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Not giving up the Tilapia dream

By Sasha Harrinanan Thursday, July 7 2011

There is money to be made in Tilapia farming in Trinidad and Tobago but the industry has yet to realise its potential for various reasons.

Owner of Kent Farms Limited, Kent Viera pointed to a lack of infrastructure and competition from a State agency.

“The Ministry of Food Production only this year proposed incentives for aquaculture. We’re still at a stage where we’re not really getting assistance to develop and move forward as we should. I am producing fingerlings (baby Tilapia) and selling them for $2.00 but the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) says that’s too expensive and is selling them at $1.00. It is difficult to maintain a breeding business in these conditions,” Viera told Business Day.

Another challenge facing Viera’s Freeport farm is the price processors are willing to pay for Tilapia that are mature enough to yield six ounce fillets.

“I have worked it out to be about $7 a pound to produce but processors want to pay $6 a pound. You can’t run a business at a loss, so I’ve come up with a way to earn extra income while improving the filtration system for my Tilapia.

“I now use root crops like dasheen to help filter the waste water from my ponds. So the fish get clean water and the plants get nutrients from the fish waste. This shared costs has cut by production cost to about $2,” Viera said.

He noted having such tight profit margins, added to the costs of setting up and running a Tilapia farm, means if a farmer were to lose a significant portion of his fish stock, he would likely go bankrupt.

Viera urged Government to offset these costs by ensuring its State agencies work with, rather than compete against Tilapia breeders and farmers.

He also called for the implementation of tariffs on imported Tilapia products, making it cheaper for supermarkets and wholesale stores to buy locally-grown and packaged Tilapia.

“That way local farmers could have a guaranteed market for their fish. Government could help us at this embryonic stage to foster development. I produced 20,000 pounds of fish in May but I did not sell all of it because wholesalers have the option of importing cheaper fish. That’s partly why we don’t have the volumes being produced here to meet the demand of supermarkets,” he said.

Viera also suggested the establishment of a Tilapia farmers’ co-operative to supply wholesalers like PriceSmart and eventually make TT a self-sustaining country when it comes to fish supplies.

This would likely take some time to set up, so Viera thinks Tilapia farmers should focus on export markets in the meantime.

“If we start by exporting Tilapia to Europe and the United States, farmers could earn some serious money while the country builds its foreign reserves. Tilapia sells for about US$2 a pound, 100 percent more than what local processors want to pay,” Viera noted.

Head of research at Wallerfield Fish Hatchery Research Farm, Brian Ashing, spoke to Business Day about the importance of choosing a fish farming systems that suits our tropical climate.

“Yes, clear water systems can produce beautiful fish but at a high cost. You have to use a minimum of two forms of mechanical filtration, either a UV (Ultra Violet) light or an ozone generator, all of which are very expensive to maintain and prices are listed in US dollars.”

Ashing explained UV lights have to be changed every nine months or so.

Other components of the system, such as ozone generators, also need routine replacement. The 2010 Aquatic Ecosystems Incorporated Catalogue listed ozone generators — those used in small tanks, for US $350 for one.

Ashing said this is what drives up the production costs for some farmers and makes Tilapia farming less lucrative than it should be.

A proponent of using what nature has given you, Ashing recommended the Green Water System, a version of which he has perfected over the last 50 years.

“It’s the more natural system for tropical countries. It utilises algae as part of the food chain, so you import less feed which reduces your food bill. The fish excrement breaks down into ammonia which we filter out using plants in an earthen form (soil-based) before the water is recycled through our reservoir. We call this an ecologically balanced system, one that does not require UV lights or electricity to function. It’s a more affordable, cost-effective method of producing Tilapia in TT that earns the farmer extra income from the sale of vegetables which helped filter the fish water,” Ashing told Business Day.

He estimated that the clear water system uses 1.7 to 2.2 pounds of feed to produce one pound of fish whereas the Green Water System uses less than 1.5 pounds of feed.

“This is a significant savings because feed is a major cost of growing the fish,” Ashing noted.

How much can a farmer earn using the Green Water System and how much land does he need to do so?

According to Wallerfield Fish Hatchery’s researcher, a two-acre plot can yield 140,000 pounds of fish per year, worth TT $20,000 at a wholesale price of $2 per pound. That’s not all. Add the earnings from selling seasoning and root crops that were grown using nutrients gleaned while filtering the pond water, Ashing estimated a yearly income of over one million dollars.

