Integrating Aquaculture into Rural Development in Coastal and Inland Areas

[1]Graham Haylor and [2]Simon Bland

[1]Aquatic Resources Programme Manager,
[2]Senior Natural Resources Advisor,
Department for International Development, c/o British Embassy,
Wireless Road, Bangkok 10330 Thailand

Haylor, G. & Bland, S. 2001. Integrating aquaculture into rural development in coastal and inland areas. In R.P. Subasinghe, P. Bueno, M.J. Phillips, C. Hough, S.E. McGladdery & J.R. Arthur, eds. Aquaculture in the Third Millennium. Technical Proceedings of the Conference on Aquaculture in the Third Millennium, Bangkok, Thailand, 20-25 February 2000. pp.73.81. NACA, Bangkok and FAO, Rome.

ABSTRACT: Aquaculture has an important role in rural development. Three quarters of aquaculture production comes from low-income countries, the key region being Asia, within which Chinese production predominates. Integrating aquaculture into the rural economy can bring benefits, as well as environmental and social risks, especially in coastal areas. Lessons must be learnt from the case of uncontrolled expansion of intensive marine shrimp production. In developing economies, peoples’ livelihoods, which include aquaculture, benefit from participatory approaches, which build management capacity. In inland areas, fry nursing networks represent low-risk entry points for rural development, and fish-in-rice systems have wide application. In coastal areas, reforestation can benefit coastal defences and aquatic resource production, whilst integrated pond-dyke cropping systems in delta areas have demonstrated complementary resource and energy flows. In more developed countries, where the objective is the development of remote rural economies, the stability and environmental impact of aquaculture should be key considerations in any future planning.

Effective rural development comes through sound governance, participation at all stakeholder levels, people-centred integrated sustainable development and a multi-sectoral agenda. Policy coherence must be a primary objective, developed through wide-ranging public involvement and, where necessary, through the promotion of effective representative organizations. Much greater emphasis on advocacy (outside of the subsector) is required to raise awareness of the role for aquaculture in rural development and to raise the stakes for institutional change. Regulation and policy should aim to internalise the external effects of aquaculture (e.g. the “polluter pays” principle). Special attention is required to empower and link stakeholders to policy decisions.

KEY WORDS: Aquaculture, Rural Development, Poverty Alleviation, Aquatic Resource Management, Integration of Aquaculture





Aquaculture has an important role in the development of many national economies and plays a key role in rural development. It provides livelihood options in rural areas of the developing world (over 75 percent of aquaculture yields are produced in low-income countries), as well as income and employment in remote regional, as well as more developed economies (salmonid production in western Europe being an important example). Aquaculture production continues to grow at more than 10 percent per annum globally, outpacing terrestrial livestock and capture fisheries. Excluding aquatic plants, 60 percent of production comes from inland and 40 percent from coastal or marine areas (Shearer et al., 1997). Farmers in the Asia-Pacific Region contribute over 80 percent of the world’s aquaculture production, with China producing 50 percent of global production (Edwards and Demaine, 1997).

The objectives of a more integrated approach to minimize harmful externalities include:

  • optimal allocation of resources to competing activities;
  • the resolution or minimization of conflict;
  • the minimization of environmental impact; and
  • the conservation of natural resources.

However, integrating aquaculture into a functioning rural economy brings with it some risks. For example, rapid expansion of coastal shrimp aquaculture skewed market forces and led to both environmental and social problems. Mangrove deforestation, land degradation, habitat loss and disease all resulted from poorly planned development in this sector. Degradation of, and exclusion from, resources has marginalised many poor people who have not benefited from this growth.

In inland and coastal areas, improved aquatic resources management, including aquaculture integrated into existing farming systems, therefore, has the potential to enhance livelihoods, but considerable effort is required to include local people and support their management of sustainable development.

Definitions and interpretation

Sustainable development (in the context of this paper) means the management and conservation of the natural resource base and the orientation of technological and institutional change to ensure continued supply of human needs for present and future generations.

  Such sustainable development conserves land, water, and plant and animal genetic material, is environmentally nondegrading, technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable.

