Teamwork, genetics key to Ecuador’s USD 5 billion in shrimp exports in 2021
At the 2018 Seafood Expo North America in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A., Ecuador’s National Chamber of Aquaculture (CNA) helped to launch the Sustainable Shrimp Partnership, a move CNA Executive President José Antonio Camposano described as a key in the country’s development of its shrimp sector into a USD 5 billion (EUR 4.6 billion) export powerhouse.
Four years later, at the 2022 Seafood Expo North America, Camposano told SeafoodSource the initiative has succeeded beyond even the lofty expectations those who played important roles in SSP’s founding had for the initiative.
“At that time, the vision was to create a vehicle to communicate the differences between Ecuador and other shrimp-producing countries – making ourselves stand apart in a commoditized market,” Camposano said. “We looked around at the industry globally and had a lot of agreement that our advantage could be a series of principles that we could all share built around good industry practices and sustainability. Our differentiator could be our way of doing things. From there, it very rapidly evolved from what could we do to position Ecuadorian shrimp in the marketplace to a self-directed movement within our industry toward sustainability, competitiveness, constant improvement, and innovation.”
Camposano credited consultant Avrim Lazar, the convenor of the Global Salmon Initiative, as an important figure in creating agreement and movement in Ecuador’s shrimp industry toward building SSP around transparency and sustainability.
“Avrim convinced [Ecuador’s shrimp players] that through strong, positive leadership and through a commitment to these ideals, they could produce shrimp in a very sustainable way and be competitive in every market,” Camposano said. “Now, four years after the launch, I think it’s well-demonstrated that the vision we created then for the role Ecuador could play in the shrimp industry has become a reality.”
Ecuador set all-time highs in the value and volume of its shrimp exports in 2021, and set a new record production total of 1.86 billion pounds (843,681 MT) of shrimp, a 24 percent jump compared to the previous record in 2020 of 1.49 billion pounds (675,852 MT). The CNA reported Ecuador increased the share of its shrimp exports to the U.S. from 17 percent in 2020 to 22 percent in 2021, achieving a goal of diversifying away from China, which had accounted for 53 percent of its exports in 2020 but 46 percent in 2021. The European Union took 23 percent of Ecuador’s shrimp exports in 2021, up from 22 percent in 2020.
The timing of that diversification was clutch, as the Chinese market has tightened due to a heightened food-inspection regime related to its zero-COVID policy, which has resulted in numerous import bans on several big-name Ecuadorian shrimp producers. In mid-2020, as the global seafood market froze due to the global spread of COVID-19, Ecuador swiftly and sharply pared down production, Camposano said. Then, as it became apparent that demand for seafood was surging in the U.S., Ecuador’s shrimp producers were able to expand their production while India, its main competitor in the U.S. market, struggled to keep up, partially due to its own problems with COVID-19. While crediting luck as a factor, Camposano said the flexibility of Ecuador’s shrimp industry helped it weather the COVID-19 crisis and reamins one of its greatest strengths, and he credited it to the unity the industry achieved through its work to organize SSP and its familiarity and comfort with pre-competitive collaboration, he said.
“You can be accustomed to dealing with dynamics of international trade, but nothing can fully prepare you for the pandemic, or for the current war [in Ukraine]. But our industry leaders are always thinking of 10 different solutions as problems arise, and they’re not hesitant to work together,” Camposano said. “It’s almost a cliché, but the extent to which the hard work they put in pays off has amazed me. These are really hardworking people, and for some reason, they’re addicted to growth. They’re always pushing to do more. They have a good attitude, make good decisions, and they take advantage when they get lucky. That is what has created a continual mode of growth and expansion.”
The shrimp sector has become one of Ecuador’s biggest industries, along with oil and mining. It brings in significant money to the nation and between January 2020 and December 2021, created nearly 15,000 new jobs, primarily doing processing for the U.S. market, according to the CNA. The industry’s importance to the nation and its economy has become a point of pride, Camposano said. Its clout also helps it push for policies that will help it, such as its current push for free-trade agreements with the United States and China.
