Building on What’s Already There: Managing Risks Beyond the Shrimp Farm

May 3, 2021    


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Edition four of 2021

As the aquaculture sector continues to grow, so do the risks associated with production. Production, however, rarely happens in isolation. Farms are interconnected with other farms within the same landscape. The actions of one farmer can impact not only on his or her own production, but also affect neighbouring farms and have a cumulative effect on the natural environment. As a result, certain risks transcend farm boundaries and are shared between farms. The most prominent of such “area-level risks” that the shrimp industry is currently facing is disease, but flood risk and water pollution are also often shared between multiple shrimp farmers. Addressing these types of shared risks requires cooperation between farmers, which is where it becomes complicated… This article explores existing approaches for addressing area-level production risks like disease, and recommends placing more focus on the way that farmers themselves comprehend risks and organize risk management. Various ways to organize the cooperation between farmers in a specific geographical area exist. But how can we make sense of all of these, and which approaches are most suitable to address shared problems like disease? Externally-led approaches to risk management  It seems logical that in order to address the production risks that farmers experience, understanding how farmers manage risks would be a first step. Yet, in many shrimp-producing countries, this is not always the case. Most known approaches to risk management beyond the farm are initiated by the public and private sector in efforts to scale up risk management and sustainability, and these do not appear to take farmers’ own perspectives on risk management as their starting point.

The actions of one farmer can impact not only on his or her own production, but also affect neighbouring farms and have a cumulative effect on the natural environment. As a result, certain risks transcend farm boundaries and are shared between farms.

Current externally-led approaches to aquaculture risk management beyond the farm can be grouped into two categories (A and B in Figure 1). The most dominant one is the aggregate of individualistic, rather than collective, approaches to risk management. A good example is a landscape of many individually certified farmers. In most certification standards, risk management practices are defined at the individual farm level, and the process of certification involves a high degree of control by external actors. Farmers are audited to determine whether they meet these standards. Despite clear efforts to scale up these approaches through for example the development of group certification programmes, they remain limited in their ability to address area-level risks like disease for two reasons. First, they define risk management practices at the individual level, which does not reward or motivate cooperation between farmers. Second, they are prescriptive and by definition standardized, therefore unable to take into account local conditions of production. For this reason, farmers that do not have the capacity or financial resources needed to adhere to these requirements are automatically excluded.

Figure 1: Three approaches to aquaculture risk management beyond the farm (Designer: Emily Liang) 

The second category of risk management beyond the farm is an area-level approach. A common example is the spatial planning of aquaculture areas. Risk management practices are defined at the area or landscape level. Often, initiators attempt to include farmers in the definition of risk management practices, but they still tend to involve external control. These approaches also struggle to address area-level risks. The problem is that when areas for improvement are defined by external actors at too large a scale, farmers have little in common with each other. Farmers are less likely to cooperate with other farmers that they do not know, or who experience different risks.

Finding an inclusive alternative 

If external actors struggle to motivate farmers to cooperate in order to address shared risks, is there an alternative way of approaching risk management beyond the farm? A recent study of small-scale shrimp and tilapia farmers in China, Thailand and Vietnam (Figure 2) found that farmers are collectively addressing risks like disease in local networks and at a scale at which they experience similar risks that have a direct impact on production (C in Figure 1). In these networks, farmers are tied to each other in two ways.

Farmers sought collaborationto address risks they could not address individually or within the boundaries of their own farm.  

Figure 2: Location of study sites (Source: Esri, Garmin, GEBCO, NOAA NGDC, and other contributors) 

First, farmers are connected to each other through a shared understanding of risk. Farmers cooperate with each other at a geographical scale within which they share a common understanding of production risks. At this local scale, the farmers studied exchanged information about input quality, disease outbreaks and helped each other in times of crisis. Farmers sought collaboration to address risks they could not address individually or within the boundaries of their own farm.

For example, a Vietnamese integrated mangrove shrimp farmer in Cà Mau coordinated water discharge with her neighbour to prevent their farms’ common dyke from breaking due to water pressure differences caused by uncoordinated discharge.

It’s not only the shared risks that tie these farmers together, but also their social relations. Farmers are connected to each other through social ties based on kinship, locality, friendship and profession. Whilst business networks in Northern Europe and North America are generally formed through deliberative involvement of outside agencies, like industry associations, in most East and Southeast Asian countries, these networks tend to be developed more organically and through personal relations. The social relations within the networks of studied farmers also drove cooperation.

To illustrate this, a Thai shrimp farmer helped another farmer with an emergency harvest in response to a disease outbreak simply because the other farmer was his cousin. A Chinese tilapia farmer helped her neighbour fix broken equipment on his farm after a typhoon because she hoped that her neighbour would return the favour if she ever needed help. Trust plays an integral role in these networks of cooperation. It is essential in collaborative relations in which actors need to jointly manage risks for the effective performance of the group as a whole. Transmittable risks like disease and water pollution are often difficult to detect before it is too late, and the prevention of these risks depends entirely on farmers’ mutual trust and their resulting moral conduct. The study demonstrated that trust between farmers is instrumental in driving collaborative risk management beyond the farm.

Reinforcing exisiting approaches with farmer-led collaboration

External initiatives struggle to address area-level risks, but collaborative risk management behaviour does appear to emerge through local networks. How can we use this finding to move forward and develop more effective approaches to risk management beyond the farm? On the one hand, it can be used to complement and reinforce existing approaches. For example, farm-level improvement models such as certification can better integrate local farmers’ understanding of space and risk. In practice, this means two things. First, farmers should be organized based on existing social networks within which they are already effectively sharing risks. When buyers form groups for group certification or when extension officers group farmers for training purposes, these existing social networks should be taken as the starting point. Second, farmers’ own understanding of risks should be taken into account when defining objectives. Standard bodies could include farmers’ risk priorities in the process of standard-setting, or public-private partnerships could empower farmers to determine their risk management goals themselves. While there are no simple or self-evident processes for doing so, if we want to start addressing area-level risks, these steps are essential.

Alternatively, these local networks of collaborative risk management can be used as the blueprint for developing entirely new approaches. The starting point becomes the farmers’ own existing understanding of risk management. This would require empowering farmers to define risks and the scale of collaborative risk management, which is difficult for external actors to control. It would require a radical move away from a starting point of external control, to one in which farmers organize themselves, based on their own understanding of risk. One in which external actors trust that groups of farmers in specific configurations collectively address production risks. Though developing such an approach requires further investigation into how to translate existing trust between local farmers to external actors, this approach would be more inclusive and accessible to a much broader range of farmers than current models are, and could structure a means of scaling up sustainability.

To address area-level risks in aquaculture, we need to start thinking differently about how risks across areas should be governed. Overcoming some of the limitations of current approaches, and developing new ones for scaling up risk management in Asia and beyond requires a better understanding of risk management behaviour across landscapes and in markets. To fully comprehend risk management, it is essential to understand the way farmers interpret risks and relate to other farmers in their shared landscapes.

About the author 

Mariska Bottema is a senior analyst at Seafood TIP. She specializes in seafood sustainability and aquaculture value chains and has obtained a PhD in aquaculture governance. Her PhD entitled “Reimagining Aquaculture Risk Management Beyond the Farm” was the foundation for this article. In her research, Mariska explores what aquaculture risk management beyond the farm entails, investigating numerous examples in Asia. She introduces a dynamic and socio-spatial approach to understanding aquaculture risk management, reimagining aquaculture risk management from a social perspective. For questions, please contact Mariska at