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Indian Tilapia can be the country's new IT industry, says MPEDA chairman A Jayathilak

Farming the freshwater fish tilapia can help the country reduce its dependence on white shrimps in marine exports

Published: Jun 13, 2017

The financial markets generate a lot of number on a per second basis. There are people who have made it a profession to convert this information into trends, buy-sell signals, charts and pivot tables. Over the last 18 years of financial journalism, I have realised that every number has a story to tell. And these numbers as a trend normally never lie. I am forever looking for these trends.

mg_97067_a_jayathilak_280x210.jpg Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan

A Jayathilak, chairman, Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA) has seen India becoming a leading exporter of shrimps in a short span of time, since 2010. State-run MPEDA offers a platform for various stakeholders to help chalk out a roadmap to fuel the growth of the marine export industry.

Jayathilak spoke to Forbes India in Mangalore at the MPEDA Aqua Aquaria India 2017 exposition, which showcases the country’s latest strides in aquaculture and ornamental fishery. He talked about the potential for, and the importance of, farming the freshwater fish tilapia in India and the need to diversify commercial aquaculture beyond shrimps. Edited excerpts:

Q. Indian shrimps are very popular across the world. How did that come about?
It all started in 2009. During the global financial crisis, black tiger shrimps, which India exported, became uncompetitive in terms of pricing compared with white shrimps. Simultaneously, black tiger shrimps farmed in Southeast Asia were affected by disease. We therefore gradually shifted to the farming of white shrimps, also known as Litopenaeus vannamei. Since 2010, the growth in this variety has been spectacular and we have crossed $5 billion worth of exports this year. The white shrimps carry high value with minimal risk. Today 80 percent of the exports of marine products from India are vannamei. On all parameters, we are doing well but we are putting all our eggs in one basket. And that is a problem.

Q. Why is it a problem?
The attractiveness of farming white shrimps has prompted farmers to move away from farming other aquatic animals. Whenever a new species is introduced, vannamei remains the gold standard. If I can’t make more money from other species I’m better off farming vannamei. Another reason is that there is an established infrastructure in farming white shrimps and the technical know-how is easily available. In value terms, India has been the largest exporter of shrimps in the world for the last five years. We are also the second largest producer. Almost 25 percent of our exports go to the US. There is a huge demand for vannamei and it is growing exponentially. But the worrying part is that we are dependent on just one species. We have to diversify. We are now working hard to communicate the business prospects of other species of aquatic animals as well.

Q. So, which is the next big aquatic species on your mind?
I think the freshwater fish tilapia is the answer to a lot of our problems. We made a mistake in 1950s and introduced a species called Mozambique Tilapia which was not suitable to the Indian ecosystem. So the memory of that mistake still lingers. We are late starters.

Wherever there is fresh water we can cultivate tilapia. It is believed that Jesus served 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. The fishes were the Nile Tilapia from Egypt. It is one of the most consumed fish in the world. A 100 grams of tilapia has about 1 gram of saturated fat, 30 grams of proteins and 200 mg of omega 3 fatty acuds. It is healthy to eat this fish and India is in a position to produce this in large quantities. Right now, there is not much activity. This year Kochi produced 800 tonnes of tilapia. This tilapia is not the normal tilapia but what we call the genetically improved farmed tilapia (GIFT). This variety is disease resistant and is very hardy and can survive easily in Indian conditions. It can grow very fast and it doesn’t need too much of feed. It can manage with planktons. The cost of feeds is much lower compared with shrimps. Again, in shrimp farming, you have to be careful in maintaining the water quality. Tilapia, on the other hand, is resistant to any kind of imbalance in the ecosystem.

Q. Can we grow this fish in landlocked states?
Yes. Look at states like Karnataka and Maharashtra. Major parts of these states are landlocked but they have fresh water lakes or ponds. Tilapia requires fresh water and it is very suitable for India. The fish is not restricted to maritime states.

Q. So this is a big opportunity?

The demand for this fish is huge. The global tilapia trade is growing at 11.5 percent annually since 1995. I can’t think of any other commodity growing at that rate. I think this fish has the ability to wipe out protein malnutrition in India. Anybody can grow this fish in their home, in a pond or in any reservoir.

If you allocate 25,000 hectares of fresh water area for the cultivation of tilapia then we can be the seventh largest producer of the fish in the world. Today that spot is held by Bangladesh. As of now, we have not done much in this area. We need to communicate with the state governments to make them aware of this opportunity.

Q. Can it provide employment to a lot of people?

We are looking at a huge spectrum of jobs. This is an industry that has huge potentials for high- and low-skilled jobs. I see a lot of potential for IT professionals in this industry.

The IT industry is going through a difficult period because of technological changes and the rise of Artificial Intelligence. Many IT professionals may lose their jobs. I think the marine exports industry has a lot of opportunity for these people. These highly-trained IT professionals can look at the tilapia industry. The IT engineer has been our pride for many years. For so many years we were promoting information technology as IT but in future I am looking forward to calling it the Indian Tilapia (IT) industry, if the boom clicks!

Q. So, how do you plan to make this a reality?
The central government has come out with guidelines about how to do tilapia farming. We would like the state governments to look at it. Our tapping of fresh water resources for aquaculture is very low. We have told state governments to look at leasing models. Most states have reservoirs, public ponds and many other fresh water bodies. It is impossible for the government to run this business on its own. But if there is a leasing policy then it will enable private entrepreneurs to enter this business. You can do cage culture. When you put up a cage in the pond then it becomes your ownership. The government also stands to gain lots of revenues from this model.  Bangladesh is using small farms to cultivate tilapia while China is doing it on a large sale. There is a huge domestic market for this fish and the exports will grow. There is huge growth and profitability in this business and we need to make the most of it. What has happened with the shrimp business should ideally get repeated in the tilapia business.

(The travel to Mangalore was arranged by MPEDA)

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