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CUBA: Exotic Fish Has Bad Reputation but High Yields

Patricia Grogg* - IPS/IFEJ

HAVANA, May 22 2009 (IPS) - Known for eating everything in its path, and even for stinging people, the African catfish (Clarias gariepinus) is feeding debates in Cuba while at the same time it is filling family dinner plates.

Exotic catfish feed in a tank in Cuba Credit: Patricia Grogg/IPS

Exotic catfish feed in a tank in Cuba Credit: Patricia Grogg/IPS

The species was introduced in Cuba in 1999 with the aim of raising the fish in freshwater tanks. But the torrential rains of 2001 and 2002 from hurricanes Michelle, Isidoro and Lili spread the fish throughout the country. Since then, they have gained a negative image.

They are popularly seen as ugly and "disgusting" because "they eat anything," and as frightening because they can move on land, making use of their rigid fins. The worst charge against them is that they are killing off other species, endangering the ecological balance.

That is what may have happened at a lake on El Retiro estate in Cárdenas, some 150 kilometres from Havana, where no other fish species are found since the arrival of the catfish. Not even ducks or geese visit anymore. Workers there blame the invasive species for having eaten the birds’ offspring.

"But the filet of those fish is good, and we should think about how to raise them in the farm’s ponds. That would help contribute to greater availability of food," said Raimundo García, director of the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue, head of the project at El Retiro.

The introduction of exotic species is among the main causes of loss of biological diversity in Cuba, as is "the weak integration of strategies for conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and economic development."


For environmentalists, the problem is not so much that the African catfish is "exotic," but rather that the mechanisms for regulation and control are not infallible, and that the effects of natural disasters are hard to reverse.

This year, the United Nations has dedicated International Biodiversity Day, May 22, to the question of exotic invasive species, a great threat to biodiversity and the "ecological and economic well being of society and of the planet."

Since the 17th century, exotic species – animals, plants, viruses, bacteria and other organisms – have contributed to nearly 40 percent of animal extinctions of known cause, according to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

In Cuba, the official strategy to protect biodiversity includes conservation, rehabilitation and restoration of ecosystems and degraded habitat, assessment of environmental impacts, management plans and control of exotic plant and animal species.

In defense of the catfish, technicians from the fishing industry say that any species, faced with a prolonged lack of food, can surprise us by eating organisms that are not part of their habitual diet.

"The catfish is resistant; it can survive in adverse conditions," ministry adviser Julio Baisre told Tierramérica.

"Studies of the stomach contents of this species, the characteristics and position of its mouth, its limited teeth and the fact that it uses only its senses of touch and smell to locate its prey, indicate that it usually feeds on organisms found on lake bottoms," he said.

Baisre believes the negative opinions about the catfish are "exaggerated and second hand," because there is no "scientifically based evidence" that any freshwater Cuban species have gone extinct as a result of the presence of an exotic species.

He added, "there are probably other environmental impacts, related to the use and management of water and the destruction of habitat," which have had a greater impact than the presence of the catfish or of tilapia, another exotic fish species.

But more rigorous study is needed of the environmental impacts of many exotic species, admitted Baisre. "When they ask me about the catfish, I respond with another question: Do you know of any species that serves as food for human beings and that has turned into a plague?"

Other defenders of the introduction of catfish in aquaculture point out that more than 65 percent of the freshwater species farmed in the Americas are not from this hemisphere, as was the case centuries ago with the introduction of crops like sugarcane and coffee.

"The introduction of fish species is based on comparative advantages with native species, like greater growth, efficient production technology, high value on foreign markets or nutritional properties," said Orestes Gonzáles, assistant director of the magazine "Mar y Pesca".

The catfish is known and accepted on the Cuban dinner table and is frequently among the offerings of the commercial network of aquaculture products in national currency. Cuba is trying to develop intensive fish farming.

Dionis Cruz, a vender at a Havana fish market, where one kilo of catfish filet costs around 1.50 dollars, says it is in high demand. "It sells quickly. I receive 200 kilos to sell, and they are gone in two days," he said.

Experts agree that freshwater fish farming is a "global necessity," because the oceans are being fished to their limits. Raising catfish is not a Cuban "discovery" – more than 30 countries are farming the species.

In 2008, Cuban aquaculture produced more than 30,000 tons of fish, including tench (doctor fish), tilapia, catfish and other species, many of them grown in ponds and where fish feed on natural plankton.

In recent years, intensive farming of tilapia in floating cages in the sea has been promoted, as well as the farming of catfish in earthen or cement tanks. According to Baisre, this form of production is sustainable and forms part of the national strategy for food security.

The intensive approach allows control of the number of fish that can be maintained in a specific site.

Thanks to a project financed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Cuban aquaculture has homegrown feed for the fish.

The feed is based on the by-products of the catfish, to which soy, wheat and bran flour are added.

"The idea is to replace imports of fishmeal," said Mirtha Vinjoy, assistant director of the aquaculture training centre that produces the feed.

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists, for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (www.complusalliance.org).

 
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