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food / travel

How China's Appetite Feeds An Ecuadorian Shrimp Boom

With shrimp consumption booming in China and production falling in traditional exporters like Vietnam, Ecuador is stepping in. It's the latest food chapter in a globalized world.

The overall Ecuador shrimp prodution reached nearly 220,000 tons last year.
The overall Ecuador shrimp prodution reached nearly 220,000 tons last year.
Víctor Hugo Carreño and Rodrigo Lara Serrano

SANTIAGO — One of the real crowd pleasers at Ibis, an upscale restaurant in Puerto Varas, in southern Chile, are the Ecuadoran prawns. The tasty crustaceans may even have something to do with the eatery's enviable ranking on websites such as TripAdvisor. And even though prawn prices have risen considerably of late, customers keep the orders coming.

Other Chilean restaurants have taken to serving Ecuadoran prawns too, leading importers to purchase approximately 2,500 tons worth of them in 2013. That may seem like a lot, but it represents just a fraction of overall Ecuador shrimp prodution, which reached nearly 220,000 tons last year.

Ecuador boasts more than 471,000 acres (190 hectares) of aquaculture plots and exports shrimp and prawns to 50 different countries, earning $1.8 billion in 2013, its Central Bank reports. Shrimp exports now stand alongside bananas and are superceded only by crude oil in terms of dollars earned. The numbers promise to be even better this year. Production is up approximately 10%, and as of May 1, export earnings had already reached $754 million.

Juan Carlos Marín, manager of Empagran, which imports and distributes Ecuadorean shrimp in Chile, says there are various reasons for the boom. One is "increased consumption in China, which has gone from exporter to importer," he explains. "Then there's the fact that the U.S. lifted tariffs on Ecuadoran shrimp." In 2013, the U.S. Trade Department removed a tariff of over 11.6% on Ecuadoran shrimp.

A third explanation is the appearance in Vietnam, a rival producer, of a viral infection called White Spot Syndrome (WSS), which has reduced output there "to nil," the Chilean importer says. Ecuador suffered heavily from WSS in the 1980s and has learned from the experience. One measure it has taken to keep the disease at bay is to reduce the number of larvae groups per square meter.

"When you work with animals, reduced space provokes illnesses, and treatments are not natural since you have to use antibiotics," says José Antonio Camposano, head of the National Aquaculture Chamber. Ecuador has between seven and 12 larvae per square meter, compared to between 50 and 100 per square meter in some countries. This reduces antibiotics use.

Boosting production with genetics

Ecuador currently produces approximately 9% of the world's prawns and shrimps. In the-not-too distant future, it woud like to increase that market share to 17%. Doing so, however, would require government backing, specifically in the area of genetic research to make the shrimp grow faster. The growth cycle is currently 120 days, and a shrimp gains 1.3 to 1.4 grams per week.

"We'd like them to grow 1.6 to 1.8 grams per week," says Alex Olsen, head of Lanec, which produces 1.1 tons of shrimp per hectare in every cycle. The firm would also like to boost production by reducing the cycles to 90 days.

Another threat to production is a bacterial infection called Early Mortality Syndrome (EMS). It has arrived in Mexico, and the solution for now, says Fabrizzio Vanoni of Epicore Bionetworks, is to block out all fresh seafood from the U.S. and Mexico. In Ecuador's case, being "free of diseases helps a lot right now, since production in Asia has fallen and precisely because most of our production is imported by countries in that region," Vanoni says.

Marín says "60% of Ecuador's production goes to Asia, basically concentrated in China," a drastic change from the traditional shrimp export profile: 70% used to go to Europe, 20% to the U.S. and 10% elsewhere.

Vanoni is optimistic about Ecuador's shrimp industry. But to assure the bright prospects, "you need to maintain extensive farming systems, and mechanize production," he says. One option is to introduce greenhouse systems that increase farming days. Ecuadoran producers should also focus on "keeping production systems clean," Vanoni says.

China's growing demand has caused supply issues and rising prices in Chile, says Empagran's Juan Carlos Marín. "The international price rose 64%, to which we had to add 10% in Chile as the U.S. dollar went up last year," he says. Prices this year have climbed another 15%. "Unfortunately, we got used to eating cheap shrimp," says Marín.

Nevertheless, the Empagram manager predicts that demand will keep steady, in part because of the established popularity in Chile of Peruvian and sushi restaurants, which went from being a fad to a regular part of many people's diets. Pricey or not, Chileans in Puerto Varas and elsewhere across the country will do what it takes to get their prawns.

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