The Malta Independent 8 August 2020, Saturday

Interview: The Importance of aquaculture

Malta Independent Monday, 21 May 2012, 00:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

A marine biologist who lived and worked in the UK after obtaining a doctorate in fish farming at the University of Stirling, Carmelo Agius decided to return to Malta when it sought to develop aquaculture on a commercial level.

That his efforts have been crucial in the development of the local aquaculture industry has even been recognised in the recently-released draft strategy for aquaculture, which was coincidentally produced by the Scottish university he studied in.

Prof. Agius set up the National Aquaculture Centre – now the Mala Aquaculture Research Centre – at Fort San Luċjan in Marsaxlokk in 1989, and stayed there for eight years before resuming consultancy work overseas, whilst continuing to lecture at the University of Malta. He has worked in over 50 countries so far, and explains that he wanted new challenges once the local aquaculture industry was up and running.

Aquaculture has existed for millennia in various cultures, but Prof. Agius explains that commercial operations started gaining particular importance in the 1970s, when the need to increase fish production started to be felt.

He notes that commercial fishing actually peaked in 1989, but demand for fish has only grown in the meantime, along with the global population. This demand could no longer be met solely by harvesting wild stocks, and he notes that aquaculture thus contributes to food security.

However, aquaculture is no simple fix. Prof. Agius notes that setting up requires a lot of planning, operating costs are very high and that a lack of know-how and proper equipment could prove costly. Across the world, mistakes have often occurred as people rushed to set up aquaculture operations.

Poor planning can lead to fish farms which make the spread of diseases far more likely, wiping out stocks and profits in the process.

Prof. Agius notes that setting up in waters which are too shallow is a common cause, as these are more susceptible to changes in temperature which make fish more prone to disease. In Malta, diseases had been an issue, but setting up aquaculture operations out at sea has all but eradicated them.

Setting up out at sea, however, can expose fish farms to the elements, making them susceptible to storm damage. Cages using traditional materials such as wood and steel have limited resistance; but operators worldwide have now shifted to using high-density polyethylene, a plastic which is very strong but also flexible.

The local aquaculture industry is made up of a few large operators, and this is in line with Prof. Agius’ own recommendations. He points out that the industry had to depend on exports if it was to have any significant impact on the economy, and large retailers would seek exporters who can provide a steady and sizeable supply of fish – which smaller operators cannot.

Research is clearly crucial to the industry: but particularly so when it comes to domesticating species. Taking care of adult fish is a relatively simple affair – but determining the proper conditions for breeding and growing fry is often another matter entirely.

Many marine species, for instance, seek brackish water to spawn – Prof. Agius notes that this alone makes the protection of brackish water inlets such as Il-Magħluq in Marsascala vital. Furthermore, the food requirements of fry and small fish often differ widely from those of adult fish, and they are not easy to determine.

Determining the best way to domesticate species has been a particular focus of the MARC since its inception. But the most lucrative farmed species – bluefin tuna – is yet to be domesticated: the process still involves capturing wild fish and fattening them up.

The highly-sought species has seen its numbers dwindle over the years, and fishing quotas have been decreased accordingly. The local industry is heavily geared towards tuna farming – although sea bream, sea bass and meagre are also cultivated – and exports have been decreasing significantly over the past few years.

Captive breeding could well be the solution to the problem, saving the species and meeting demand simultaneously. It is no easy task – Prof. Agius notes that even the tuna’s large size presents a problem – but research has been taking place, even in Malta, and some progress has been registered.

But any success so far has been strictly on an academic level, Prof. Agius cautions: there is a wide gulf between academic success and an economically-viable process. It will take at least 10 years before a breakthrough occurs, he says, adding that this was a very conservative estimate.

In the meantime, he advises, the Maltese industry needed to diversify, either by domesticating new species or by producing new products from existing ones – such as allowing sea bream and sea bass to grow further

Relying on the species is hardly ideal, and Prof. Agius stresses the need to diversify, either by domesticating new species or by producing new products from existing ones – such as allowing sea bream and sea bass to grow further to be able to produce steaks and fillets.

