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Why Catfish is the Fish of the Future.

BY Leslie Ter Morshuizen

One regularly hears the statistics on the pending population explosion, environmental collapse and food shortages. At the risk of labouring the point I wish to raise a few issues that I believe are pivotal to our society in terms of the way we function at present and the inevitable change that I believe lies just ahead of us in terms of:

  1. Population growth – the global population is currently believed to be around 7.2bn people and growing by a further billion individuals every 12 years (www.worldometers.info)! The scary part of this is that it is estimated that the maximum sustainable global population level is around 2 billion people, meaning that there are already 3.5 times more people than the planet can support at a European standard of living (www.worldpopulationbalance.org) and the population is still expanding rapidly.
  2. Food shortages – if we consider fish supply as an example, the annual harvest of wild fish has only been maintained at more or less constant levels by using increasingly sophisticated technologies and harvesting stocks that were previously unfished. The prediction (made in the 1970’s) that fish stocks would peak in around 2000 and be stable for 15 to 20 years is the state we are currently in. They concluded with the prediction that there would be a spectacular crash in stocks 15 to 20 years later, and we are now entering this time frame. The writing is on the wall.

Another view on this is the development of genetically modified seeds for agriculture (The Future of Food). The companies’ spin doctors tell us it enhances disease resistance, increases harvest per plant and is resistant to herbicides (also sold by the same company) whereas the sceptics tell us they are downright bad for us and should not be eaten as they contribute to, or cause, a range of health problems. A colossal threat with this though is that the companies are able to patent their seed and if any trace of their genetic material is found in your crop (even through wild pollination!) you get sued for using their product without licence. How then do the thousands of subsistence farmers throughout Africa feel about seeds from the large corporates, Monsanto and their kin, being spread throughout Africa? I see trouble coming.

 

It is clear to me that our global society cannot continue tomorrow in the same manner that we are living and doing business today. Wild stocks have been harvested beyond the point from which many species can recover even if we stopped fishing for them. Massive global seed companies are commercialising agriculture to the point that they threaten the livelihood of the subsistence farmer and the commercial farmer who chooses not to use their products. Other resources such as natural forests are being denuded at an alarming rate to make way for crop farming, grazing or housing developments. But these forests are the lungs of the planet and without them we are already seeing significant changes in weather patterns, storm frequency and intensity, drought and flooding that many experts attribute back to the reduction of these forests.

This is not news, and on the positive side there is already is a strong move towards healthier diets, cleaner energy and reduced footprint on the planet, but I fear it is too little and too late. Too many of us have been sceptical or indifferent for too long, and we have passed the tipping point beyond which recovery is simple. The documentary film `The End of the line’ contains two priceless comments which sum up the situation: `compared to other problems this (rebuilding wild fish stocks) is relatively easy to fix’ and ` but man is not going to change and the sea is going to be dead’!

 

Given the rampant growth of the world population and the increasing shortfall in supply of foods, food cost will continue going up. This once again is not news and we each see in our daily lives how much it costs to feed our families. As feed prices increase people do look at alternative options that offer healthy food at an affordable rate, and farmed fish certainly is such an option. Tilapia was barely eaten in the formal sector in SA 10 years ago, now there is a growing demand for it as people have found marine fish to be unavailable, tried tilapia and found it to be a superb tasting fish. I do not believe that it will end there, as the economic conditions tighten, people will continue looking elsewhere, and `I put it to you’ that the ultimate answer is catfish (Clarias gariepinus).

 

The sharptooth catfish is probably the world’s ultimate aquaculture species from a technical and an economic perspective. They can be farmed at super high densities without the need for aeration as they are air breathing, and with a slow water exchange rate due to their high tolerance of metabolic wastes in their water. Furthermore they offer a better FCR than tilapia (we currently achieve <1:1 on our catfish) and they do well on a floating pellet, simplifying management. Growth is exceedingly rapid and they reliably attain 1kg in 6 months. Infrastructure cost is therefore relatively low due to the high stocking density, simply water reparation technology and fast growth rate this fish offers.

 

The net result is that catfish is the cheapest fish to farm. Their air breathing ability means they can be transported alive with minimal water, keeping them absolutely fresh until slaughter. Add to this the ability to obtain two long, boneless fillets off the fish and we have a winner. This fillet is very versatile and can be turned into a wide range of culinary delights, opening up the formal sector markets.  Finally, the flavour of catfish is fishy but only mildly so. As a lady on a marketing trial recently commented: `if I eat catfish I can go out visiting afterwards which I cannot do if I had eaten pilchards’.

 

Given that the demand for food is as big as it is, and given that catfish is such a fantastic and inexpensive fish, why then do we not see it more widely eaten? In Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda and more recently Hungary, catfish has already been recognised as a 1st class fish and in other parts it is slowly becoming more widely eaten. Some people will not eat catfish due to its lack of scales offending their religious code, whilst others simply do not like the appearance of the barbels or believe that they are eating a scavenger.

Whilst these may all be true to some degree, I predict that as the demand and price for food increases people will switch to eating catfish, and once they have changed they will see this is a great eating fish and it is a lot cheaper than the alternatives. I believe that catfish is the fish of the future!

 

 

 May 05, 2014
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