillaikulam, recalled. The view from the terrace of his house is as bare as he described.

Pillaikulam residents now pay Rs 800 for one load of water in a drum. This water is used for drinking, bathing and for the cattle they own. “This doesn’t even last an entire month,” said Maria Rosai, 75, another resident who lives with her hearing- and speech-impaired daughter.

Johnson Peter from Pillaikulam. He is one of the last people left in a ghost village but refuses to sell his house to shrimp farm owners and migrate. Credit: Narayana Swamy Subbaraman/Mongabay

Does groundwater indeed turn saline with shrimp farms located nearby, as the residents claim?

“It is definitely possible that when we let seawater (with a lot of nutrients and waste) stagnate in a coastal spot where it’s not supposed to stagnate for long, it degrades the water bodies around it and turns the groundwater saline,” stated an aquaculture expert on the condition of anonymity.

A 2011 study from Odisha that analysed the correlation between aquaculture farming and the soil salinity of the nearby area, found that seepage is the major cause of salinisation. The findings of the study state, “The storage of saline water in the aquaculture farm influence salinity of soil in nearby agricultural fields. Although salt content may not be the sole factor of soil infertility, but it has bearing on the productivity.”

“Some farmers are using sedimentation ponds to filter out the water before releasing it. And to make sure there’s no seepage of water directly from the pond, high density polythene sheets can be lined in the ponds. This is again expensive. But if we get more subsidies, shrimp farmers can make sure there’s absolutely no seepage of water that affects groundwater,” Roshan added.

A Centrally Sponsored Scheme for the development of aquaculture, provides a 25% subsidy to a maximum of Rs 40,000 per hectare but only shrimp farmers with a landholding of two hectares or lesser can avail this. Roshan and many other shrimp farmers who own more than two hectares are not eligible to avail this subsidy. The central government scheme Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampadana Yojana’s Central Sector Scheme states that there are provisions to avail 40% of the project/unit cost for “general” aquaculture farmers and 60% for “SC/ST and women’ farmers. However, Roshan said that shrimp farmers on the island are not aware of how to avail this subsidy.

Land-use patterns

A study published in 2018, that analysed the land use change (from 1988 to 2013) after the growth of shrimp farms in five coastal states – West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Odisha – found that agricultural lands and salt pans, commons that are vital for coastal communities, have been converted for aquaculture, closely corroborating the statements from Ariyankundu residents.

The study, by Central Institute of Brackishwater Aquaculture, also highlighted that unapproved farms exist in these states, “the Coastal Aquaculture Authority approved a list of farms for P vannamei
(also known as Litopenaeus vannamei) culture indicated that 15,274 ha (Coastal Aquaculture Authority, 2018) had been permitted till date, and the Marine Product Export Development Authority (the agency responsible for the export of shrimp) shows that the area under vannamei culture was 59,116 ha (Marine Product Export Development Authority, 2016). Based on the comparison of the data available from the Coastal Aquaculture Authority and Marine Product Export Development Authority, the difference between the area under culture and approved farm area indicates that the larger extent of P vannamei farms operates without an approval,” the authors wrote.

Shrimp farms behind Ariyankundu. Credit: Google Earth Pro

The study also finds that in Tamil Nadu alone, 809 hectares of agricultural land, 12 hectares of saltpans, 13 hectares of mangroves, 1,813 hectares of mudflats, 127 hectares of scrublands and four hectares of waterbodies have been converted for the use of aquaculture between 1988 and 2013.

Both the central and state governments continue to boost aquaculture with financial subsidies and insurance schemes, which worries the artisanal fishing community. The Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampadana Yojana, recently received an allocation of Rs. 6,000 crores from the Union Budget. And Tamil Nadu, which boasts the second longest coastline in the country, is increasingly recognising the aquaculture industry as an important tool for employment generation and a source of food security for the growing population.

The Department of Fisheries in Tamil Nadu also states that there are 2086 shrimp farms functioning in all the 12 coastal districts of Tamil Nadu (except Chennai), but only 852 shrimp farms (40%) have received the approval from Coastal Aquaculture Authority.

Shrimp farming, mainly whiteleg shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei) farming, is expanding rapidly in India, as a result of these favourable policies. The export of Litopenaeus vannamei shrimp has increased 25% from 5,15,907 MT to 6,43,037 MT in 2021-’22. Out of the total Litopenaeus vannamei shrimp exports, in USD value terms, about 59% was exported to USA followed by 14.5% to China, 8.16% to European Union, 4.78 % to Southeast Asia, 3.6 % to Japan, 3.7 % to the Erst Asia and 6.6% to other countries, as per the Marine Products Export Development Authority data.

'Litopenaeus vannamei'. Crdit: R Dinesh

A profitable business

For now, the aquaculture industry is economically viable and the shrimp farmers in the district stand as testimony. About 60 kilometres from central Rameswaram, in the mainland of Tamil Nadu, lies Thirupullani, a village where shrimp farming and mangroves coexist. Palani Kumar has been farming shrimp here for seven years.

Kumar, a marine biology graduate, worked in a private aquaculture firm for over a decade and decided to pursue his entrepreneurial dream by setting up his own farm. “The price for shrimp is lucrative. One kilogram of fish, say tuna, would give us Rs 250-300. But for Litopenaeus vannamei we get Rs 400-450 rupees. And while fish culture requires a lot of time, in the case of shrimp two crops can be done in one year.”

He claimed that his farm with Litopenaeus vannamei spread over eight acres (3.2 hectares), is a sustainable farm. Aquaculture is both planet and people-friendly, opined Kumar, who believes in the potential of seafood for meeting protein demands. “Humans have always been consuming seafood. Overfishing and trawling in the ocean are much more dangerous to our marine ecosystem and biodiversity, than culture fishing. We have overexploited the ocean and we need to stop there and meet our needs with aquaculture,” he said.