The two species’ main problem is that their growth rate is somewhat slow: it takes roughly 18 months to produce a harvestable sea bass or sea bream of around 500g. Prof. Agius thus believes that Malta should focus on researching how to farm fast-growing species.

The MARC is currently focusing on farming amberjack, research which Prof. Agius welcomes as the species can grow to 2-3kg in just one year.

However, he cautions that Malta had to be mindful of similar efforts elsewhere, or risk seeing the research bring little benefit. Research concerning a sister species – the yellowtail amberjack – is also taking place, and although the species’ taste is somewhat inferior, it would be difficult for the local product to gain a market if the species is already well-established.

Species’ reputation is more important than their taste, Prof. Agius notes. Efforts to promote the use of turbot instead of the ubiquitous salmon, for instance, have not had much success, and locally, meagre faces a similar problem.

Aquaculture does not solely concern itself with farming fish: other aquatic organisms such as molluscs or crustaceans can also be farmed. Even plants are farmed, including by the Malta-based Institute of Cellular Pharmacology, which harvests the peacock’s tail alga for supplements aimed at people with osteoporosis.

Another farmed species is the abalone sea-snail, which fetches a high price but which requires heavy initial investment as it takes roughly four years to grow to a desirable size. It can technically be farmed in Malta, Prof. Agius explains, but abalone farms require a lot of coastal land, which is at a premium.

If space is available, the greatest priority would be setting up a commercial hatchery, something which Prof. Agius has been advocating for the past twenty years. Local fish farm operators currently need to import eggs and fry, which obviously adds to their costs.

The draft strategy does suggest setting up a hatchery, recommending a site in Xrobb l-Għaġin, but Prof. Agius notes that experience has shown that it is easier said than done. At one point, a development permit had been issued to convert the former desalination plant at Ħondoq ir-Rummien, but the project ultimately fell through.

Ideally, he adds, feeds would also be grown locally, as their importation also adds significantly to costs: however, space is a particular issue.

Another recommendation Prof. Agius makes – although not necessarily for the local industry – is to focus on herbivorous fish. The present species farmed in Malta all feed on other fish, and while some feeds do reduce the need for baitfish, shifting to herbivorous fish is more effective and environmentally-friendly.

Once again, reputation is an issue in Europe, where people are used to feasting on carnivorous species.

But herbivorous fish such as tilapia are more popular in the developing world, including on projects Prof. Agius has worked on.

One ongoing project is the development of a commercial tilapia farm in the Zambian part of Lake Tanganyika, a project which, he notes, has also helped boost the lives of local farmers. Farmers were informed that they would be guaranteed a buyer if they grow crops such as grain and soya, which can be used to feed fish.

Prof. Agius also volunteered his services to develop a tilapia farm in an impoverished area in Guatemala, in a municipality whose parish is headed by Maltese priest Anton Grech. The Proyecto San Isidro relies on gravity to circulate water, and as a result, energy costs amount to just around €0.50 a day. The project also benefited farmers as it involved the placement of a dyke which created a small lake.

Helping boost the fortunes of impoverished communities is an obvious source of satisfaction for Prof. Agius, who notes how, after helping set up a fish farm in Ghana, he was thanked profusely by a 40-year-old man who told him how the project provided him with the first steady job he ever had.

His decision to shift his attention from the local industry to a succession of overseas projects, he acknowledges, stems from an interest in getting projects going, as opposed to simply consolidating existing ones.

Moving to Malta in 1989 fitted into this trend. But at some point, he notes, the industry stabilised, although he remains ready to help out when required.

Profile

• A lecturer at the Biology Department at the University of Malta

• Headed the National Aquaculture Centre for eight years after helping set it up in 1989

• Has helped set up fish farms across the world, and has been tasked with drawing up policies in Malta and overseas

• Has published extensively on aquaculture, particularly on fish disease

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