By: Younus Sandeela
Published in Daily Dawn
Pakistan’s coastal belt that stretches over a thousand kilometres has a lot more to offer than scenic beauty and deep ports. Climatic conditions in the area are extremely suitable for modern aquaculture. Exploiting its potential will not only revolutionise the local economy but also contribute towards GDP growth.
Currently, aquaculture in the region is restricted to conventional farming of carp. Due to its very high bone-to-flesh ratio, carp is not a preferred fish and has almost no demand in high-paying markets. The Indian subcontinent and certain parts in Eastern Europe are the only regions where people still consume carp. Another disadvantage of carp is that it is one of the slowest-growing commercially farmed fish species.
Almost all warm water fish grow in hot weather conditions. The moderate climate of Pakistan’s coastal region characterised by short and mild winters means better weight gain for longer-duration production cycles of catfish, tilapia and sole. It also means a higher number of harvests in a given year for shrimp and lobster that require a shorter duration.
A good part of this coastal stretch falls within the famous Keti Bandar-Gharo-Hyderabad wind corridor. Even the areas that do not directly fall within the corridor receive significant breeze throughout the year. This means natural oxygenation in ponds that, in turn, means lower dependency on artificial aeration and a reduced risk of mortality because of the sudden drop in the oxygen level in ponds.
Setting up hatcheries and feed mills will have to be a key part of the development plan
Many regional countries with similar climatic conditions have successfully built their aquaculture along modern lines and are earning huge volumes of foreign exchange through exports. Policymakers should study the models of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Iran to capitalise on this natural advantage.
A well-thought-out strategy is needed to build this sector. In the first phase, some basic steps should be taken without changing the existing model to enable fish farmers to move from low-paying and slow-growing carp towards better-paying and fast-growing catfish, sole and tilapia. This can be achieved by imparting basic training to farmers. They can earn substantially more than they currently do without investing heavily in altering the basic infrastructure. However, the government will have to take some measures urgently to build hatcheries and feed mills for the targeted species.
Many high-value fish like sole (channa marulius), Indus catfish and wallago (Jarka in local language) are found in Indus waters. Farmers get happy if a few of them somehow manage to sneak into their ponds — except for wallago because it is extremely aggressive in nature — as they fetch at least three times the price of the most-prized carp, Roho.
Many farmers intentionally mix a small number of these carnivorous fish with carp. They do it once the carp grows big enough so that smaller carnivorous fish cannot harm it. However, as there are no hatcheries or feed mills for these fish, exclusive farming of these varieties is not possible at present. Setting up hatcheries and feed mills for such kinds of fish will, therefore, have to be a part of the development plan in the first phase.
Another factor that favours a move towards the farming of these high-value carnivorous fish is that the Indus water particularly close to the delta region is infested with wild tilapia. Carp farmers have a tough time trying to control wild tilapia from finding its way into ponds. It aggressively competes with carp for feed. This further slows down the growth rate of carp.
Unlike carp, tilapia breeds extremely well in still waters. Hence, it easily outnumbers the former in ponds. This problem can turn into a huge advantage once carp is replaced with carnivorous fish like sole and catfish. Wild tilapia entering ponds becomes natural feed for carnivorous fish, which keeps the cost of artificial feeding in check.
Once farmers shift towards farming high-value fish, they will also be able to increase fish density in ponds. Unlike extensive farming which depends entirely on natural feed available in ponds, fish is provided with artificial feed in semi-intensive or intensive farming. Hence, a higher number of fish can be farmed as long as it is properly fed. The problem with increasing the number of carp and feeding it artificially is that the wild tilapia present in ponds eats away a good part of this expensive feed. Shifting from carp to catfish and sole farming increases the farmers’ revenue in two ways. One, fish fetches a higher price; and two, a higher number of fish can be kept in a given pond, which leads to a higher per kilogram value for farmers.
In the second phase, farmers in the coastal belt can be encouraged to farm species like shrimp, lobster and crabs. The climate along the coastal belt is extremely conducive for this kind of high-value aquaculture. Barring efforts by a few investors who experimented with shrimp farming, no concerted efforts have been put in by the government to develop this extremely lucrative sector. A lack of locally available seed and feed was the main cause for the limited success of these investors. This increased not only their production cost but also the operational risk because the seed airlifted from places as far away as Thailand was prone to high mortality in transit.
The need for moving towards high-value aquaculture emanates from depleting water resources. We must be conscious about the value derived from each liter of water consumed. Per-liter returns in extensive carp farming simply do not justify its continuation. We should soon move towards the intensive farming of high-value aquaculture. Otherwise, we may be forced to abandon aquaculture in the already water-deprived coastal belt.
The government will have to play a proactive role to fully exploit the aquaculture potential. Ensuring seed and feed availability for new high-value species through developing hatcheries and feed mills as independent businesses in the private sector may require an incentive package to attract investors. Many well-established processing units are present in the marine fisheries segment in Karachi. The same can be used to cater to the needs of inland fisheries as well. Building these support businesses will be critical for the overall success of the aquaculture sector.