Anyone wanting to become skilled in fish farming should have a basic understanding of biology. A university degree in the natural sciences would be valuable, but is not essential. There are many skilled fish farmers countrywide who have greater fish-keeping skills than people with a doctorate in ichthyology.
Fish husbandry is a hands-on skill, not one necessarily acquired from the study of theory, or the pages of a manual. Training should therefore focus on practical work on a fish farm rather than research at a university. Moreover, this research is usually carried out under conditions far removed from the farm situation. Not only is the scale of funding and equipment usually very different from that found in the real world of business, but the extrapolation of research results to commerce often leaves much to be desired.
Where, then, can an interested person gain practical experience? This is a difficult question to answer. Corporate-owned marine aquaculture facilities sometimes take in interns, and this is a useful way to gain insights into the business. Smaller, family-owned farms are often reluctant to do this, as it interferes with the day-to-day running of the farm.
Training course: best compromise
A training course is the best way to gain some experience. Several places offer these, although the costs can be quite high, and the length of the training is short, usually three to five days. Most courses offer a curriculum of part theory, and part hands-on work and include valuable aspects such as filtration and grow-out tank design, breeding and rearing techniques, and business and financial planning.
On the business side, there is a constant demand for assistance in compiling aquaculture business plans, and I am sure that an opportunity exists for an entrepreneur to fill this void. The main obstacle here is that most people require a business plan to raise capital, and are therefore unlikely to have ready access to funds to pay for business plans. If you are interested in starting an aquaculture venture, don’t expect those already involved in the industry to provide free help.
Research the industry thoroughly on the Internet, read widely, visit as many successful projects as possible, and beware of the smooth-talking, fly-by-night ’expert’ keen to sell you a system designed on an Excel spreadsheet. If he cannot show you an example of the system in full commercial operation, stay away from it – it is not likely to work.
Be prepared to pay your dues
Starting off in aquaculture is much like becoming an apprentice. There will be plenty of hard work, often under quite arduous conditions of heat and humidity. Skills such as plumbing, electrical work, building, welding and understanding water flow will have to become second nature, not to mention understanding the often quite baffling behaviour of the fish themselves. But these challenges are worth facing and mastering, and most of them are common to all high-intensity stock farming operations. And that’s all aquaculture really is.
A recent job advertisement for a tilapia farm manager stated: “This is a position for someone who is willing to do everything: building, welding, vehicle and pump maintenance, fish handling etc, so you need to be jack-of-all-trades, and master of several. “In other words, it is not a job for the guy who wants to play golf on Wednesday afternoon and drive a BMW… but if you want a head-start in tilapia culture, this offers immense opportunity.”
This says it all!