Aquaculture is the farming of aquatic organisms in inland and coastal areas, involving intervention in the rearing process to enhance production and the individual or corporate ownership of the stock being cultivated. In rural areas of poorer countries, agronomy, water management, aquaculture and wild aquatic resource harvesting are often physically and functionally integrated. Thus aquaculture is an integral and indivisible part of the management of aquatic resources.

Rural development is the management of human development and the orientation of technological and institutional change in such a manner as to improve inclusion, longevity, knowledge and living standards in rural areas, in the context of equity and sustainability.

Livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets and activities required for sustaining, maintaining or enhancing capabilities and assets, both now and in the future.

Aquaculture and rural development - a diverse issue

The objective of rural development is to facilitate a sustainable rural economy. The opportunities for the integration of aquaculture into rural development are characterized by diverse aquatic resources (see Box 1), and a wide range of stakeholders and their livelihoods. Objectives may further range from food production, income generation, wild stock enhancement or recreation (ornamental fish or sport). The scale may be intensive commercial operations through to subsistence aquatic resource management within developed and less-developed economies.

At the local/national level, the integration of aquaculture into rural development may take place in growing (e.g. developing economies) or declining (e.g. remote rural regions in developed economies) populations. At all levels, this is occurring within the context of globalization, increased mobility of goods, services, capital and ideas, as well as increased transfers of aquatic species and disease transmission. Where there are stable and predictable political and institutional environments, transparent laws, fair competition and reliable legal systems, this will attract inward investment.




Where rural development fails to create the policy environment and skills to exploit global opportunities, aquaculture like other subsectors, may decline.

Examples of significant regional differences in aquaculture resources, users and their livelihood objectives include western Europe and North America, where social status, religious edicts and the emergence of leisured classes during the industrial revolution have all shaped present day aquaculture (Williamson and Beveridge, 1994). Inland and coastal aquaculture development has tended to focus on piscivorous species related to sport fishing and high-value products from inland and coastal areas. Unlike temperate fresh waters, those in the tropics abound with fish low in the food chain such as carps, tilapias and catfish, and fish farming in rural tropical fresh waters has been driven primarily by the need to produce food (Ling, 1977). In contrast, coastal fish culture systems in the tropics, with the exception of the species used in traditional coastal fish farming (mullets and milkfish) have tended to focus on high market value species such as shrimp, grouper and seabass.

Issues and examples of aquaculture development in less developed rural economies

In the context of rural development, sustainable livelihoods in rural areas are benefited through the promotion of more secure access to, and better management of natural resources. Aquaculture encapsulates a range of systems for the management of aquatic and associated terrestrial resources; selected examples are illustrated below, divided into intensive and less intensive systems.


The integration of less intensive aquaculture systems into rural development

Rural aquaculture in rural development

The term “rural aquaculture” has recently been used to distinguish the farming of aquatic organisms by small-scale households using mainly extensive and semi-intensive husbandry for household consumption and or income (Edwards & Demaine, 1997) from more commercially intensive aquaculture systems. This could include groups and communities with a broader range of aquaculture contributions to rural livelihoods, and this is currently a matter of debate (Yap, 1999; Edwards, 1999).Until recently, much rural aquaculture production was inaccessible to researchers and rural developers, because of:

  • dispersed and small-scale production data which does not appear in official statistics, and
  • local consumption and/or trade of produce.

However, the vital role of small-scale yet widespread systems in family nutrition, food security and income generation, is now beginning to gain recognition (UNICEF, 1994; Gregory and Guttman, 1997; Ahmed et al., 1998; Haylor et al., 1999). Taking rural development in the lower Mekong basin as an example, 80 percent of the 60 million people living in rural areas are rice farmers with 1-2 ha plots and a per capita income of US$186-400; rice and aquatic resources from paddies and nearby wetlands are the basis of their food security. Agronomy, water management, aquaculture and wild aquatic resources are often physically and functionally integrated in these circumstances. Thus aquaculture is an inextricable part of the aquatic resource base and must play a key role in the development of rural livelihoods.

Water is essential for developing rural livelihoods (bathing, livestock, vegetable cultivation, irrigation) and certain forms of aquaculture production can represent simple, low-risk activities providing a quick return to fund other activities and build confidence. A number of successful low-input systems for rural aquaculture may be widely applicable, including local fry nursing, fish rearing in different rice agro-ecosystems and small-scale pond management.




