By Marion V. Ali
An estimated $30 million and hundreds of jobs have been lost due to a viral disease at shrimp farms across the country. The crisis has investors trying to grapple with salvaging one of Belize’s largest income earners.
Since the virus was detected in March, hundreds of shrimp farm labourers (or about 40 percent) employed at the nation’s 15 farms, have been sent home. Some of these people have been absorbed in other agricultural fields until the industry recuperates.
There is not much that can be done, according to Jose Alpuche, chief executive officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, but those losses should not translate into a marked increase in prices at the domestic level. He said there is still limited exportation taking place. Normally, the country exports around $90 million in shrimp each year, so the loss is significant, he indicated.
“The losses at the end of this, which would be sometime around the second quarter of next year – the shrimp industry may very well lose in the region of about $30 million. There’s not much that can be done in terms of attempting to make up for it. The whole strategy is to try to get the industry up and running on a more secure footing.
“That’s why we’re putting new practices in place, so that we mitigate the chances of this recurring,” he said.
Alpuche noted the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) has been an integral part of the rebounding process by rescheduling existing loans so producers are fatally impacted.
The disease, scientifically known as “Vibrio Parahaemolyticus”, is caused by bacteria found in brackish saltwater, which, when ingested causes gastrointestinal illness in humans. Ingesting the bacteria in raw or under-cooked seafood is the predominant cause of acute gastroenteritis, a medical condition of the stomach that causes diarrhea, vomiting, and cramping.
The presence of the bacteria has compelled investors to dry their pools, clean them and restock but the process has taken longer than expected because the preventative measures to avoid a recurrence entails a lot more than was anticipated.
That process involves introducing Tilapia fish in the ponds to clean them and then removing the fish before re-stocking them with shrimp. Tilapia uses the bacteria that causes the problem as a natural part of its biological process.
Another element of the procedure is to maintain less saline water in the ponds. These measures will be fully in place by early 2016, according to Alpuche.
This is the first time that Belize has had an outbreak of this specific type of aquatic virus, but Alpuche said because it has been present in neighbouring countries, it was just a matter of time before it got here.