Navigating the Shrimp Industry: Insights from Willem van der Pijl

In this interview, we sit down with Willem van der Pijl, a seasoned expert in the aquaculture industry, to discuss the highlights of his extensive career, the challenges faced by the shrimp industry, and his insights on its future. Willem shares his passion for the Indian shrimp industry, his role in the newly established Global Shrimp Council, and his thoughts on the industry's growth, sustainability, and the importance of collaboration. Join us as we delve into the intricate world of shrimp farming and the innovative solutions that can drive its progress.


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Willem, you have a rich career in the aquaculture industry, what has been your highlight?

While my career in aquaculture has brought many rewarding experiences, a recent highlight is definitely the publication of my guide to the Indian shrimp industry. The guide ties back to where my career began and where a significant part of my passion lies—the Indian shrimp industry. This industry is unique due to its fragmentation, with 150,000 shrimp farmers and over 1.5 million people relying on it for their livelihood, alongside numerous family-owned companies. Through countless visits and interactions, I gained a deep appreciation for the industry and the people who make it work. This guide is my way of thanking them for sharing their knowledge and stories. India's shrimp industry often faces criticism, but it's a crucial source of food, income, and foreign exchange for the country. I believe it deserves recognition for its positive contributions. So yes, this guide, and the entire journey of understanding this intricate industry over the past 12 years, is definitely a highlight of my career.

You are an advisor to the newly established Global Shrimp Council. Why now, and what is the main objective?

It's a privilege to serve as an advisor to the newly formed Global Shrimp Council. The timing for this initiative couldn't be better, and its primary goal is clear: to boost shrimp consumption worldwide. The Council wouldn't exist without the vision of Gabriel Luna and David Castro. They approached me last year with a bold idea – a collaborative marketing effort for shrimp, something the industry had never attempted. Previously, discussions stalled on funding mechanisms, often relying on voluntary contributions that wouldn't be universally adopted. We launched the concept at last year's Global Shrimp Forum, where it resonated with major producers. Many committed to initial research funding. By the Boston Seafood Show in March 2023, membership reached 50 companies and the inaugural board was elected – 13 representatives from across the global shrimp industry united to drive shrimp consumption. The Council's sole focus is to boost shrimp consumption. This initiative comes at a critical time, as the industry faces an oversupply situation that has not been seen before. Production is outpacing consumption, and this imbalance necessitates two primary responses: increasing efficiency to reduce costs and enhancing demand for shrimp. Promoting shrimp as a healthy, fun, and sustainable protein option can help it compete more effectively with other popular protein sources worldwide.

The shrimp industry is facing many difficulties, what do you see as the most challenging?

The most challenging aspect for the shrimp industry right now is its rapid growth. Production continues to increase, but demand hasn't been able to keep pace, leading to declining prices and other associated challenges. This growth is pushing the industry towards maturity, drawing more attention to the entire supply chain and raising questions about issues such as animal welfare, social conditions, and sustainability. While it's essential to focus on tackling low prices, boosting demand, and improving efficiency through technology, there's another crucial aspect that may not be getting as much attention yet. Beyond these immediate concerns, the industry must ensure it is cleaning up its practices and supply chain. This means eliminating any potential ethical issues that could harm the industry's reputation or jeopardize efforts to promote shrimp consumption. In the long run, taking these measures will be beneficial for the industry, as it will help safeguard its image and support ongoing progress.

Shrimp prices are at a historical low, in part due to oversupply in Ecuador. Has the industry become a victim of its own success?

Yes, the industry has become a victim of its own success to some extent. The current situation, with shrimp prices at a historical low due to oversupply in Ecuador, is a natural cycle. This pressure will drive the industry to become more efficient and focus more on marketing its products, potentially reversing the situation and leading to new growth cycles. While many in the industry are facing challenges because of this success, the long-term outcome could be a more resilient and sustainable industry. As for predicting when the cycle might turn around, it could take three to five years to see significant impacts from any marketing campaigns. In the meantime, the industry may continue to experience difficulties for the foreseeable future.

Are there lessons from the past, that might help the industry resolve its challenges?

One key lesson from other industries is that many challenges facing the shrimp industry today can't be addressed by individual companies alone. Collaboration and partnerships are crucial to tackle these issues effectively. The industry is beginning to recognize the importance of these alliances for its future success. It's encouraging to see the development of these partnerships, whether it's creating a more sustainable supply chain, working with the Global Shrimp Council, or collaborating in India with the seafood task force to address labor issues. Pre-competitive partnerships will be key to driving progress and tackling challenges in the industry moving forward.

