Small-fish aquaculture feeds poor consumers and business growth

Posted by Stephen Hall on 4 September 2012

Reflections from Stephen Hall, Director-General, WorldFish in response to Sam Eaton’s Scaling up: Vietnamese fish farms search for eco-friendly formula. Originally published on Center for Investigative Reporting blog, As aquaculture booms, make room for small fish.

Small-fish benefits both poor consumers and small to medium size fish farms. The catch, Bangladesh. Photo by WorldFish, 2006

Sam Eaton presents a great picture of how catfish culture has evolved in Vietnam. His story illustrates well the opportunity and challenge faced by the global aquaculture industry. The opportunity lies in the fact that fish farming is the only means for meeting the world’s growing demand for fish. The challenge is that meeting that demand will require careful attention to ensure that farms are well-managed to minimize impact on the environment and maintain profitability.

Several features of the”Pangasius” story are worth emphasizing.

First, catfish farming in Vietnam has consolidated; a handful of large, vertically integrated farms now dominate production and smaller operators like Tran van Tach, mentioned in the story, have been squeezed out. One interesting question is whether alternative models for sustaining production for export through co-operative or contract farming by smaller enterprises would have greater overall economic benefits and be more equitably distributed. This is an important question, not just for Vietnam, but for many other developing countries where aquaculture is growing through small and medium enterprises.

A second point that the story touches upon is the importance of serving local markets. Encouragingly, research indicates that increases in aquaculture lead to increased food fish availability, at least in those countries where sector growth is strong. A number of economists have identified low-income markets as potential growth areas, so there is a business opportunity.

But, to capture that opportunity, producers must not only increase availability, they must also increase access of fish to poor consumers. In other words, the fish need to be, not just present, but also affordable and available in forms that meet consumer needs.

One aspect of availability that is especially relevant to the poor is the size of the fish. While producers usually focus on growing big fish, there are many good economic and environmental reasons to produce smaller sized herbivorous and omnivorous fish for poorer consumers. As well as increased economic access, production per unit land use (productivity) is higher and it is cheaper per unit biomass to produce smaller sized fish, a result of better Food Conversion Ratios (FCRs) and lower production costs. These represent important environmental pay-offs.

A final point concerns the role of certification as a driver of sustainability. Notwithstanding the proliferation of schemes, it is certainly true that motivated by access to export markets, certification has driven environmental improvement for large farms. Research indicates, however, that such schemes serve to marginalize smaller operators who either leave the industry or seek alternatives to export markets. The question remains then, how does one best support environmental improvement in the small and medium enterprises that dominate world aquaculture?

One immediate option is to examine how certification schemes might be adapted to help small-scale producers improve environmental performance. This will require pragmatic approaches that accept Voltaire’s aphorism: ‘perfection is the enemy of good’. We also need to build communities of practice among small-scale producers to share knowledge and demonstrate the business opportunity for adopting sustainable practices.  Again, building relationships through contract farming or co-operative models may offer a route for achieving this.

The “Pangasius” story illustrates well the dynamism of the global aquaculture sector. As we continue towards 9 billion people, policy makers, industry, academia, and civil society will need to work together to harness that dynamism and channel it in ways that ensure continued sustainability. Providing the world with the food it needs in the coming decades is one of our greatest challenges – aquaculture can, and must, play its part.

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  • James VanOpdorp

    This is an excellent idea because there is no shortage of food; the problem is in distribution. To the extent we can, scaled down models of a naturally recharging system like Veta la Palma should be employed, “Feel good” strategies that use chicken byproducts as one component of feeding pellets. for example, do not solve the sustainability issue. With recent reports offering up a staggering 400 lbs of food wasted by Americans each year, we need to rethink our garbage disposal and find a user friendly collection system to then separate our ‘waste’ into those compounds that could feed fish (not exclusively) with the rest used for composting. Our fields are less fertile than they once were. On the subject of “do-gooders,” the basic challenges we face are completely out-of-balance when considering the ratio of line vs, staff workers. Just as the legal community garnered 90% of the funding for our Superfund cleanup, I see evidence to suggest that NGOs and academia need to yield on their 70%+ shares of overall funding. In the near-term, capacity building in developing countries should have a claim on at least a third of overall funding and grow from there. In one generation we can end dependence, but we have to alter our approach,
    I’m reminded od a Japanese Proverb, “The reverse side also has a reverse side.” More than 150 actors violates organizational theory and yet, UC-Berkeley maintains a dedicated search engine to “attempt” tracking of NGOs. The resulting overlap and duplication must come at a very high price for the people we are trying to stand up. I challenge anyone to create a roadmap through this maze, At the risk of being provocative, it represents the modern face of the 500 years of exploitation, If you’re an expert, mentor. And finally, the now existing apparatus to educate is too parochial — it is overweighted in favor of a university education when vocational training is needed bow to buils out infrastructure. All I ask is to leave your comfort zone and innovate,

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