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Of Chinese tilapia imports and our huge unexploited potential

OPINION
By Erick Ogello | August 6th 2021

Judith Otieno selling fried fish at Jubilee market, Kisumu. [Denish Ochieng, Strandard]

It is true that despite the enormous potential of aquaculture production in Kenya, capture fisheries and aquaculture production cannot match the growing demand for fish proteins. With the current fish consumption per capita of 4.5 kg/person/year, many Kenyans, especially those living in the rural areas, will continue to suffer from malnutrition complications.

Food and Agriculture Organisation recommends fish consumption per capita of 20 kg/person/year. Capture fisheries statistics has been declining over the years, mainly due to deteriorating health of aquatic ecosystems, overfishing and climate change effects. Annual fish production was estimated at 180,000 tonnes in 2015-2016. Today the production is about 120,000 tonnes annually.

Attempts to popularise aquaculture to boost fish production appears to have taken off at promising pace, but teething challenges such as low technology adoption, poor quality fish seeds and feeds are still key impediments. There are also too many unprofessional people pretending to be fisheries and aquaculture experts, thus misleading fish farmers. The biggest debate today among fisheries, aquaculture and food policy experts is how best to bridge the national fish supply gap, which now stands at 350,000 tonnes annually.

Over the years, the government has initiated mega fisheries and aquaculture projects through Economic Stimulus Project (ESP) 2009-2012, Lake Victoria Environmental Management Programme (LVMP I, and II), Kenya Coastal Development project and now Aquaculture Business Development Project. However, there seem to be minimal impact on the ground. This breeds another set of questions as to why the mega projects have failed to scratch the ground and whether sustainability models of the projects were well thought out.

From the research lens, the Kenyan marine waters alone can produce over 300,000 tonnes of fish annually with adequate fishing technology put in place. Currently, marine fisheries is estimated at less than 30,000 tonnes annually. However, sufficient investment in fishing technology is key to realise this production capacity. Therefore, low capture fisheries production especially in marine waters could be due to under capacity to exploit deep waters by fishermen, giving room to foreign fleets. It is possible that these foreign fleets could be selling to us our own fish after processing. Also, the inland waters appear to have plateaued in fish production. This perhaps is due to high pressure from ballooning population.

Tilapia in a basin at Dunga Beach, Kisumu. [Washington Onyango, Standard]

To import frozen tilapia or not is a hot debate. Importation of frozen tilapia has been ongoing as a measure to bridge the fish production gap, but this has attracted significant socio-economic and cultural frictions among different stakeholders. Today, business entrepreneurs import about 30,000 tonnes of frozen tilapia from China annually. This is not even sufficient to bridge the annual fish demand.

While local fishermen have complained of diluted market returns for locally produced fish, other nodes of the value chain, especially local processors and transporters have praised the importation. Other consumers have complained of different taste on imported fish, while others have no issues at all. Being a member of World Trade Organisation, it is not very easy for Kenya to absolutely ban fish importation. Kenya is also an exporter of fish to foreign markets i.e. Europe, Congo and other markets.

The solution lies with Kenyans. With the lucrative ecological fisheries resources in Kenya, it is possible to lock out foreign fish influx through optimisation of local fisheries and aquaculture production. There is need for evidence-based sustainable fisheries and aquaculture production models to be institutionalised in the sector. This should be catalysed by working policies and regulations in the sector. These options require transformative leadership to saturate local fish production and lower the cost of local fish production and eliminate foreign fish automatically. With the emerging cage culture technology, it is possible to attain up to 200,000 tonnes of fish annually if local inland waters, including small water bodies, are brought into fish production bracket.

This must be preceded by intensive capacity building and training on proper management of small water bodies by respective communities. There is need to embrace modern technologies in aquaculture production to enhance backyard fish production and diversification of culturable fish species. This should be followed by strong structures of post-harvest loss management, value addition and marketing. Pond production is still popular method of fish culture.

Research is needed to enhance the production efficiency of local ponds. Research done by Maseno University has shown that pond-based biofloc units improve pond efficiency, while periphyton technology suppresses prolific breeding behaviour of tilapia, leading to faster growth rates with minimal feeding. These technologies can be achieved with minimal capital and can maximise fish production in rural areas where malnutrition challenges are prevalent.

Dr Ogello is a researcher and lecturer in the Department of Fisheries and Natural Resources at Maseno University and is an Aquaculture Fellow with the African Food Fellowship Programme.

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