The Fisheries Department of the Ministry of Fisheries and Forests is very concerned on negative publicity that blames tilapia for ten other missing freshwater fish species.
Permanent Secretary for Fisheries, Viliame Naupoto said claims by scientist are seen not only as a scientific propaganda but attempts to create a negative image of tilapia farming in Fiji.
“This is particularly evident in their references of tilapia as “pig food” and “aquatic cockroaches. The article imposes on two main issues, namely a threat to our local food sources and the threat to our biodiversity by the so called invasiveness of tilapia in our waterways,” said Mr Naupoto.
Mr Naupoto said tilapia farming is a Government activity designed to address food security in rural and semi-urban areas.
“A regional meeting was recently hosted by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) in Noumea, New Caledonia in December, 2009 to look at the future of tilapia farming, not only in Fiji, but the Pacific.”
“One of the authors of the article, Dr. Aaron Jenkins was also invited to present his findings mentioned in the latest article, and in doing so came under a barrage of questions from leading professors and experts in the world who were present at that meeting.”
Mr Naupoto stressed that what emerged as the main theme of that consultation was that in many places, an environmental cost from past introductions of tilapia has already been paid, and we need to see how best Pacific Islands can now responsibly obtain the expected social benefits.
“On the threat to our local food sources, the Pacific Islands will face an increasing shortfall in availability of fish for domestic consumption.”
Mr Naupoto said SPC analysis show that an additional 100,000 tonnes of fish will be needed by 2030 if present dietary levels are to be maintained.
“Even assuming good management and no impacts on coral reefs by climate change, the region’s coastal fisheries will not be able to supply the fish needed.”
“So two main options exists allocating more of the region’s tuna catch to domestic food security needs, and developing small-pond aquaculture.”
He added that farming of tilapia is one of the readiest available responses to regional food security concerns. On the other hand, tilapia is an introduced species that, we can all agree, raises concerns about impacts on indigenous freshwater fish biodiversity.
“Small-scale fish farming requires a fish that is simple to breed and simple to feed and the obvious choice is tilapia.”
Mr Naupoto said that there are no obvious candidates among the indigenous freshwater fishes in Fiji and in this region, and the gudgeon fish mentioned as being threatened in the report are only for the prestigious aquarium trade, not for providing any food security for our local population.
“However, ninety per cent of the tilapia farmed globally and in Fiji nowadays is Nile tilapia, a much genetically improved and acceptable strain,” he said.
“This variety is now available for distribution to farmers and has been domesticated for pond conditions, and we have been farming these for over a decade. Not only do they contain high protein, but are much larger and tastier than the earlier introduced species,” added Mr Naupoto.
Mr Naupoto said it now provides much needed protein food security for a large part of the poorer and rural communities that don’t have access to more expensive reef fishes, and satisfies the requirements and specific demands of a growing Asian population in the country.
“On the comment by the authors that “tilapia the aquatic chicken” be nicknamed “the aquatic cockroach” is not only irrational and insensitive to a large and indigenous sector of our local community that looks forward to tilapia in their family meal. It also undermines the alternative high and affordable protein food requirement available for our rural and semi-urban populations.”
He added that in the United States, tilapia is rated among the five most popular fish in restaurants and other food outlets and it now even rates higher than salmon fish, and this specific reference of tilapia as “aquatic cockroaches” by Dr. Stacy Jupiter may not be accepted lightly by her own American counterparts.
He referred to the “threat to our biodiversity” mentioned in the article, that there is a tendency at times for some environmental NGO’s to ingratiate themselves to local communities by clearing them of any blame for particular environmental outcomes, preferring instead to adopt a popularist strategy of blaming government sponsored programs and other external agents.
“Apart from visual census (swimming in the water to find and identify fish species) the total survey methodology in the report is not mentioned, although there are many other contributing factors that should have been considered as responsible for the other fish not seen in the survey.”
Indiscriminate tree-cutting, use of duva (deris deris) and other chemicals (including chlorine (janola) used recently to catch mud crabs ( mana) are common practices used in rural areas in such streams and waterways, in defiance of Fisheries legislation banning their use for such activities.
The recent introduction and construction of mitigation dams to control flooding is another example that disrupts the complete life cycle of some of fishes mentioned.
In the use of such chemicals, all fish and fry are killed including gobies, gudgeons and tilapia alike, as there is no discrimination on what dies and what is allowed to live.
“Blaming the symptom (tilapia) instead of the disease (poor land use management) will never get to the root cause of most biodiversity loss and only plays into the hands of real-estate developers and logging companies, who might be able to continue their destructive (and highly lucrative practices), while blaming tilapias for just doing what comes naturally,” said Mr Naupoto.
He said that poverty and hunger are often major drivers of deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices that further drive biodiversity towards extinction.
Based on Asia’s experience, tilapia does not easily invade pristine clear-running forested streams, but prefer slower-moving muddy rivers in open sun-lit countryside. ‘If deforestation occurs, tilapia will move in. They can often be found at the scene of the crime, but are not necessarily the criminal.’
Mr Naupoto said demand for fresh fish in Fiji and the region will increasingly drive new initiatives to farm and expand tilapia production through mass introductions to waterways that already have the fish.
There are over 300 existing farms in operation in Fiji and the demand for the fish is increasing at a very rapid pace.
To address the issues of missing biodiversity, zoning approaches are being considered in aquaculture planning to protect biodiversity considered as the most favorable approach to protect areas of high conservation value from further introduction of tilapia. In the meantime, aquaculture farming will continue.
Mr Naupoto said that tilapia has already been introduced, and is here to stay.