Of these, fry nursing and the operation of a nursing network (see Box 2) provide opportunities to address key constraints, not only to aquaculture (e.g. available fish seed) but also to more diverse livelihoods (e.g. management and institutional support capacities). This is a powerful example of where aquaculture represents a useful entry point for rural development .

Rural development and aquaculture in Asian floodplains

In addition to the Mekong Delta, in Southeast Asia, rural development on many other Asian floodplains, including major river systems in the Punjab and Bangladesh, has concentrated in recent times on achieving self-sufficiency in food grains through agricultural intensification and floodwater management. However, this has been at the expense of aquatic animal production, which has declined due to drying out of fish habitat and blocking of migration routes (Haylor and Bhutta, 1997; Barr and Haylor, 2001). Agricultural growth at the expense of fish production in rural development in societies where culture and food security are based on fish and rice (e.g. Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand) has obvious shortcomings which disproportionately impact the poor and landless (e.g. 50 percent are classed as functionally landless in Bangladesh, 13 percent in Cambodia, 21 percent in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta).

  It is essential that rural developers appreciate the importance of aquatic resources in the livelihoods of floodplain dwellers, especially poor people. Some forms of aquaculture may even help ameliorate lost aquatic resources. Widespread application of integrated rice-fish farming on floodplains is receiving sustained interest for replenishing diminished wild fish stocks. In Bangladesh, for example, the world’s largest farmer field-school programme is supporting resource-poor men and women to learn about integrated pest management in rice cultivation and associated fish production.

Rural development and coastal aquaculture

An interesting example of successful integration of coastal aquaculture and rural development is Thai Binh Province on the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam.

Vietnam is elongate and has an exceptionally long coastline, extending for about 5,230 km. The two major deltas forming the latitudinal extremes of the coastal zone (the Red River and Mekong River deltas) support high population densities in a habitat transformed immensely for agricultural use, salt production and aquaculture. As a result, the natural resources, which include mangrove forests, fish and shellfish populations, have been severely depleted, with significant implications for the livelihood, nutrition and vulnerability of the coastal communities (among the poorest in Vietnam).




The Red River Delta is located within the typhoon zone. About eight to ten typhoon storms strike the coast every year, generating wind speeds of 72-108 km per hour (wind force 9-10), or more (wind force 12). Tidal heights are increased by up to 2.5 m, with even higher wave surges. Consequently, the northern provinces of Vietnam have built an extensive system of sea-dykes to protect the coastline and estuarine areas from seawater flooding; these are in constant need of expensive repair and upgrading.

It is widely accepted in Vietnam that the best form of protection from typhoons involves:

  • upgrading the sea-dykes by raising their height and strengthening them with rock revetment (bank stabilisers) on the seaward facing slope; and
  • planting a mangrove buffer zone in front of the sea-dyke system to reduce the water velocity and wave strength striking the defences, and to absorb some of the wind energy (if the mangrove trees are tall enough). Various nongovernmental organization (NGO) supported projects are helping to plant mangrove buffer zones (ranging from 100 m to 2 km wide) along much of the coastline.

According to engineering studies for the United Nations Food for Work Programme (FWP), a sea-dyke in northern Vietnam with good mangrove forest protection could last up to 50 years, compared to only 5-10 years for a dyke without mangroves.

Following a particularly bad typhoon in Thai Binh in 1986, the Danish Red Cross, supported by the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) began planting and protection of 2000 ha of Kandelia mangroves along almost 26 km of coastline (average depth of the buffer zone - 800 m) in front of sea-dykes protecting five communes in Thai Thuy District. In a second phase of the project (1997-2000), up to a further 6000 ha of mangrove are being planted in three neighbouring coastal districts in Thai Binh and in neighbouring Nam Dinh Province (Tien Hai, Giao Thuy and Nghia Hung districts).

Based on the growth performance of the Kandelia mangroves planted in Thai Thuy District in 1994-1995, it is clear that within four to five years, Kandelia will form an impressive forest protection belt against typhoon flooding of homesteads and agricultural land. The families in the project area feel better protected because of the mangroves.

