Paddy cultivation and fishing is the mainstay of the Sundarban ecoregions’ economy. However, loss of landmass and frequent incursions of saltwater into agricultural fields is rendering the practice less viable each passing day. Sustainable aquaculture as well as shrimp-paddy culture has the potential to help affected cultivators to not only adapt to climate change but also improve their economic condition.
Traditional shrimp aquaculture and the entire value chain associated with it is a major source of livelihood for people in the Sundarban – but unfortunately the Indian open market economic policies of the 1990s influenced the entire value chain of the aquaculture sector – exporters, aquafarmers and market associations – encouraging transition from traditional to commercial (monoculture) shrimp aquaculture in West Bengal. Today, the State is the second largest producer of shrimps in India and almost 75 per cent of this is produced from the Sundarban ecoregion – with most of it being shipped to the USA, European Union and Japanese markets. The shrimp export industry in West Bengal is worth over 100 million dollar (USD) but it comes at an enormous ecological cost.
In the absence of shrimp seed (post larvae) hatchery in West Bengal, several hundred millions (1500-3000 million) of shrimp seeds are caught from the wild every year in order to meet the demand of almost 50,000 hectares of shrimp farms in this region – with almost half a million people are engaged in wild shrimp seed collection. This results in large scale destruction of other non target species (bycatch), which could destabilise the entire food chain of the ecoregion. Falling fish catch, low mangrove regeneration rate and damage to crucial embankments are some of the associated problems.
In 2008, WWF-India Sundarbans Programme demonstrated sustainable shrimp farming with the participation of aquafarmers and cooperation of the Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA), National Centre for Sustainable Aquaculture (NaCSA), West Bengal Fisheries Department and local administration. The results are encouraging not only in economic and ecological terms but also as a climate change adaptive strategy although the demonstration farming was not meant as an adaptive strategy when conceived.