In this age of economic disturbances and worsening food crises, it is important that a country like Sri Lanka find profitable industries for her sustainable development. As a source of both food and finance, it is not difficult to see why many of the developing countries are now turning to aquaculture.
By Lionel Wijesiri
Aquaculture has proved itself to be an economically successful industry ever since it was first introduced, and there are no signs of it weakening. In the past two decades, the demand for fish has increased year-on-year, but the fisheries sector has been unable to boost its harvests. According to the 2017 estimates, just over 100 million tonnes of fish are consumed world-wide each year and aquaculture market has provided half of it.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), aquaculture will continue to grow at significant rates through 2025, remaining the most rapidly increasing food production system in the world.
Given the richness in aquatic resources, the fisheries sector in Sri Lanka comprises offshore, coastal and freshwater fisheries, as well as freshwater aquaculture. The total inland and aquaculture fish production in 2016 was 73,930 metric tons and has contributed 14% to the total fish production of the country in the same year. Tilapia and Catla were dominant in inland and aquaculture fish production which contributed 59.3 percent to the total in 2016.
Experts agree, Sri Lanka has enormous potential to increase pro aquaculture through sustainable development, without much investment.
Tilapia and shrimp
Once a major source of income and a non-traditional foreign exchange earner, cultured shrimp farming began in Sri Lanka in the early 1970s, however outbreaks of disease and degradation of water bodies resulted in high production losses and the abandoning of farms.
Currently, the Government and other organisations are working closely with shrimp farmers to increase production through modern sustainable aquaculture practices.There are also plans for the development of new shrimp farms, shrimp hatcheries and seafood processing, as well as improvement of the existing shrimp industry.
In addition, tilapia is also a product which can be sold in the export market due to its high demand, particularly, in the restaurant trade. Tilapia is a fish that can be farmed easily and economically, and has the same market appeal as chicken.
Of the total catch, nearly half consists of tilapia and cultured shrimps. The balance consists of carps/mirigal, catla/rohu, hiri Kanaya, lula, freshwater prawns and cultured sea bass.
The cultured sea bass is a highly valued finfish in the Southeast Asian markets, and also a popular species in European and Middle Eastern countries. It is in high demand in restaurants and hotels as it lends itself well to cuisine. Commanding a premium price in the market, the farming of sea bass has several advantages as a commercial venture as they are less expensive and easier to raise and less vulnerable to disease. Unfortunately, our production of sea bass was only 0.23 per cent of our total catch.
Due to the current pattern of Asian production, there is a growing demand for higher-trophic level species such as sea bass, salmonids, catfish and shrimp due to rapidly expanding urbanisation.
There is also a move to improve the productivity and environmental sustainability of aquaculture practices through systems such as ‘integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA)’ This technique borrows a concept from nature; namely, in the food chain, one species always finds a feeding niche in the waste generated by another species.
Researchers thus tested the theory that nutrients fed to finfish would generate high-quality organic and inorganic waste that shellfish and marine plants depend on, to grow.
However, traditionally, Sri Lankan aquaculture has been on a small scale, addressing family-level subsistence and livelihood needs. This is still the case, although recently there has been an increasing commercialisation of aquaculture. Regarding small-scale production, improvements in husbandry skills, feed and production technologies will allow higher levels of production.
We have to look positively at the future. Further development of the aquaculture industry in Sri Lanka could mean significant economic growth as well as job opportunities, especially, in coastal and rural areas. Responsible growth of the industry will depend on continued research to find innovative ways to improve the environmental performance and diversification of the sector.
What we need today is setting up a comprehensive research programme. First, we need to define the specific research areas that can yield the greatest impact on improving and increasing commercial aquaculture outputs.
Research efforts must be integrated across disciplines by teams of researchers who work together effectively to meet the future needs of aquaculture.
Ultimately, consumers will derive the aquaculture products they desire with their buying power. For example, while much is written about the growing demand for locally grown aquaculture products in developed countries, there is uncertainty about the quality and quantity of locally raised products that consumers are willing to purchase at prices higher than those associated with greater volume import.
Aquaculture has contributed to the economy of developing countries for many years. China, Indonesia and Viet Nam have all benefited hugely from fish farming. Now, many more developing nations are turning their attention towards it, with large government schemes and heavy investment.
The Government needs to fund and facilitate the development of our sustainable aquaculture, and sustainability depends on a strong scientific foundation. Scientists should examine the development potential for IMTA operations, and how it could help fish farmers improve fish health and the environmental performance, while maintaining economic viability.
In a country with 108,000 hectares of village tanks and ponds, aquaculture farming is a profitable venture. The opportunity is there to be grasped.