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Bitter dispute in Ecuador: What's killing the shrimp?
The Miami Herald / June 25, 1996

By Larry Luxner

GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador -- Call it a case of wanting to have your shrimp and eat your bananas too. Ecuador, the world's largest banana exporter and its No. 2 shrimp exporter, is caught in the middle of a bitter dispute over the so-called Taura syndrome -- a disease that has killed millions of shrimp larvae and caused an estimated $100 million in damage to the country's seafood industry.

According to many shrimp farmers, it's their counterparts in the banana business who are to blame.

Rodrigo Laniado Romero, first vice-president of the 200-member National Aquaculture Chamber in Guayaquil, said in a recent interview that 40 to 50 shrimp exporters are planning lawsuits against multinationals DuPont, Ciba-Geigy and BASF, all of which manufacture fungicides used by banana growers to fight black sigatoka disease.

Laniado claims that shrimp started dying en masse in 1992, soon after banana growers began fumigating their plantations with DuPont's Benlate, Ciba-Geigy's Tilt and BASF's Calixin. He says the fungicides ended up in the Taura River and later spread to the Gulf of Guayaquil, which is Ecuador's prime shrimp cultivation area.

Subsequent laboratory analysis revealed that a toxin, rather than a bacterial virus, was the "direct causative agent of high shrimp mortality," a finding backed up by Dr. Donald Lightner of Arizona University and other experts hired by the EPA in May 1994 to investigate the problem. On lands that have been closed off, says Laniado, survival rates for shrimp larvae are only 5 to 10 percent, compared to 50 percent elsewhere.

"We know nothing of any such lawsuit involving DuPont or Benlate, or any such allegation against Benlate," said DuPont spokeswoman Pat Getter. Several years ago, Benlate sparked a rash of suits from ornamental plant growers in Florida, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic who claimed that a tainted version of the fungicide had killed their plants. Representatives of the other two companies couldn't be reached for comment.

"Today we have 25,000 hectares of shrimp farms closed, and unable to produce shrimp," Laniado said. "As time goes by, the problem continues to spread, especially in the east bank of the Guayas River, and in the Taura region."

Yet Hernan Leon Guarderas, executive director of Ecuador's Federacion de Exportadores -- which represents both industries -- says the real culprit is wastewater from heavily industrialized Guayaquil, not the $770 million banana export sector.

"They're no longer using these pesticides in the banana industry," he said. "They're using pesticides of another type that don't affect the shrimp sector. What we've done is hold private meetings between the two sectors with the aim of finding solutions together."

Few doubt that waste from the Guayaquil may have something to do with the crisis. According to ECAPAG, the municipal water and sewage authority, only 35 percent of all Guayaquil households have adequate sewage distribution, and the city of 1.6 million has no sewage treatment plants. As a result, it dumps almost all its wastewater directly into the polluted Guayas River and nearby estuaries.

Asked about the Taura syndrome, an official at the U.S. Embassy in Quito said 1995 brought prosperity to the shrimp industry. "They have a problem with disease," he said, "but they've been able to get around that by opening up new areas that are unaffected, and closing down areas that are affected."

At stake is an industry that in 1995 exported 190.3 million pounds of frozen shrimp worth $668 million, at an average $3.51 a pound -- up 19.1 percent by volume and 24 percent by value over 1994 figures. Of the 1995 total, $422 million worth of shrimp went to the United States, $197 million to Europe and $46 million to the Far East, mainly Japan.

Laniado says major banana conglomerates such as Grupo Noboa, Dole and Chiquita Brands International have no choice but to use pesticides to combat sigatoka. Nevertheless, he argues, shrimpers shouldn't be paying for banana exporters' misfortunes.

"The duty of the chamber is to defend the well-being of its members, and we have a considerable number of members -- from 25 to 40 -- who can't produce shrimp," he adds. "This issue has been very much manipulated by people who want to divert the real cause of Taura syndrome from contamination to a viral problem."

Last month, Canada's Epicore Networks Inc. announced it had secured purchase agreements from five of Ecuador's largest shrimp producers for the supply of its patented chemical, Epicin, to combat pollution and disease in shrimp production facilities. Bill Long, who heads the company's South American marketing efforts, says he's not sure what's causing all the shrimp to die.

"Some believe it's pesticides, others say it's a virus," he said. "We think some of the problems are undoubtedly caused by Taura syndrome, but there are other problems related to water quality, pond management and shrimp nutrition. The shrimp are in a very unnatural environment, and pollution builds up very quickly."

At least one U.S. importer thinks the controversy could affect the supply of Ecuadoran shrimp to the U.S. market.

"A lot of smaller farms can't afford to stay in business," says Wendi Smith, Latin American procurement specialist for Tai Foong USA Inc. of Bellevue, Wash., "and the pesticide problem is just another cost. There's a legitimate case there."

Yet in recent years, Ecuador's shrimp industry itself has come under attack for destroying mangroves. One Quito-based group has even tried to start a worldwide boycott of Ecuadoran shrimp to call attention to the issue.

According to a recent study, Ecuador's coastal mangrove forests are shrinking at the rate of 2 percent a year, and have lost 18 percent of their area since 1984, while the land devoted to shrimp production has doubled. Whereas in 1984 there were over twice as many hectares of mangrove swamps and salt marshes than hectares of shrimp ponds, the area of the shrimp ponds now exceeds that of natural coastal wetlands.

"Years ago, there was no regulation. Shrimp farmers didn't care about the man-groves," conceded Johnny Alarcon, general manager of Progalca, Ecuador's 14th largest shrimp exporter by volume. "The authorities were easily bribed. But not now. There's more international pressure. In the last two years, the Ecuadoran government has started putting regulations in place and stopping the wild misuse of the mangrove areas."

Even so, Laniado criticizes Ecuador's environmental movement for having misplaced its priorities.

"The biggest environmental problem in Ecuador is pesticides in the water, and they don't raise hell about it," he complains. "All they want is publicity."

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