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Hatching Dreams for a Better Life

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An international program works to improve lives and livelihoods with aquaculture.

The classic fish story is about the one that got away. The modern story for many commercially important fish is that not enough got away. The world is running out of fish to catch. It’s been estimated that stocks of some marine fish have declined by 90 percent in the last 50 years. To meet the demand for protein from a growing human population, and to take pressure off of dwindling wild stocks of fish, people are turning to fish farming.

For more than 20 years, Hillary Egna, a resource geographer at Oregon State University, has led an international program that connects U.S. scientists with researchers in developing countries around the world. The goal? To help impoverished parts of the world develop small-scale aquaculture and sustainable fisheries.

tilapia
Endemic to Africa, tilapia is now one of the most common farmed fish in the world. Photo © Paul Dunn, iStock.

AquaFish is one of nine Collaborative Research Support Programs within USAID, the federal agency for international development. As director of the program, Egna has overseen more than 70 projects that have connected 25 U.S. land-grant universities with research partners in more than 30 host countries.

“It’s less about fish than about poverty reduction,” Egna said. “We work with people who work with the poor, and we help them build capacity for small-scale economic development.”

There’s the old saying that when you give a man a fish, he has food for a day; when you teach a man to fish, he has food for a lifetime. The AquaFish program at OSU is dedicated to that proposal. Developing countries can no longer count on foreign aid to provide their people with food and finances. It is increasingly important for these countries to establish profitable businesses that will sustain local communities. Aquaculture can provide both nourishment and employment to these countries.

Kenya fish ponds
These new fish ponds are among 48,000 that are planned by the Kenyan government in the next two years. Photo: Jeff Hino

Since 1980, AquaFish CRSP (and an earlier program that focused on pond aquaculture) has trained scientists around the globe, from Rwanda to Nicaragua to Vietnam. More than 800 students have been formally trained in aquaculture research and management professions. Those professionals in turn have reached more than 30,000 people through local workshops and community projects.

“This has created a huge international network of researchers and trained practitioners who share knowledge within and among host countries,” Egna said. “Our partners are our projects. They are their countries’ agents of change.” By training scientists and Extension educators in their own countries, the AquaFish program builds capacity in these countries to establish and sustain industries in hatchery production, fish farming, and marketing of aquatic products.

Aquaculture has been an industry in Southeast Asia for millennia. But in parts of Africa and Latin America, it is a relatively new idea, only recently embraced by developing nations. In Kenya, for example, the national economic stimulus plan calls for 48,000 new fishponds to be built in the next two years. Such a massive investment by the Kenyan government demands knowledge in engineering, fisheries research and management, marketing, and food safety. Many of those who authored the government’s aquaculture plan were educated through the AquaFish collaborative research support program, and the new ponds are being built under the supervision of AquaFish CRSP-trained Kenyan officers.

China polyculture ponds
Fish farmers in China harvest rice and fish in polyculture ponds that cycle waste and nutrients in self-sustaining systems. Photo: AqauaFish CRSP

“The success of our program relies heavily on the education, training, and hands-on experience that we have received from our partnership with the AquaFish CRSP,” said Godfrey Monor, Kenya’s Director of Fisheries.

Most of these new ponds will be for tilapia, the most common farmed fish in the world. Unlike salmon that have a checkered reputation as farmed fish, tilapia are not top-of-the-food-chain carnivores. For the same reason that the first farmers raised sheep and not lions, most fish farmers in developing countries raise fish grazers, not predators.

Increasingly, AquaFish researchers are exploring ecosystem models with minimal impact on the surrounding environment. In the Philippines, researchers are studying production of tilapia, shrimp, oysters, and edible seaweeds in integrated ecosystems. In Mexico, AquaFish researchers are studying how to use bacteria to remove a sex-changing hormone from the water in tilapia tanks before the water is discharged into streams and lagoons.

The AquaFish program works in countries where the need is great, and where the challenges can be even greater. Research has been delayed by outbreaks of flu, wiped out by tsunamis, and destroyed by civil war. “We lost our entire operation in Rwanda during the genocides of the 1990s,” Egna said. “Some of our research partners were murdered; it was very, very sad.”

Cambodian fish in net
Small fish make a big catch for Cambodian fishermen. Local producers will use this catch to create prahoc, a fish paste used widely in southeast Asian cuisine and a food staple for the poor. Photo: AquaFish CRSP

The research that could be salvaged from Rwanda was later moved to Kenya, where aquaculture is creating new employment opportunities, especially for women. Though fishponds are owned almost exclusively by men, Kenyan women are increasingly involved in operations, including feeding, fertilization and predator control; and women now predominate in processing and marketing fish.

Increased employment for women is part of the focus of an AquaFish project in Cambodia, where research partners are developing new local markets for fish paste made from low-value small fish that would otherwise be used for animal feed. Fish paste in Southeast Asia can be compared to cheese in the U.S and Europe; it comes in many varieties and is used in many regional dishes. Expanding this niche market creates employment for women in the manufacture and sales of these locally distinct “Cambodian cheeses.” In addition, AquaFish partners in the Mekong Basin are finding ways to separate pint-size fish species from juveniles of larger, more valuable fish species to protect populations of commercially important wild fish.

Mexican oyster harvest
AquaFish researchers have monitored bacteria levels in Mexico's Boca de Camichin estuary to help residents know if their cultivated oysters are safe for export. Photo: Tiffany Woods

The AquaFish program reaches people where and how they live, and is therefore distinctive among most other international aid programs. “Most organizations see aquaculture as a positive choice,” Egna said, “but they don’t know how to build a system that includes environmental protection and market realities, a system that takes into consideration the microeconomics of family and community.”

The AquaFish program exemplifies OSU’s outreach to the global community, according to Sonny Ramaswamy, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences. “Where people have meaningful work and enough to eat, they engage more easily in education and democracy. The AquaFish program connects research, education, and Extension in developing countries, on the ground, for the benefit of local people. It is an idea that has grown out of the land grant tradition and it works.”

Published in: Economics