“We have a ton of pragmatism. We’re not trying to be Switzerland, but we know for sure that politics tend to mess with international relationships and that then affects trade,” Camposano said. “We hope that the position of Ecuador dealing with everybody starts with respect and we hope that our international trade continues to grow, because Ecuador needs it. [Ecuadorian] President [Guillermo] Lasso knows Ecuador needs exports to produce more economic growth and jobs in Ecuador because we cannot rely on our own domestic economy.”
Camposano said Ecuador is currently not sending any product to Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, but that was primarily due to logistical complications, including payment difficulties.
“We hope to resume exports to Russia, where we sent 60 million pounds of shrimp last year,” he said. “The primary reason we hope the war is over soon is humanitarian. Second is trade. We hope to get our trade partners back. Ecuador is facing a little bit of crisis right now because our banana industry sends 25 percent of its crop to Russia, which is worth more than USD 1 billion [EUR 900 million].”
Camposano said the “idea is to have a balance between the markets,” so that a crisis in one country can be absorbed by the industry. That has required Ecuador’s shrimp industry to adapt to the various needs of the markets it supplies, such as larger mid-size shrimp and value-added products the U.S. prefers and the shell-on products favored by the Spanish market.
“The [COVID-19] pandemic opened the door for new customers to try our products for the first time, and that has helped us grow our reputation and recognition as a producer of specialty shrimp products,” Camposano said. “They were also able to see that they were able to get these products while we maintained a commitment to high standards.”
Those standards, set by the SSP initiative, stretch from Aquaculture Stewardship Council certification to blockchain. They also include a ban on the use of antibiotics and the inclusion of sustainability-focused organizations, including the WWF, IDH, and ASC on SSP’s advisory board. SSP Director Pamela Nath told SeafoodSource at SENA that her organization has become “an innovation lab for the industry,” citing its early adoption of blockchain and its shrimp-farming density standards, which are lower than its primary international competitors.
“We’re taking on tasks that seem impossible at the time, but that turn out aren’t just possible but the optimal way forward,” she said. “We are positioning Ecuador as a leader in aquaculture sustainability across the board. We first worked to identify the right tools to drive sustainability in Ecuador’s shrimp sector, and then we moved toward implementation, not just for the largest players but moving small-scale producers to a higher level of sustainability as well. Now we are talking about climate change and actions our industry should take to reduce our carbon footprint, and we are looking at the raw materials coming into shrimp feed and ensuring we’re taking care of ecosystems like mangroves.”
SSP is working with aquafeed companies to increase the use of alternative ingredients in the shrimp feed they provide Ecuador’s industry, Nath said. And it continues to adhere to a specific pathogen resistant (SPR) strategic for its shrimp genetics, she said.
“The soul of the shrimp industry in Ecuador is genetics. Something that Ecuador is trying to prove to the world, and we finally have data to say it, is that SPR can work on a large-scale. It felt like the whole industry was laughing at Ecuador, saying we couldn’t do that and that should avoid having pathogens in our animals, but when the white spot wave came into Latin America, our animals were already resistant. We believe it’s impossible to control every variable in every pond, and that SPR has protected us from many problems. But we’re always looking to see how resistant our shrimp are, while we also study any new pathogens and how are they behaving, to see if we can grow that [resistance] a little bit more.”
The industry’s willingness to carve out a unique path for itself can be traced back to good guidance from Lazar and other consultants and experts brought in by the industry while it was forming SSP, and by its fearlessness to lead instead of follow, Camposano said.
“What we found was the industry needed someone to say, yes, we can do this, and then be the example that others then follow. We proved that growth could be synonymous with sustainability – that it’s OK to want to grow an industry and take care of the environment at the same time,” he said. “Soon after SSF was established, we started hearing from our partners that they were having conversations in other regions and countries where before, nobody wanted to talk about antibiotics use or improving best practices.”
With many of Ecuador’s large shrimp companies now ensconced in their third generation of family leadership, Camposano said the industry is about to enter another era of change. He said many of the principal chief of this new era in Ecuador’s shrimp industry are planning on retiring and fully passing leadership of their companies onto the next generation.
“It has been a very good run for the industry. The precompetitive collaboration concept applies perfectly with these guys and they have made a big difference,” he said. “I hope it continues as these companies are transferred from the second to the third generation.”
Photo courtesy of Cliff White/SeafoodSource