By William Ysaguirre
Commercially-farmed Tilapia were first introduced to Belize more than 20 years ago in the mid 90’s through Taiwan technology exchange. This week the Republic of China on Taiwan’s Technical Mission has gave a big boost to the industry by building a US$2.5 million, state of the art Tilapia hatchery at Central Farm, with funding from Taiwan’s International Cooperation Development Fund (ICDF).
Belize’s Minister of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Gaspar Vega profusely thanked Taiwan’s Ambassador to Belize, H.E. Benjamin Ho, for this technical support, when he joined him in a ribbon-cutting ceremony to inaugurate the new Tilapia hatchery on Wednesday afternoon, May 20.
Ambassador Ho said the new facility is the result of a cooperation agreement signed in February 13, 2012 for a five-year project to help achieve sustainable development by the transfer of aquaculture technology. He It was also in keeping with the ICDF philosophy for bilateral cooperation with Belize: that it is far better to teach a man how to fish, than to simply give him a fish.
The new facility includes a two-story building which houses offices, a laboratory, a conference room, cafeteria and kitchen on the ground floor, and residential accommodations on the second floor for staff and visiting technical experts.
The project also built a small storage warehouse, 16 earthen ponds lined with neoprene, with an even larger water reservoir pond as big as a football field, on raised ground, so water can flow into the ponds by gravity.
The tilapia fry are first grown in 12 concrete tanks, which the ICDF project provides pre-stocked. As they fries grow larger they are transferred by stages to other tanks, to the neoprene tanks, each about the size of a home swimming pool. Eventually the juvenile Tilapia are transferred to the larger earthen ponds, where they will grow to full size.
Ho recalled that Taiwan’s technical support was born from a promise made by Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-Jeou during his visit to Belize in 2009, when he pledged to Prime Minister Dean Barrow that Taiwan would help to promote Tilapia aquaculture in Belize. This was further realized when former Minister of Agriculture Rene Montero and Minister of State Edmund Castro visited Taiwan in 2010. They asked for assistance in developing small to medium scale aquaculture farms. These are to provide income-generation and a reliable source of protein in the diet of under-privileged families in rural communities in Belize.
A preliminary assessment by Taiwanese technical experts showed Belize has great potential for aquaculture from abundant land and a plentiful supply of fresh water, but the development of the industry has been stymied by the high cost of the input materials: the fish feed, which presently has to be imported, and the fish fingerlings. The new hatchery addresses the latter, reducing the cost of the fingerlings for local fish farmers.
Ambassador Ho said the new facility helps achieve four goals:
1. Provide enough Tilapia fingerlings at low cost to supply all the small and medium scale farms in rural Belize;
2.Host training workshops to train Belizean farmers in the technology of growing Tilapia.
3. Help local farmers develop alternative feeds, and
4. Assist in marketing their production on the domestic market and for export.
Tilapia convert feed to body weight at a rate of one pound for every pound and a half of feed, but imported feed made from soybean meal is expensive, and makes the price for fully-grown tilapia uncompetitive with other producers in the region.
Belize grows soybean, but no plant has been built to convert local soybean production to fish feed. Local fish farmers have experimented with citrus waste and other vegetation as alternative sources of feed to cut costs.
Not all Tilapia on the Belize market are farmed fish. The Crooked Tree lagoon and streams and even drainage ditches along the George Price and Philip Goldson Highways are teeming with Tilapia, as attested to by enterprising village fishermen who hawk their wares at the Hattieville roundabout. For these entrepreneurs, Tilapia is a bonanza that requires no more investment than a diving mask and a homemade spear-gun.