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Sorting dried shrimp in Pyapon, Myanmar by WorldFish / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Aquaculture livelihoods

As we learned in Week 3, aquaculture is on the rise in Southeast Asia, driven by global demand for fish and seafood. In this article we take a closer look at the people who depend on this sector for their livelihoods. Although aquaculture is booming and still has potential for growth, challenges are arising that may require aquaculture livelihoods to adapt and/or be diversified.

Asia is home to nine of the top 10 fish-producing countries in the world. Across the region, the sector began with small-scale aquaculture, a livelihood activity that not only provides income and a source of dietary protein for the rural poor, but has also served as a gateway to commercial farming and export earnings. Two prominent examples are catfish (Pangasius) farming in Vietnam and shrimp in Thailand.

In 2012, aquaculture is estimated to have provided almost 19 million on-farm jobs worldwide, and about 96% were in Asia. The number of people who are employed in aquaculture grows dramatically when we consider off-farm jobs in secondary sectors as well, including fish processing and distribution. When considering these workers and their families, it is estimated that more than 100 million people rely on aquaculture for income.

Aquaculture can help address food insecurity and poverty in several ways, at various scales. It can enable smallholder farmers to diversify production, and thus provide nutritious food for their families while generating surpluses for sale. Aquaculture enterprises, from the micro- to large-scale, bring affordable and nutritious food to markets and create farm income and employment opportunities throughout the value chain. For women in particular, aquaculture offers important livelihood opportunities through their direct involvement in the production, processing and sale of fish.

In Southeast Asia, there are two main types of inland aquaculture: in freshwater and in brackish water (a mix of saltwater and freshwater). Flooded rice paddies have doubled as freshwater “wild” capture fish farms or as aquaculture farms in Southeast Asia for many hundreds of years. Brackish farms are much more recent. They predominantly produce shrimp, which can be up to 10 times more profitable than rice. This doesn’t go unnoticed by rice farmers, especially in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam, where saltwater intrudes farther inland every year. This creates the potential for shrimp culture in the water exchange zone in the dry season, and then in the rainy season, the rain water swells rivers, pushing saline water out towards the sea and making the area suitable again for rice growing.

The ability to alternate between small-scale aquaculture and rice farming provides an important opportunity for farmers to diversify their livelihoods.

In the case of small-scale aquaculture, livelihood diversification can be helpful, as smallholders are highly resource-dependent and vulnerable to sudden shocks. However, strategies to diversify and adapt livelihoods must be undertaken with care to avoid creating new vulnerabilities – such as the loss of coastal mangroves that are crucial for storm-surge protection, and more generally, pollution and environmental degradation. As climate change impacts rise, adaptation and diversification strategies will become increasingly important; responses will be needed at the individual, household and community levels.


FAO (n.d.). Alternative livelihoods. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome.

UNEP (2016). Food Systems and Natural Resources. A Report of the Working Group on Food Systems of the International Resource Panel. Westhoek, H, Ingram J., Van Berkum, S., Özay, L., and Hajer M.

Waite R., Beveridge M., Brummett R.E., Castine S., Chaiyawannakarn N., Kaushik S., Mungkung R., Nawapakpilai S., Phillips M. (2014) Improving productivity and environmental performance of aquaculture. Working Paper, Installment 5 of Creating a Sustainable Food Future, Washington, DC, World Resources Institute.

Image Source: “Sorting dried shrimp in Pyapon, Myanmar” by WorldFish / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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This article is from the free online course:

Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

Stockholm Environment Institute