Why we want to start a shrimp welfare charity (founders needed)

by KarolinaSarek, shanna, vicky_cox7 min read16th Apr 20212 comments

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Charity EntrepreneurshipGet involvedInvertebrate welfareFarmed animal welfare
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TL;DR: An estimated ~250 billion shrimp are farmed worldwide. Their welfare is overlooked, yet there are tractable ways to improve it. Charity Entrepreneurship (CE) proposes to address this issue, by launching a new nonprofit that would collaborate with farmers to raise welfare standards for shrimp. Contact us at ula@charityentrepreneurship.com if you’re interested in getting involved, or apply to our 2021 Incubation Program (deadline: April 22, 2021). For questions about the research, contact Karolina or Vicky, or simply leave a comment below.

1. Why shrimp?

Farmed animal welfare has long been neglected; aquatic animal welfare, even more so. Recently the tide has begun to turn (if you’ll excuse the pun), with organizations like Fish Welfare Initiative (incubated by CE in 2019), Aquatic Life Institute, and the Aquatic Animal Alliance doing great work to spotlight the welfare of fishes and other aquatic animals. 

Some progress is being made for crustaceans, too. In the UK, the organization Crustacean Compassion is campaigning for the legal recognition of crustaceans as sentient. (David Foster Wallace’s 2004 essay “Consider the Lobster” is another notable example of attention paid to a species in this neglected taxon.) Yet given the immense scale of the problem, crustacean welfare remains neglected. 

Over 250 billion shrimp alone are farmed worldwide each year. That’s almost four times the number of all farmed land animals. Selecting the right intervention could be a valuable foot-in-the-door for their welfare. Additionally, shrimp may be more tractable to focus on than larger crustaceans due to the different husbandry practices involved. Large crustaceans are more often farmed in sea cages, while smaller crustaceans more often in pond systems, where environmental conditions are easier to control.

These animals currently fall at the very fringes of the moral circle. But there is some evidence to support that they are capable of feeling pain. In our research, we assumed a conservative 12% likelihood that prawns are sentient, based on a discounted average estimate of crustacean sentience found by reports by Open Philanthropy (for Gazami crabs specifically) and Rethink Priorities (crabs and crayfish). Even with such a conservative figure, an expected value calculation puts high importance on work in this space due to the sheer number of beings we can affect.

Each year, Charity Entrepreneurship conducts hundreds of hours of research to compare interventions and identify the most impactful. Our research is narrowly targeted at the most cost-effective, well-evidenced, and tractable ways to improve lives. Through our 2021 Incubation Program, we hope to launch a charity that will lead to a better life for millions of farmed shrimp. If you or anyone you know is interested in helping out, we’d love to connect: please reach out to ula@charityentrepreneurship.com or apply to the Incubation Program by April 22.

2. The intervention

Although shrimp welfare is neglected, recent wins in the area suggest that now is a particularly good time to build on this momentum and launch a new nonprofit. Our research team has conducted desk research and spoken to experts spanning aquaculture, animal advocacy, and government. 

Based on our findings, we believe that the most effective intervention for farmed shrimp would be to improve water quality and reduce stocking density. A promising way to improve water quality is by ensuring optimal levels of dissolved oxygen, so that shrimp can breathe properly. Another potential intervention for shrimp is to prevent the practice of eyestalk ablation, whereby the eyestalks of a female shrimp are cut off to induce her to spawn. 

Our report focuses on better water quality. This intervention is backed by the strongest evidence and probably offers the largest welfare improvements when combined with limiting stocking density. Daniela Waldhorn at Rethink Priorities is currently researching shrimp and prawns; the forthcoming report will discuss a broader range of interventions for shrimp welfare. At the recent panel on shrimp welfare organized by ALI, Waldhorn expressed the view that better water quality and stocking density could offer the most significant welfare improvement. 

The most effective intervention will be informed by findings on the ground, so a new charity’s first job will be to discuss welfare improvements with shrimp farmers. For example, to improve dissolved oxygen levels the best course of action may be to provide training on how to use aeration equipment, or to subsidize the costs of purchasing or running aeration equipment. In the longer term, a charity can build its successes working with farmers on a smaller scale into other tactics, such as corporate campaigns or government collaborations. 

Global production statistics reveal that a significant proportion of shrimp farming takes place in Asia. The top five countries (which account for more than 80% of production) are China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Ecuador. 