  Moreover, all the evidence to date suggests that the variety and supply of economically valuable aquatic species, especially the mud crab Scylla, have increased as a result of mangrove reforestation. These improved conditions have also stimulated an acceleration in the development of coastal aquaculture, since the mangroves help protect aquaculture ponds and contribute to the supply of aquaculture seed (crabs, shrimp and certain species of fish) and feed (molluscs, trash fish, small mangrove crabs etc.).

The main beneficiaries from the boom in aquaculture are: fishermen/aquatic seed collectors, aquaculture producers/workers (pond operators and clam farmers) and seafood dealers. Some of the poorest people are those that go out daily to collect crab seed, clams and other species, which they sell to the pond operators or to dealers.

The situation in one commune, Thuy Hai, has been monitored since 1996. Thuy Hai has no agricultural land and has traditionally depended on fishing and salt production for its economy. Official statistics indicate that these activities support 51 percent and 36 percent, respectively, of households in the commune. About ten percent of the commune’s 1173 families are below the poverty line, while only five percent are classified as relatively wealthy. Over the last several years, aquaculture has been contributing to a significant increase in the overall wealth of the commune.

Aquaculture in Thuy Hai is based on mud crabs. Hand collecting for crab seed from the mangroves is a popular activity for many poor people. Collectors tend to be women and children earning some additional income for their household. It has been said that the mangroves look like a small town lit up at night with lanterns carried by the large number of collectors who catch crabs in the peak season. People can earn about VND.30 000 (US$2.20) from one collecting trip, but this can increase to VND.100 000 to 200 000 in the peak season (July to September). There is a perception among the local people that there is up to ten times the number of crab seed now than was available in 1996, with the majority being found in the mangrove plantation.

The majority of aquaculture ponds in Thuy Hai are situated in front of the main sea-dyke but behind the mangrove plantation. Those pond owners who have ponds adjacent to the mangrove forest requested permission to remove a strip of mangrove to rebuild their pond dykes. The commune accepted this proposal and planted a new strip of mangrove in front of the old mangrove to make up what was lost in pond reconstruction.




In general, the ponds used for coastal aquaculture in Thai Binh Province vary in size from as small as 1200 m2 in Thuy Hai, to about 50 ha for more traditional extensive pond culture. The smaller ponds, which are generally situated closer to the sea-dyke, are stocked mainly with shrimp and crab, but some are used for seaweed and fish. All are introduced as “seed” into the pond. The larger ponds are totally dependent on natural (wild) seed entering the pond with tidal in-flow when sluice gates are opened (i.e. “trapping and holding”). One exception is the seeding and harvesting of Gracilaria, which gives daily employment to local labour, often women.

Since 1996, there has been a trend for larger ponds to be subdivided and operated on a “semi-intensive” basis, using selected species of seed purchased from hatcheries (tiger shrimp), or from dealers (crabs). Potentially, profits are much higher from semi-intensive aquaculture (hence its fast development), but this requires careful management, including attention to seed selection, feeding, water exchange, disease and other risks. Similar trends are being observed elsewhere. As such progression is probably inevitable, it means that the benefits to be gained from coastal aquaculture by the poorest of the population will likely evolve through employment (pond labour), seed collection, and ancillary work such as transporting seed, feed and other aquaculture products. However, it is interesting that many of the small-scale dealers who trade in crab seed (buying daily from the collectors) are women, many of whom also trade in clams and other species. The middle-income families who have invested in aquaculture ponds were, in many cases, former salt producers. Thus the direct and indirect beneficiaries from coastal aquaculture represent a wide cross-section of the total local community, including the poor (Macintosh, 1999).

Rural development and aquaculture in delta areas in China

Less intensive examples of aquaculture integration into rural development are the delta dyke-pond and field-pond systems of the Pearl River and Yangtze River and the field-pond systems in the saline-alkaline habitat of the Yellow River-Huaihe River plain (Zhong et al. 1997).


