Research with Sri Lankan fish farmers brings best practices home
A project supported by the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund (CIFSRF) is helping smallholder shrimp farmers in Sri Lanka adapt their industry's best management practices to local needs. This could lead to fewer disease outbreaks, bigger and more profitable shrimp, and fewer negative environmental impacts.
The opportunity: Reducing malnutrition, improving livelihoods
Aquaculture (the farming of aquatic animals such as fish, oyster, shrimp, and mussels) holds great promise for improving nutrition and reducing rural poverty in Sri Lanka. The industry is pivotal to the government's plan to increase the per capita consumption of fish from 11 to 22 kg to eliminate malnutrition in the country.
Aquaculture is also seen as a potential business opportunity for the rural poor in Sri Lanka, including women and those displaced by past civil conflict.
Yet, it hasn't always been embraced by development agencies because of conflicts over water and land use, high stock losses due to disease, and environmental contamination.
Led by researchers at the University of Calgary in Canada and Wayamba University in Sri Lanka, this project is demonstrating how shrimp farming and other forms of aquaculture can be sustainable—if best practices are effectively developed, shared, and implemented by farmers.
"Aquaculture can be a viable tool for poverty reduction and food security, if we can overcome the disparities in how farmers receive, share, and implement knowledge that can improve aquaculture practices," explains Craig Stephen, a professor at the University of Calgary's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.
The challenge: Communicating best practices to farmers
Disease, poor information sharing, and a lack of measureable targets for sustainable production are hindering efforts to reduce poverty through aquaculture. There is no shortage of generic best-management practices aimed at reducing disease outbreaks and improving sustainability and productivity. The problem is that few farmers have adopted them.
The project's research team found many reasons for this. Farmers don't always trust their suppliers to provide accurate information on the health of the fish. They may not understand the government's rationale for recommended farming practices or see how they are relevant to local circumstances. They may not have the money or the time it takes to implement the best practices. And, these practices are sometimes at odds with market forces. For example, hatcheries may offer discounts on lower quality larvae with a higher risk of disease.
Getting farmers to accept and implement best practices is perhaps the biggest challenge and this is where the project is making real progress. It needed to find an easy way to quickly share the right information with farmers when they need it most.
"The government has invested a lot of money to make sure that the economic outcome from aquaculture is stable. Spending a bit more on effective communications links only makes sense if you want to have a lasting impact," says Sevvandi Jayakody at Wayamba University's Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries.
Advice farmers can use
With the support of the Sri Lankan government, linkages have been established between government, shrimp breeders, farm-zone leaders, and academic experts. Not only does government share information with farmers, but feedback from farmers is helping the research team and the Ministry of Fisheries transform 26 generic best-management practices into policies, plans, and actions for dozens of small regions throughout Sri Lanka. These localized best practices take into account a farmer's language, culture, gender, production cycle time, and local circumstances.
The approach signals a fundamental shift in how best practices are developed and implemented. "We are finding that they are adopted by farmers when combined with good communication mechanisms and support from government and other stakeholders," says Prof. J.M.P.K. Jayasinghe, also at Wayamba University's Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries.
The approach, adds Sevvandi Jayakody, strengthens a community's ability to make decisions on aquaculture. "Ultimately, it's the farmers who decide what actions to take with their operations, so they need to understand the potential impacts of those decisions."
Real-time environmental alerts
The project found that disease outbreaks and other industry problems could be avoided or minimized, if only farmers were alerted to problems early. In response, researchers launched a mobile phone trial in February 2012 with shrimp farmers around Chilaw, the main shrimp-farming centre in the North Western Province.
As soon as officials learn of a local disease outbreak or a sudden change in water quality, farmers receive a text message advising them on immediate steps they should take to avoid or minimize losses and environmental impacts. Farmers can text back questions and visit a website for additional information.
"This is time-sensitive information that needs to be disseminated quickly to a network of farmers so they can respond quickly," says Tim DeJager at the University of Calgary's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. "If farmers know there is a disease outbreak in place X, they can take immediate precautionary measures to help limit the spread of disease."
The final results from the trial is still being analysed, but early results indicate it is having an impact. Mobile alerts enabled aquaculture farmers in one district to identify a hatchery as a probable source of a disease outbreak on farms. Stopping further distribution of post-larvae from this hatchery helped limit the spread.
Next steps: Measuring to improve management
An additional challenge is the government's difficulties in measuring the industry's progress toward sustainable production. The problem is not specific to Sri Lanka: of the more than 2,000 scientific papers found on aquaculture, not a single one had a comprehensive method to measure the effect of policy decisions on the social, economic, and environmental sustainability of aquaculture farms, especially smallholder farms.
Researchers are working to change that. They are developing the first-ever tool to measure and benchmark sustainability at the farm level for aquaculture in Sri Lanka. It will help policymakers develop the management practices with the greatest impact.