Last week, a chartered freighter Boeing 737-700 from Kolkata arrived at the Cochin International Airport (CIAL) with some unusual passengers 35 lakh Tilapia fish seeds.
Almost 2,000 farmers across Kerala were waiting desperately for Tilapia seeds to arrive, says Anandhu Ramesh, seed supplier, breeder, and farmer based in Kochi. Anandhu runs Cochin Aquatics at Perumbavoor, which deals with fish breeding and farming. He supplies fish seeds frys and fingerlings to farmers in the State. He sources them from Kolkata because of a demand that cannot be met by the regulatory allotment system of the government.
Once they arrived, the seeds were released in prepared fish pens. The fingerlings will grow table size in six months, just in time for Christmas, says Anandhu, adding, Our entire Tilapia stock had been consumed during Easter. That is why even during the lockdown we decided to charter a flight and bring fish seeds. The next tranche, approximately the same quantity, is expected to arrive later this week.
Also called aquatic chicken or broiler fish, Tilapia is the second most farmed fish in the world with a growing global market of 11% to 12% per annum, but its commercial farming in India is largely unorganised.
In 2009, the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Aquaculture (RGCA), the research and development arm of the Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA), in technical collaboration with the World Fish Centre (WFC), Malaysia, established a nucleus breeding centre for genetically improved farmed Tilapia (GIFT) at Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh.
In 2018, MPEDA set up the Multispecies Aquaculture Complex (MAC) at Vallarpadam to supply seeds to licensed farmers in Kerala. So far, we have supplied seeds to 2,569 beneficiaries. The present estimated annual GIFT seed requirement in Kerala is around 10 to 12 million, says S. Sreekumar, Secretary, MPEDA. According to him, the gap between demand and supply can lead to a parallel chain of seed supply and farming.
The Tilapia varieties used most commonly and that are commercially viable are the hormone treated mono sex Tilapia (MST) and GIFT. They are predominantly male and hence grow fast and big. There are two methods of farming, one in the natural waterbody like rural ponds where the fish is fed with planktons and food waste. The cost of this farming is less than aquaculture ventures that require setting up of tanks, water purification system, and electricity. In the former, the farmer makes a good profit, while in the latter, which is high density, hand-fed with expensive feed, the margins are not so attractive, says Anandhu.
Over the past four years, Kerala has been witnessing a growing community of Tilapia farmers, who are turning to aquaculture for scientific production.
Dr. Shinoj Subramannian, head of Krishi Vigyan Kendra, CMFRI, says, The Tilapia that was found naturally in our waterbodies 10 to 15 years ago were not so tasty, whereas GIFT is comparable in look and taste to the Pearl Spot, a popular Kerala fish. At 250 a kg, it is pocket-friendly and affords good profit for the farmer. Dr. Shinoj organised a Tilapia festival last November in a bid to popularise the fish.
Anandhu supplied three crore Tilapia seeds in Kerala last year, which has 10 to 15 licensed hatcheries, pointing to a parallel seed supply chain that coexists along with licensed suppliers.
Dr. K.K. Vijayan, Director, Central Institute of Brackishwater Aquaculture (CIBA) cautions: The seed business is a very big market. The movement of seeds should be monitored. The Kolkata seeds, apparently sourced from Bangladesh, are sold through agents based in Kolkata. Some seeds, also sourced by agents based in Kolkata, believed to be brought to Kerala, come through porous borders, from Thailand and Myanmar. There should be a stringent mechanism to check seed quality when it is brought to Kerala, especially when instances of emerging diseases and mortality caused by lethal viruses such as Tilapia lake VirUS (TiLV). A government-aided facility for random screening and testing of seeds, using DNA-based diagnostics at an affordable cost of 500 is the need of the hour.So many farmers who have jumped into Tilapia farming after watching Youtube videos of a bountiful harvest and handsome profits have met with disaster. If there is subsidy for GIFT, there should be Standard Operating Procedures too in place.
To meet the rising demand and check spurious seeds, MPEDA-RGCA has decided to increase supply to 7 million in the current year. The construction of a GIFT breeding facility at MAC, Vallarpadam, is under way and plans to establish similar facilities at and Pannivelchira are in the pipeline. When these three facilities become functional, it can meet the entire Tilapia seed requirement in the State, says Sreekumar.