  Dykes and ponds are sized (commonly 1:1) and designed to facilitate particular production systems. These may vary in relation to latitude, landform conditions, land-based production of fodder and crops, livestock rearing and water-based fish production, to ensure material, energy and output complies with market and community needs. Dyke-pond systems transform low-lying and waterlogged lands with low productivity. Different systems vary in their ecological, social and financial benefits. However, the decision-making processes in relation to planning and operation of these systems are currently less well documented. More recently, technologies integrating agricultural development and aquaculture in rural low-lying coastal areas (many just below sea level) have been developed. Ponds are dug to raise the height of fields to protect from flooding, giving rise to field-pond agro-ecosystems (commonly at ratios of 9:1). These systems are used to integrate fish production with water-logging-resistant rice or salt-resistant sugar cane. Pigs and poultry are raised along the field ridges. The pond size is partly dependent on the original field altitude and the crop; sugar cane fields need to be higher and are associated with deeper ponds.

In saline alkaline lands with high water tables and strong evaporation, inter-arranged field-pond systems, associated with an access route and drainage ditches, are being developed in the Yellow River-Huaihe River plain. The field to pond to ditch ratio is 2:2:1. Crops such as corn, cotton and fruit are raised together with ducks and fish.

The integration of intensive aquaculture into rural development

Rural development and intensive cage fish culture

The development of intensive inland and coastal cage aquaculture of high-value salmonids has been encouraged and supported by the Highlands and Islands Development Board in Scotland and the Norwegian Government, as an opportunity for developing remote rural areas. These systems are now contributing to economic development in areas of Chile, the Faroes, Canada, the United States (e.g. Washington State and Maine), Ireland, Iceland and Australia. Salmon production has grown 600 percent in a decade, bringing local employment to remote rural areas with positive impacts on local rural economies. However, the salmon industry has been prone to boom and bust cycles during its development.




The capacity for smolt production required for on-growing at coastal sites has often poorly matched requirements, resulting in price fluctuations. Whilst over-capacity has occurred in the production sector, economic recession and its impact on high-value products has seen ex-farm price reductions. Disease problems and associated issues of chemical treatments have also had a destabilising affect on the industry, with important local impacts on rural economies. A further consideration in high-input intensive systems, especially in areas of limited water exchange (often selected for their shelter), is environmental impact, its assessment, monitoring and control.

Intensive aquaculture industries are also emerging for high-value warmwater piscivorous fish, such as groupers and barramundi (in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan Province of China, Singapore and Australia). Similar opportunities for rural development exist in some areas, e.g. grouper culture by poor farmers in rural areas in the Philippines (Yap, 1999), however, concerns about market stability, disease, environmental impacts, and their control are still relevant. In addition, since most grouper and barramundi culture currently depends on trash fish as feed, as well as wild-caught seed, issues of sustainability and environmental impact are also pressing.

Rural development and intensive shrimp farming

Marine shrimp farming has attracted particular interest throughout the tropics because of its high value and opportunities for export and earning foreign exchange. Investments in intensive shrimp farming have delivered very high short-term profits, often in remote rural areas of developing countries where monitoring or control of development is limited.

Poor site selection and management have led to reduced soil and water quality, pollution, disease and disease transmission between farms. The conversion of huge areas of mangrove forests to shrimp ponds has also led to saltwater intrusion, reduced shoreline protection and activation of acid sulphate soils and has affected inshore and offshore fisheries. Information on mangrove cover and numbers of abandoned ponds is difficult to access. However, it is estimated, that 99 percent of the Indus Delta mangrove has been deforested, a reduction of 34 percent has occurred in Indian mangrove areas and 60 percent of the Chakoria Sundarban mangroves have been lost to conversion to shrimp ponds (Brown, 1997).

  Many of the costs associated with these dramatic environmental changes remain unknown. Loss of local resources and concentration of shrimp farming profits amongst a minority, largely composed of outsiders (e.g. 70 percent of shrimp ponds in Khulna in Bangladesh are owned by outsiders), have created social unrest. In the absence of an enforceable regulatory framework, environmental impacts are rarely addressed by producers. Important lessons must be learnt from the rapid expansion of coastal aquaculture aimed at high-value products, which has skewed market forces and led to both environmental and social problems.

So what are the objectives, scope and priorities for aquaculture within rural development?

The integration of aquaculture into rural development to date has been associated with both beneficial and detrimental trends. Benefits have included economic growth, more stable, diversified livelihoods and increases in income and food security. However, there have also been significant environmental, social and economic losses. Environmental impacts of aquaculture on rural development include aquatic pollution, disease, mangrove deforestation, salt intrusion, impacts on seed supplies, species introductions and reliance on exotics, concerns over biodiversity and genetics, negative environmental perceptions and pressure from lobby groups, and rapid and unplanned growth. Social impacts include exclusion of the poor from participating in (by being physically removed), or enjoying the benefits of, aquaculture production; resource appropriation by elites and/or politically powerful sectors; conflict and violence.