We believe Vietnam to be a particularly promising country for work on water quality specifically. An aquaculture expert advised us that water quality is a key constraint in Vietnam, and a contact at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in Vietnam informed us that water quality is frequently below optimal levels. We were also informed that farmers in the Mekong Delta would be particularly keen to work with an NGO on this, to improve their climate change resilience.

Our cost-effectiveness analysis illustrates how much good this charity can do per dollar spent. This CEA shouldn’t be taken literally, but we hope our calculation will give a ballpark estimate of cost-effectiveness. The estimate also enables us to compare work on shrimp welfare to many other interventions addressing various groups of animals. 

The intervention modeled in our CEA subsidizes the cost of aeration to improve dissolved oxygen levels and requires a maximum stocking density limit. Unfortunately, we couldn’t include the expected impact of preventing the use of eyestalk ablation, as it is near impossible to find the number of broodstock shrimp (i.e. females used for breeding) affected.

Welfare points (WP) express on a scale from -100 to 100 the welfare of a particular animal in a given condition. We estimated that the welfare of a single farmed shrimp in a year is about minus 37 WP – i.e., their lives are net negative. Simply improving levels of dissolved oxygen will increase each shrimp’s welfare by ~20 WP per year – a significant decrease in their chronic suffering. 

All things considered (i.e. discounting based on e.g. probability of success and a possible increase in stocking density), we expect to affect ~160 welfare points per dollar spent. Put another way, this charity could help ~450 individual shrimps per dollar. Even if we include all counterfactual costs of funding and co-founders’ time, a shrimp welfare charity would still affect ~36 welfare points per dollar spent, making it a highly cost-effective intervention.

A couple of factors may change the estimate in our CEA:

(i) The moral weight of shrimp and their capacity for welfare. 
After consulting with researchers in the space, we temporarily assumed that shrimp are of equal moral significance to chickens due to a lack of consensus on the issue. The relative moral weight could partly depend on how we value different possible indicators of higher moral weights and capacity for welfare. (We estimated the probability that shrimp are sentient to be 12%.) We plan to adjust our estimates based on upcoming research by Jason Schukraft from Rethink Priorities.

(ii) The probability of an increase in stocking density. 
Based on our research into the supply and demand effects of this intervention (publication forthcoming), our model assumes a conservative 100% chance of a 25% increase in stocking density. In theory, better oxygenation enables farmers to keep a higher number of shrimp in the same space. However, a higher stocking density also raises costs (e.g. for feed and labor) and results in smaller shrimp at point of harvest. We plan to include stocking density in our ask to decrease the likelihood that this happens. 

(iii) The probability of success for this package of welfare improvements. 
We assume a 50% chance of success, since farmers as well as shrimp will benefit from this intervention due to reduced mortality and disease rate. We also have positively updated about the promise of working with the aquaculture industry after some recent wins by Fish Welfare Initiative, who is working on a similar intervention for fishes.

Even accounting for such uncertainties, this charity looks highly cost-effective.

3. How you can help 

We’re keen to connect with aspiring entrepreneurs, so if you know anyone who might be interested, please share this post. Further details about the Incubation Program can be found on our website (apply by April 22); feel free to contact us for more information at ula@charityscience.com. For questions about our research, please contact vicky@charityentrepreneurship.com or karolina@charityentrepreneurship.com.

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2 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:07 PM
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Super interesting  Karolina! I only took a quick look at the model, but was wondering if it includes the human welfare outcomes?  (I didn't see it, but maybe I missed it.) For instance, we at IDinsight are working on a project based around shrimp farming, and a main pathway of the theory of change is improved tech -> improved water quality -> increased stocking density -> increased farmer profits -> increased consumption -> increased human welfare. Given that development actors are focusing on this pathway, I think it would be important to take into account. 

Hi Dan! Our CEA is built off the theory of change for this intervention that focuses on the animal welfare effects. We will likely add more cross-cause calculations to our CEA when the results of our work on moral weights by Rethink Priorities come back. Although human welfare doesn’t feature in our CEA, we do consider it in our report more broadly. We believe that this intervention could be a win-win, improving the lives of shrimp and of farmers. For example, an expert informed us that farmers would be keen to work with such an organization, since the intervention could help them improve their resilience to climate change.

On a more object level, based on GW’s research I would expect that there are more cost-effective interventions to increase household income that have less detrimental effects on animal welfare. We recommend that a new organization should avoid an increased stocking density, because we would expect high stocking densities to be overall net-negative from a species-neutral utilitarian framework. However, if it does increase slightly, I’m glad it would have a positive effect on farmers’ income.