If you had a crystal ball, what would the shrimp industry look like in 10 years?

If I were to look ahead with a crystal ball, I fear that the shrimp industry might consolidate around Ecuador and India, while countries like Indonesia and Vietnam could face significant challenges. This trend is already evident and could accelerate due to India's competition with Ecuador. India will need to diversify, leading to consolidation among companies and within regions. Technology companies such as E-fisheries and Aqua-exchanges will likely play a pivotal role in assisting Asian farmers who are open to new approaches in farming, helping them compete with large corporate farms in Ecuador and other parts of the world. This support from technology firms could be crucial for countries like Indonesia, where E-fisheries is already a significant presence. However, highly intensive farms in Vietnam with high stocking densities may struggle with cost competitiveness. If Indian farmers outcompete them in the value-added segment, it raises questions about where their shrimp will be sold unless these producers can establish strong domestic markets or alternative export markets. Promoting shrimp consumption in India, for example, holds potential but requires substantial investment and time to realize growth. The 4A's (availability, access, affordability, and awareness) remain challenges in India, particularly regarding availability and access. In the long run, with India's vast non-vegetarian population, the market could expand, but it will necessitate significant investment and time to cultivate.

Willem, you said that you were afraid of the consolidation industry consolidation. Do you see that as a bad thing maybe for Ecuador and India?

I don't necessarily view industry consolidation as a negative, as it can offer many benefits to the companies, farmers, and workers involved in the consolidation process. However, it may come at the expense of numerous small-scale farmers who may struggle to find suitable alternative livelihoods. Consolidation can lead to increased efficiency and possibly even a more sustainable product. Still, it raises concerns about the individuals who may be excluded from the industry. As a cultural anthropologist, I'm also mindful of the importance of social sustainability. If consolidation leads to more environmental sustainability but simultaneously displaces people who rely on the industry to support their families, it presents a significant challenge.

In what way does disease shape the shrimp industry?

Disease remains a significant factor in the shrimp industry, particularly in Asia, more so than in Latin America currently. For instance, in India, a farmer can achieve substantial profits if there is no disease on their farm. However, if disease strikes, it can lead to significant financial losses. This highlights the substantial impact disease can have. There are numerous opportunities to help the industry better manage disease pressure on farms. However, there's no one-size-fits-all solution—it involves a combination of biosecurity, preventative healthcare, and quality seed, among other factors. Slow growth is another issue that can be more challenging to address. When shrimp experience stunted growth, but farmers continue feeding them, hidden costs can accumulate. Feed expenses make up 60-70% of total production costs, and continuing to spend on shrimp that aren't growing effectively can lead to further financial difficulties.

We often talk about animal welfare in vertebrates, with fewer discussions for invertebrates. How important is shrimp welfare?

Shrimp welfare is becoming increasingly significant, particularly in Europe, where there is considerable focus on the practice of ablation—removing one of the eyes of the female shrimp to accelerate the spawning cycle. This practice is seeing a swift shift away in Latin America and may eventually occur in Asia as well, due to growing media attention and evolving scientific views. The prevailing belief is that not performing ablation enhances the female's quality of life, prolongs its lifespan, and improves the quality of its eggs. Since avoiding ablation isn't more costly and results in better farming outcomes, this shift is expected to happen quickly, influenced by Northern European retailers and subsequently spreading across the industry. Another area of growing interest is electrical stunning. This process involves stunning the shrimp after harvest before placing them on ice. While the science supporting its benefits for shrimp welfare is less convincing, the method also requires significant investment and changes to harvesting procedures, making widespread adoption less certain. Nevertheless, there is momentum for change. For instance, one Dutch supermarket has recently banned shrimp produced using ablation, and others are following suit. This is part of a broader trend toward improving sustainability in the industry, which includes initiatives such as sustainable feeds and enhanced traceability across the supply chain.

If you have a favorite recipe, what is it and why is it your favorite one?

My favorite recipe is shrimp lasagna, combining two recipes to enjoy the entire shrimp without wasting any part. I start by making a flavorful bisque from the heads and shells, which makes a delicious soup. Then, I use the shrimp meat to create a spicy pepper lasagna. The combination is not only tasty, but it's also unique and enjoyable.