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Illegal Shrimp Farms Are Destroying the Coastline in Mamata's West Bengal

In East Medinipur, satellite images show that in a decade, over 1600 hectares of fertile land has been diverted.

Updated
Climate Change
6 min read

Video Producer: Naman Shah

Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam

That shrimp on your plate comes at a high ecological cost. In Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal, coastal zone regulation laws are being overlooked to allow thousands of aquaculture clusters to function with impunity. Prime agricultural land is being diverted to illegal shrimp farms.

This reporter travelled extensively along the coast of West Bengal to track the evidence with what satellite images were showing.

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Satellite Images of the East Medinipur Coastline showing Shrimp Farming in 2010

Satellite Images of the East Medinipur Coastline showing Shrimp Farming in 2021

In East Medinipur for instance satellite images show that in just a decade, more than 1600 hectares of fertile land has been diverted, (that’s the equivalent of 50 salt lake stadiums) in just 12 clusters on the coast. But the numbers are obviously much bigger.

As per a recently published report “National Wetland Decadal Change Atlas" by Space Applications Centre (SAC), ISRO, approximate area of aquaculture in west Bengal is 24000 hectares, which means a land use change of almost 6600 hectare area has been reported in one decade, since 2006.

To prepare the shrimp farms, soil is scooped up, and water is pumped into rectangular units. Close to the coast the water is saline - so it is mixed with synthetic chemicals to ensure the prawn seedlings survive. India’s coastal zone regulation act states, “no activities are allowed within 50-100 metres of tidal affected water bodies."

Again, satellite images clearly show that the aquaculture farms are in areas they should not be, i.e., the no-development zone and within 50 metres of the mangrove buffer zone.

Shrimp Farming Leaves Local Fishermen Desolate 

Nearly 55% of the shrimp production in the world comes from captive farms. What is perceived as a harmless activity providing livelihoods to the local people has a huge ecological footprint while also creating conflict amongst local communities. The wastewater from the shrimp farms that is loaded with chemicals, dead shrimp and faeces is discharged into the sea that kills fish species, making the local fishermen angry.

In the village of Boguran Jalpai, fisherman Shankar Baar alleges that the poisoned water from the aquaculture clusters has led to a drastic fall in his catch. People of his village are small scale or artisanal fishermen who catch the fish close to the coast and are not able to venture far out into the sea. When the water is discharged from the shrimp farms, there is an immediate fall in their catch.

Jyotsna Baal

(Photo: Bahar Dutt)

Fisherwoman Jyotsna Baal is not only facing losses but also complains of skin problems and itching since the water is so contaminated. For several months when the aquaculture clusters release the water, her economic losses are so high that she’s not able to buy fishing nets or even rent a boat to go out to sea with her husband.

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Close to the prawn farms, opportunistic brick kilns have mushroomed in an almost parasitic way.

(Photo: Bahar Dutt)

The illegal aquaculture clusters are not only leading to water contamination they are also fanning a deterioration in air quality in these areas. Close to the prawn farms, opportunistic brick kilns have mushroomed in an almost parasitic way.

The topsoil scooped out from the aquaculture clusters comes handy in making bricks.

And so where there are shrimp farms, there are now hundreds of such kilns that spew out toxic air that’s high on particulate matter, No2 and So2, giving a double blow to the local environment.

On the day we are on the ground for this report the air quality index is at ‘’Hazardous levels’. But here in East Medinipur, people are out and about oblivious to the toxic fumes coming out of hundreds of kilns around them.

Illegal Shrimp Farms Sprout Across Coastlines

In a paper published in 2018, titled “Impact of Shrimp Aquaculture on Important Ecosystems in India,” the analysis reveals that its not just the state of West Bengal but across India, shrimp farms are functioning without the consent of the concerned authorities. Note the authors,

“The variation between the actual area under shrimp aquaculture and the Coastal Aquaculture Authority approved area indicate that the larger extent of shrimp farm operates without approval”. The study by Jayanthi M and co-authors explored the “impact of shrimp aquaculture on land use change in India’s coastal wetlands using Landsat satellite data, geographical information system techniques and field verification”.

The Vanishing Red Crab

This reporter had to walk for more than thirty minutes on the beach before sighting even one red crab that used to be found in hundreds on this section of the beach.

(Photo: Bahar Dutt)

The evidence of ecological damage can be seen by the fall in local biodiversity. Fishermen allege the contaminated water from the farms is destroying biodiversity such as the red crabs, that once covered the beach in a shimmer of red, are today hard to spot.

This reporter had to walk for more than thirty minutes on the beach before sighting even one red crab that used to be found in hundreds on this section of the beach. We managed to find one hiding under a discarded plastic bag that had got embedded in the sand.

Ecologists state that creatures like the red crabs have a vital role to play in protecting the natural sea wall along the coastline from erosion. By digging their way into the sand, red crabs help infuse oxygen into the banks. This has a beneficial effect on the ecology of the coast. Scientist Dr Susanta Kumar Chakraborty who has done extensive studies on this part of the coast through his paper “Ecological role of ddler crabs (Uca spp.) through bioturbatory activities in the coastal belt of East Midnapore, West Bengal, India” corroborates this research. He notes with his co-authors in this paper that the crabs are a dominant intertidal species that contribute significantly to ecosystem functioning by their repeated burrowing and re-burrowing activities.

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Recreational Tourism vs the Ecology

Recreational tourism is destroying the ecology. 

(Photo: Bahar Dutt)

Recreational activities by the tourists such as driving on the beach with loud music and a fast speed has led to a decline not just in red crabs but other species found on the inter-tidal stretch. Fishermen here did complain to the government about the menace of rowdy tourists and the government had even banned joyrides on the beach for a short duration in 2015. But implementation is poor and the local communities are too scared to take on tourists.

And there are other threats for the red crabs as the West Bengal government has big plans for this part of the coast. Coastal tourism is being given a big impetus and it includes a multi-crore coastal road project to connect all the beaches. The influx of tourists has already led to flattening of sand dunes on the beaches around Mandarmani for restaurants and construction of resorts close to the coast, sometimes even by destroying mangroves that served as a natural defence line.

Mamata’s government has yet to shut any aquaculture clusters. A study by CEEW in 2021 revealed that “as many as 15 districts in West Bengal, which are home to nearly 72 million people, are exposed to extreme climate events such as cyclones, floods, and droughts”. Districts like Howrah, Kolkata, North 24 Parganas, Paschim Medinipur, and South 24 Parganas are hotspots for cyclones, which have increased five-fold in the state between 1970 and 2019, stated the study, while storm surges have increased by the same rate during this period.

As a solution the CEEW clearly states, the mangrove forests “have acted as shock absorbers against previous cyclones and are the perfect examples of nature-based solutions for climate resilience. Preserving them should remain a top priority for the state and central governments”.

For these reasons securing West Bengal’s coastline, protecting the local ecology, and enforcing the coastal zone laws should be top priority for the state government.

(Bahar Dutt is an award winning journalist and author.)

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