Big aquaculture bulldozes Borneo

Alex Whitebrook/ November 8, 2018/ News/ 0 comments

Not long ago, the clearing had been home to mangroves, saltwater-loving trees that anchor a web of life stretching from fish larvae hatching in the cradle of their underwater roots to the hornbills squawking at their crown. Now the trees’ benevolent presence was gone, in their place a swath of stripped soil littered with felled trunks as grey as fossils.

“Do you think we can find any food in this place now?” asked Bondien, a village leader of the Tombonuo people. “The company thinks it can do anything it wants — that we don’t count.”

The company is Sunlight Inno Seafood. Owned by Cedric Wong King Ti, a Malaysian businessman known as “King Wong,” it has bulldozed swaths of mangroves in the Tombonuo’s homeland in northern Borneo to make space for plastic-lined ponds filled with millions of king prawns. The shrimp are destined to be fattened for three months, scooped up in nets, quick frozen, packed into 40-foot refrigerated containers and loaded onto cargo ships bound for distant ports.

Gargantuan as it may seem to Bondien and his relatives, the project represents only a speck in the global aquaculture industry, one of the world’s fastest-growing sources of protein. Unfolding across Asia and around the world, this revolution in farming could help mitigate the impacts of climate change — or make them even worse.

As the buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gases causes the world’s oceans to warm, ecosystems that formed hundreds of thousands of years ago are being upended in less than a human lifespan. Across the planet, fish and other marine creatures are being forced into a desperate search for cooler waters. Even coral is on the move: Some Japanese reefs are expanding northward at up to nearly nine miles per year, researchers have found.

Tropical seas may be the hardest hit. Species in the once-stable conditions near the equator could find it much harder to tolerate even mild temperature increases than hardier cousins at higher latitudes, which are used to coping with the contrast between summer and winter.

“If you ask me what is the No. 1 concern that I have on climate change effects on fisheries, it is on these tropical, developing countries,” said William Cheung, director of science at the Nippon Foundation-University of British Columbia Nereus Programme. “The sheer speed of the change will make it that much harder for marine life to adapt.”

Coral reefs, as vital to tropical fish as trees are to birds, are becoming more vulnerable to a process called “bleaching,” which occurs when a spike in water temperatures causes coral to expel the algae that provide their kaleidoscope colours, leaving them prone to starvation or disease. Today, swaths of the once-psychedelic Great Barrier Reef in Australia have turned boneyard white and largely devoid of life.

Scientists fear a similar fate could await the Coral Triangle, a huge underwater wonderland east of Borneo endowed with a trove of biodiversity comparable to the rainforests of the Amazon Basin. Millions of people depend on its bounty to survive, a large share of them Malaysians, who eat an average of 125 pounds of fish each a year — more than double the world average.

With climate change bearing down on the tropics, the search is on for a more sustainable way of getting food from the sea, one that doesn’t take more than nature can give.

Farther to the north on Borneo, an island divided among Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, villagers are raising sea cucumbers: curious-looking creatures resembling giant slugs that are typically braised and served with oysters, mushrooms and spring onions, or – if you’re in Japan – thinly sliced, flavoured with wasabi and eaten raw.

These echinoderms, close relatives of sea urchins and starfish, may not appeal to every palate. But farming them has one of the lightest footprints of any form of food production, a reminder of the vast untapped global potential for harvesting oysters, mussels, clams and many other types of filter-feeders.

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