We contend there are currently two competing scenarios for the sustainable development of shrimp aquaculture in coastal areas of South-east Asia. First, a landscape approach where farming techniques for small-scale producers are integrated into intertidal areas in a way that the ecological functions of mangroves are maintained and disease controlled. Second, a closed-system approach where problems of disease and effluent are eliminated in closed recirculation ponds behind the intertidal zone controlled by industrial-scale producers. Moving towards either scenario requires a better understanding of the scaled interaction between the ecological, social and political dynamics underlying processes of change and possible threats to the resilience of mangrove forested coastal ecosystems. We discuss how the analytical concepts of resilience, uncertainty, risk and scale can contribute to a social-ecological system understanding of decision making related to shrimp production by exploring their use in the empirical research areas of coastal ecology, shrimp health management and epidemiology, livelihoods and governance in response to the two scenarios. The challenge for the science-policy divide is to ensure that the complexity of social and ecological change in coastal areas, as understood from these empirical areas, is simplified but not made so simple that management becomes ineffective in steering production to rebuild resilience and maintain social and ecological stability. The discussion leads to a transdisciplinary research agenda that can contribute to sustainable shrimp aquaculture in coastal areas.
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