However, shrimp farming is not without its own challenges, he added. Shrimp farmers must deal with the impacts of climate change and are navigating how best to keep their businesses sustainable.

Closed enclosures of a shrimp farm in Thirupullani, Rameswaram. Credit: Narayana Swamy Subbaraman/Mongabay

“A shrimp farm pond of one acre can hold upto 6,000 cubic metres of seawater and this is topped up according to the crop requirement and the farmer’s management methods during the course of crop growth,” said Professor Kumar of the Tamil Nadu Fisheries University. “With irregular heavy rains, there is the challenge of surface runoff. There’s a threat of sea level rise and associated risks, which is another reason why farms are supposed to be located away from the high tide lines. Following Coastal Aquaculture Authority rules will protect the business from climate risks and also help protect the ecosystem,” he adds.

“More focused studies are required to understand the consequences of the climate change on aquaculture along with possible strategies to counter them. Climate change is also expected to further aggravate the already reduced freshwater flow leading to high salinity regimes,” reads the Vision 2050 document on aquaculture by the Central Institute of Brackish Aquaculture (a nodal agency under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research).

Environment-friendly aquaculture 

With the government making active plans to expand aquaculture in India, a range of solutions are needed to ensure sustainability in the industry.

Tackling the root of the problem, some scientists are working to reduce the environmental footprint of aquaculture, right at the start of the food chain. Aquaculture feed quality is a key factor in impacting aquaculture water environment. Studies find that poor feed quality with excess nutrients not utilised by the shrimp, when released into marine environments, could become pollutants. If there are high levels of nutrients released on a continuous basis, then this can lead to eutrophication and/or algal blooms.

Professor Stephen Sampath Kumar heads the team of researchers working on sustainable feed. Talking from the Mandapam Centre for Sustainable Aquaculture, one of the centres of the Directorate of Sustainable Aquaculture, he shared, “We are working to adopt good management practices (such as using good quality feed and treating the wastewater).” Mandapam Centre for Sustainable Aquaculture aims to undertake the maintenance and research on microalgae and zooplankton as live feeds. The International Union for Conservation of Nature also supports the development of microalgae and prioritises research in the area.

“There’s another centre located in Kanniyakumari that focusses on shrimp seed production and indigenous shrimp farming. The directorate was developed with the objective of developing sustainable aquaculture in the state and in the country, through research, demonstration and training, and transfer of technology to the farmers. These are the solutions we bring in,” he added.

Mandapam Centre for Sustainable Aquaculture undertakes the maintenance and research on microalgae and zooplankton as live feed. Credit: Narayana Swamy Subbaraman/Mongabay

Studies about the ecological impacts of aquaculture have also highlighted some solutions to make the industry sustainable.

To ensure that agricultural commons are not encroached upon, researchers who analysed the land use change after the growth of shrimp farms, recommend using remote sensing tools to monitor coastal resources. They wrote, in the 2018 study, “Future aquaculture development, as well as monitoring systems, will benefit from satellite-based classification and change detection approaches.” The study explored the impact of shrimp aquaculture on land use change in India’s coastal wetlands using Landsat satellite data, geographical information system techniques and field verification from 1988 to 2013.

The 2020 study that reviewed the future implications of aquaculture on aquatic ecosystems and biodiversity, discusses the issues surrounding effluent treatment systems. The authors recommend a stronger regulatory framework for effluent treatment to assure the survival of the industry and also address the issues related to social, economic and environmental impacts of coastal aquaculture.

With plans for expansion of aquaculture in the country and the state, it is vital that the governments and shrimp farm owners seek these solutions at the planning stage, to ensure sustainability.

“We are working to make aquaculture as sustainable as possible. With more support, shrimp farmers can overcome the heavy investment challenges,” shares Roshan.

The environment impacts

The 2021-’22 Annual Report of Coastal Aquaculture Authority, acknowledges the environment impacts from shrimp farms and stated, “In order to overcome environmental problems, which pose a major constraint to achieve sustainable growth of the aquaculture activities, various regulatory measures are promulgated by Coastal Aquaculture Authority … Farmers are being enlightened on these aspects by advocating Good Aquaculture Practices besides various awareness programmes organised by Coastal Aquaculture Authority at different parts of the country.”

In conversation with Mongabay-India, Member Secretary, V Kripa, said that aquaculture is “no longer a polluting industry. Researchers are working hard and the technology and feed quality has improved so much. It’s not possible to pollute anymore.”.

She also clarified that Coastal Aquaculture Authority and the Tamil Nadu department for fisheries are working together closely to ensure that the vast potential for aquaculture in the state is utilised, farmers and coastal communities benefit and the practices are eco-friendly.

The spokesperson, V Kripa added that protests by artisanal fishers in Rameswaram were likely due to existing social issues or economic struggles, and aquaculture was not necessarily the driving force behind them.

An artisanal fisher in Rameswaram. Credit: Narayana Swamy Subbaraman/Mongabay

Fight for justice

Karunamoorthy and many in his community disagree. He said that he won’t breathe easy until the environmental and socio-economic issues concerning the expanding shrimp farms in Rameswaram are addressed.

“We are planning more strong protests until the shrimp farms responsible for pollution are shut down. So many people are moving out of their villages; the environmental damage is huge. We want to create awareness and create a political change and create a space for agriculture,” he said.

“We know that the government intends to protect water bodies, but it also wants to balance economic interests. In Damodirapattinam, we staged strong protests and the shrimp farms there have been shut down. We aim to do the same for some polluting farms in Rameswaram,” Karunamoorthy added.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.