$1,073,320 to be exact - growing chive and dasheen on seven plants stands (each 20 feet long) with 14 troughs per stand. Chive is usually harvested every 12 weeks or two months and if each bundle is sold for $5, Ashing projected yearly earnings from the popular seasoning of $574,920. While the dasheen crops should net $218,000 per year.

The schematics for these two-acre Tilapia farms were worked out by Ashing and his associates over a decade ago, between 1997 and 1998, at the request of the then Minister of Agriculture, Land and Marine Resources, Dr Reeza Mohammed.

Ashing told Business Day the minister wanted small land holders to be able to produce a significant amount of fish and vegetables for local consumption and export.

That’s not all. The research farm has also set up a working demonstration of how to grow Tilapia in plastic tanks. The key, Ashing explained, was to get the right filter for your system and the climatic conditions where you live.

“The filter removes the heavier waste from the fish and it grows your nitrification bacteria to break the ammonia into nitrates and nitrites, which the plants use. We keep experimenting with different plants to see what can be grown in the system so when we become fully operational, we know what plants we can utilise for the export market,” Ashing said.

Currently, Spanish Thyme is being grown in the demonstration model.

The real vision however, behind the establishment of the 33-acre Wallerfield Fish Hatchery Research Farm in the late 1970s was for it to become a national fingerling supplier and a fish processing facility.

Crucial to these plans was the renewal of the farm’s lease in 2002 but Ashing is still waiting on the relevant ministry to do so.

“This farm cannot go forward without a lease. We approached a bank in 1998 to get a loan to expand our operations. It was willing to lend us the money but not on a lease that was going to expire in four years. If we had gotten a renewal, this place would have been totally developed, complete with a processing plant, fish meal plant, selling pre-cooked; smoked or cured, Tilapia,” he said.

Ashing lamented the missed opportunities to develop the farm, which would have employed over 200 people, but said he was not giving up on the dream just yet.





CAPTIONS:

Kent Farm Tilapia 1: “A plastic-lined Tilapia pond (150 x 20 feet wide) on Kent Farms Limited in Freeport. The pond is used to grow fish to marketable size. Photo by Sasha Harrinanan.”



Kent Farm Tilapia: “Owner of Kent Farms Limited, Kent Viera, surveys troughs of callaloo bush/bhaji being grown in plastic-lined gravel beds. The plants get their nutrients from the nitrates in contained in the waste water from the large Tilapia pond on his farm. Photo by Sasha Harrinanan.”



Wallerfield Tilapia (5): “A demonstration of a plastic tank closed-circuit system used to grow Tilapia, in which a filter removes heavy waste from the tank while plants (Spanish Thyme shown here) are grown using the nitrates produced by the first waste. The recycled water is then returned to the Tilapia tank. Photo by Sasha Harrinanan.”



Wallerfield Tilapia (6): “Concrete ponds used to grow Tilapia breeding stock at Wallerfield Fish Hatchery Research Farm, on Demerara Road, Wallerfield. Fresh water is supplied by the reservoir on the right while a filter cleans the water from the ponds before sending it back to the reservoir. Photo by Sasha Harrinanan.”



Wallerfield Tilapia (4): “A demonstration of the Green Water System of Tilapia farming at Wallerfield Fish Hatchery Research Farm, on Demerara Road, Wallerfield. Seedlings in the plastic trough - including hot pepper, tomato and chive, gain nutrients from nitrates they remove from waste emitted by the fish. The plants, combined with a filter to remove the heavier fish waste, clean the water before it is recycled to the concrete Tilapia pond. Photo by Sasha Harrinanan.”



Wallerfield Tilapia (1): “Wallerfield Fish Hatchery Research Farm employee, Thakur ‘Tack’ Persad, holds up a frozen 10 pound Silver Tilapia (Latin name Niloticus), which was reared on the farm. Photo by Sasha Harrinanan.”



Wallerfield Tilapia (2): “Breeding stock of the Silver Tilapia (Latin name Niloticus) in a concrete tank at Wallerfield Fish Hatchery Research Farm, located on Demerara Road, Wallerfield. Photo by Sasha Harrinanan.”





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