Small community fish farms – then and now

Certain non-negotiable measures are needed to make small, community-run fish farms successful.

Small community fish farms – then and now
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Marcel Huet’s excellent Textbook of Fish Culture: Breeding and Cultivation of Fish, published in 1970, details the remarkable efforts by the Belgians to establish aquaculture in the Belgian Congo in the 1950s.

Thousands of earth ponds were excavated in the rural parts of the country and stocked with tilapia in an attempt to feed the local population.

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Many other African countries, then under colonial governments, followed suit, and well-run administrations stimulated a profusion of aquaculture research and development.

Where are these fish farms now?
Research into aquaculture in the Congo indicates that in 1959 there were over 126 000 fish ponds in the country. Many were small, and stocked with mixed sex tilapia caught locally. In some places, the groundwater was so close to the surface that the ponds filled naturally, but could not be drained.

The mixed sex fish bred prolifically, so restocking was not necessary. But production was pitifully low – a few dozen kilograms a year, on average.

With the lack of management, most soon became wild fisheries. In 2006, I came across three such ponds near Mongbwalu in the North Eastern DRC. Discussions with the villagers revealed that they were ‘owned’ by the local community and produced occasional tilapia of 100g to 200g that were added to the villagers’ otherwise bland diet of maize, millet and cassava.

Management was poor, and production was at an all-time low.

Many similar ‘aid projects’ followed this pattern after independence in the 1960s and today only a fraction remain. This is despite considerable input by aid organisations.

In the meantime, researchers have developed protocols for community fish farms that make them dramatically more productive. The use of fully-drainable ponds ensures proper management and 100% harvests. All-male fingerlings remove the curse of over-population, while improved strains of fast-growing Nile tilapia have more than doubled yields.

A combination of organic fertilisers coupled with supplementary feeding with readily available feeds have increased yield yet again. Some well-managed ponds have gone from below 500kg/ha/year to 8t/ ha/ year. In the best-run commercial farms, production exceeds 10t/ha/year today in tropical Africa.

Small community-run fish farms can still succeed, but only if certain non-negotiables are put in place. These include:

  • A system design that does not require hi-tech skills to operate it. This rules out recirculating systems with filtration, aeration and dependence on electricity.
  • Ponds that are 100% drainable, with inlet and outlet plumbing more sophisticated than the standard ‘bent-over pipe’.
  • Stocking with all-male tilapia (purchased or donated by government) derived from improved strains of fast-growing tilapia.
  • The use of locally available fertilisers to increase primary productivity.
  • Supplementary feeding with waste brans, reject maize, brewery waste and other feeds.
  • If theft, a poor work ethic, ownership, beneficiation and mentoring can be overcome by intelligent government agency input, these farms can succeed like those in Asia and Latin America.