Growing consumer demand for shrimp is fuelling an environmental crisis in some of the world's poorest nations, according to a new report.
Farmed shrimp account for about one-third of global consumption
The Environmental Justice Foundation claims it has exposed wide-ranging environmental damage that can be directly attributed to shrimp farming.
It claims shrimp farming is destroying wetlands, polluting the land and oceans and depleting wild fish stocks.
Millions of people depend on the fish stocks for their food and livelihoods.
Steve Trent, director of EJF, said the environmental damage had occurred as a result of a "get-rich quick" attitude by shrimp farmers. He added that governments and development agencies were encouraging this behaviour.
"It is time for the seafood industry and governments to take a stand and end these abuses," he commented.
"To fail to do so will spell long-term disaster for some of the world's poorest, marginalized coastal communities and for unique wildlife habitats."
The EJF report claims that as much as 38% of global mangrove destruction is linked to shrimp farm development.
Global mangrove deforestation rates now exceed those of tropical rainforests.
The damage is being caused by pollution and by clearing of the vegetation to make way for new farms.
Chemical pollutants used in the process include antibiotics, fertilisers, disinfectants and pesticides, which could be harming human health as well as the environment, the report's authors say.
Salt water from the farms also seems to be changing the composition of local soils, they add.
Shrimp farming can adversely affect wild fish stocks through pollution and destruction of wetlands, through unsustainable levels of bycatch during shrimp collection from the sea and through the introduction of diseases.
But Dr Janet Brown, a UK expert on shrmp farming from the University of Stirling's Institute of Aquaculture, cautioned about some of the report's main points.
EJF says mangroves have been degraded by the industry
"The issue is very complicated. Shrimp farming is different in every country it's carried out in," she told BBC News Online.
"There's actually no advantage for people to build shrimp farms in mangrove areas; they only do that because it's common land that they can get hold of cheaply."
Dr Brown added that there were relatively few studies on the impacts of shrimp farming.
For example, one scientific study carried out in 1996 on the shrimp farming industry in Honduras found that there was more mangrove clearance due to burning of the wood for charcoal than to shrimp farming.
'Lack of regulation'
The EJF report claims that export-orientated shrimp aquaculture has been promoted by aid agencies, financial organisations and governments as a path for developing countries to reach development targets and alleviate poverty.
But the environmental group criticises the lack of planning and regulation on these local industries.
Shrimp farming in Bangladesh: An issue that matters to developing nations
Shrimp farming is worth $6.9bn (£3.8bn) at the farm gate and $50-60bn (£28-33bn) at the point of retail.
Shrimp are farmed in 50 countries, the vast majority of which are developing countries.
In 2000, the leading producers were Thailand, China, Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Ecuador, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Mexico and Brazil.
In 2001, the UK imported 83,196 tonnes of shrimp worth over £353m.