Many negative consequences associated with aquaculture in rural development relate to a weak institutional context. Poor linkages, coordination and coherence between sectors, unclear mandates, unclear public/private sector responsibilities, tenure, property and user right uncertainties, weak regulatory regimes and enforcement capacity, rent seeking, ineffective communication strategies and little involvement of primary stakeholders. Without some form of intervention, short-term financial perspectives tend to dominate environmental and social issues. Thus there is a strong case for such interventions to be strategically planned, rather than reactive and uncoordinated. Planning performance is frequently disappointing, since the process is complex and significant institutional and legal changes are needed, which require time, resources and continuity participation.




Experience does not yield a universal model for improved planning and management of aquaculture development. However, a number of important principles can be defined. For example:

  • Planning should be holistic, not sectoral;
  • People should be in the centre, with rural development and the role for aquaculture determined by an understanding of people’s livelihoods. Put people first - but poor people first of all;
  • Link people to policies - facilitate poor people to have a voice within policy-making processes.

Effective rural development comes through sound governance; with participation at all levels, sustainable development will be people-oriented, integrated and have a multisectoral agenda. Policy coherence must be a primary objective, developed through wide-ranging public involvement and, where necessary, through the promotion of effective representative organizations. Much greater emphasis on advocacy (outside of the subsector) is required to raise awareness of the role for aquaculture in rural development and to raise the stakes for institutional change. Regulation and policy should aim to internalise the external effects of aquaculture (e.g. the “polluter pays” principle). Special attention is required to empower and link stakeholders to policy decisions.

Major recommendations of the Bangkok Conference

Policy coherence

To encourage essential policy coherence, we suggest a multi-sectoral coordinating process which brings the stakeholders together to harmonize rural development activities and maximize coherence. Two focal points for coordination, one at the sectoral policy formulation level and one at the point of service extension, would help validation, if policy coherence is being achieved; this would also provide a mechanism to link stakeholders to policy decisions.

Aquaculture planning and rural development objectives

Aquaculture planning should be integrated into water resource management planning for inland areas and into coastal management planning in coastal areas, as well as into other economic and food security interventions for rural areas.

  This approach provides an overall management framework to enable efficient use of limited resources and adds diversity and value to sectoral interventions.

Although there is no consistent model for integration of aquaculture development into rural development planning and management, we recommend an advocacy function to raise awareness and educate policy makers and those who implement rural development plans, of aquaculture’s potentially important role. This will include raising awareness of appropriate entry points.

Balance of impact

  • There is a strong case for intervention to be planned and strategic.
  • Regulatory and mitigative mechanisms (e.g. taxation, financial incentives, voluntary compliance etc.) should be in place and related to best management guidelines.
  • Innovative solutions are required to the issues of tenure and user rights for open access and common property resources.
  • Aquaculture development responsibilities should be clearly defined within and among the public sector, private sector, civil society and producers.
  • Improved communication strategies are needed, particularly through extension delivery systems and information technology.
  • Put people first in planning and development, and give special consideration to poor people.
  • Aquaculture should be integrated into rural development, as it has the potential for poverty alleviation through direct involvement of rural people in aquaculture production, as well as through employment or involvement in support activities (e.g. fry nursing, feed collection, transport etc.).
  • Poor people are sometimes inadequately considered and served by aquaculture initiatives in rural development; this should be addressed by a strong national policy.
  • The mechanism for policy development, implementation and feedback should be participatory and involve an understanding of the livelihoods of poor people. It should improve basic knowledge and skills, use indigenous knowledge and empower people to make informed actions.




Integration for wider benefit sharing

  • hese successes need to be documented and more widely shared and promoted, in order to provide better options for diversified and more stable livelihoods and to optimize use of limited resources (e.g. multiple use of irrigation water, optimal energy flows, human resources).
  • Strong efforts are needed to document, disseminate and use successful farmer-proven examples (e.g. case studies with well-identified benefits).


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