The Casual Birth of the Ecuadorian Shrimp Aquaculture
The industry that arose from an unexpected discovery
May 10th, 2023
The story I'm about to tell you begins more than 55 years ago on the coast of Ecuador.
It was a time when the way to obtain the most exquisite delicacy of the Pacific was to venture into the warm, crystal-clear waters that surrounded the country. There, on the seafloor, rested the Pacific whiteleg shrimp (Penaeus vannamei), a crustacean endemic to the region, which swam freely and wildly in the vast marine territory. Imagine for a moment what those days were like, where artisanal fishing provided the product that delighted Ecuadorian and foreign palates alike, and where the Ecuadorian shrimp aquaculture industry was about to emerge.
During that time, 30-meter-long boats with bottom trawling nets on their sterns sailed very slowly along the Ecuadorian coast, about two miles per hour. By entering the natural habitat of adult shrimp, they caught different types of seafood and sorted them according to their intended destination: white and blue shrimp for export, and zebra and pomada shrimp for local consumption.
On a great day in 1968, in the Gulf of Guayaquil where the sea and land merge, nature held a secret that had remained hidden for a long time. This secret was only revealed every 14 days when the new or full moon illuminated the night sky, and the sea began to stir with force. This secret was called the “aguaje,” a natural event that occurs when the Sun, Moon, and Earth align, and the combined gravitational forces of the Moon and Sun produce greater effects on the planet’s liquid mass, causing an extraordinary increase in sea level and intensifying the currents.
Nature held a secret that was only revealed every 14 days, when the new or full moon illuminated the night sky
But the aguaje also held a secret that had gone unnoticed until that day in 1968, when a stroke of fate led a person in the Jambelí archipelago, in the Santa Rosa canton, to discover a fact that would visibly change the practices of shrimp fishermen in Ecuador.
As the tide rose, large amounts of fish and shrimp would venture into the salt flats and places near the mangroves. And there, in the coastal lagoons that surrounded the area, they would become imprisoned, as if it were a trap of nature. The most surprising thing was that the shrimp would develop and grow to a size that made the eyes of those who saw them shine. This unexpected revelation was the spark that unleashed the ingenuity of the visionaries and marked the beginning of shrimp aquaculture in Ecuador.
There, in the coastal lagoons that surrounded the area, they would become imprisoned, as if it were a trap of nature.
Little by little, the pioneers of the industry began to experiment in these natural ponds as they would with a puzzle: through trial and error. They didn’t have technicians or specialized workers to show them an effective and efficient path, but they did have a resilience that pushed them forward. One of the few references they had about aquaculture came from attempts made in the United States to cultivate catfish on dry land, and they, as clever as they were, knew how to take advantage of the natural conditions that Ecuador offered them to cultivate a species native to their region and develop the Pacific white shrimp aquaculture industry from scratch in the country.
Armed with pickaxes and shovels, the producers of the first shrimp ponds began to construct the walls that would enclose their shrimp farms. To ensure that more water entered and stayed in the ponds for longer periods, they closed the water outlets and used the aguaje which was a great ally in filling and replenishing the water in the ponds. This work was possible thanks to the efforts of the “lamperos,” mostly indigenous people from the Cañar region, whom the producers hired for the job. When the tide was low, groups of 10 to 15 lamperos would come to the ponds to shovel the surrounding soil and build up the walls.
And so began the history of shrimp farming in Ecuador. The producers discovered a way to raise these crustaceans on the mainland by introducing what they called ‘seeds’ in the ponds. These tiny creatures were nothing but wild shrimp larvae, craftily collected from the nurseries of the estuaries, where they were trapped by the high tide.
Courtesy of Revista Aquacultura, by Dr. Mario Cobo.
Since those years, the farming system used to raise shrimp was of an extensive way, a modality characterized by a low density of larval seeding, whether per square meter or hectare. This factor was astonishing since the crustaceans were capable of self-sustaining with the resources offered by nature itself, as they naturally fed on organisms inhabiting their environment. There, they grew to sizes ranging around 23 centimeters.
After a considerable amount of time, the producers would approach the farms to harvest the shrimp. This was a significant event celebrated with great joy, as it represented the fruit of months of dedication, effort, and innovation in the farming of the prized P. vannamei. And so it was that, in a casual way, an industry emerged in the country. An industry that grew and developed over time, reaching the magnitude that we see today. An industry that has led Ecuador to become the world’s leading producer and exporter of shrimp.
The plot of this story is based on conversations held in May 2023 with two key figures in the field: engineer and executive director of the National Chamber of Aquaculture (CNA), Yahira Piedrahita; and technical coordinator of Sustainable Shrimp Partnership (SSP) and environment director of the CNA, Leonardo Maridueña. These exchanges allowed for fascinating details to be uncovered about the origin of shrimp aquaculture in Ecuador, which served as the foundation for the development of this story.
Piedrahita Falquez, Y. L. (2016). Manual de buenas prácticas en el Cultivo de Camarón en Estanques en Ecuador. Guayaquil.
Valarezo W., Müller Jelinek H. (1993). Libro blanco del camarón. Ecuador.
Grunauer Serrano A. (2020). Memorias sobre un crustáceo llamado camarón. Ecuador.
SSP, Proud Sustainability Partner of the James Beard Foundation and Official House Purveyor
Supplying premium shrimp to the James Beard Foundation
and participants in Beard House events.