VIABLE market, social equity and environmental awareness are among the key factors to consider before fish culture in the 70,000 sq km Bakun Lake - about the size of Singapore - can be successfully implemented.
CIRAD (French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development) unit leader Dr Jerome Lazard made this observation in an interview after his recent trip to the lake site, some 60km west of Belaga in the central region.
Accompanying him were Lirong Yu Abit, Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) assistant technical researcher, and Stephen Sia, general manager of Wargana Consortium Sdn Bhd, contractor of the fish farming project at Bakun.
Dr Lazard, who is adviser to Wargana, had led a team of UPM researchers on an initial study of the lake, and they found the environment and the water temperature suitable for tilapia farming.
He said from their data on water quality and fish species, it is feasible to carry out fish culture there.
“Many people would be asking why we have opted for tilapia and not other indigenous fish in the area. This is because tilapia is among the easiest and most profitable fish to farm. It’s quite popular and, most importantly, has a huge international market.”
Dr Lazard said during his recent visit to Kuching, he had met with Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Alfred Jabu on Bakun aquaculture development.
According to him, Jabu, who also holds the portfolios for Infrastructure Development and Communications, and Rural Development, is eager to know more about the progress of the fish farming project under Wargana and has expressed support for the development of fish culture at Bakun.
“The minister recognises the big challenge is generating continuous economic activities in the area, particularly through aquaculture.”
Dr Lazard said looking at global supply of wild fish stock, tilapia was the second group, after carp, being cultivated on huge scale with production reaching about 2.5 million metric tonnes a year. Salmon is third.
“Just imagine how big the demand is for tilapia in the world market. To fully tap Bakun’s economic potential, this is something worth considering.”
He also noted the insufficient fish supply to the local market due to low fish culture production by locals.
“This is where they have to start thinking about commercially viable products that are acceptable to both local and international markets. Indigenous fish would probably be acceptable only in Malaysia.
“Besides, local species are not fully ready yet. More research is needed on their artificial breeding, nutritional requirements and culture strategies.”
Another criterion is social equity. Dr Lazard said fish farming should not only benefit the big players but must also involve all levels — small, medium and large — of the industry.
He is hopeful the project at Bakun can benefit some 15,000 people in the area, especially with sizeable private sector investments.
“For the project to be sustainable, the key factors are involvement of the local population and training for them.”
After several visits to the ponds in Asap and Batang Ai, Dr Lazard realised the need to upgrade the technical level of the fish farming sector in the state to ensure competitiveness in the global market.
“This is a must otherwise small-scale operators will not survive. I hope training can start soon and the training centre must be close to the lake.”
On environmental issues, he said one of the state government’s requirements was implementation of project with minimum negative impact on the surroundings.
According to him, this is vital not only for success of the project in the short term but also for its long-term operation to improve the socio-economic status of the local population.
“Therefore, it’s important to take water samples from the lake regularly to prevent ‘eutrophic’ water that causes poor water quality. This is to safeguard production.”
On rearing tilapia, Dr Lazard assured it is environmentally safe, saying since the species had been introduced to tropical countries, its biology and farming techniques were much easier to understand and learn in contrast to other indigenous species whose suitability for commercial aquaculture needed more R&D (research and development).
“UPM is drawing up a list of indigenous species for further research,” he added.
Dr Lazard also said the environment around Bakun Lake would change dramatically after the hydroelectric dam was closed, so there must be continuous research on the fauna as some species might vanish while some might evolve.
Among the indigenous species with good market price are labang (pangarius hiewen-husii), empurau (tor tambroides), semah (tor duoronensis), baung (mystus baramensis), tengadak (puntius swcanenfeldii) and mengalan/tengalan (puntis bulu).
“However, these species are not yet familiar to markets outside Malaysia. They have to be promoted to maximise their market potential. Also, they have to be tested first before they could be commercialised. In future, we will try to produce new species for the market,” he pointed out.
Dr Lazard said tilapia could be sold when they reached 500gm. The biggest specimen was recorded in Africa at 4.5kg but he believes the fish could grow up to 5kg.
He hoped the state government would continue to facilitate R&D on fish culture in the state, suggesting that subsidies or credit be extended to small-scale fish farmers or operators.
He proposed training to upgrade the skills of these people so that they could improve their productivity and the quality of their products.
Dr Lazard said adequate support was important to the success of a fish farming venture.“There is a need for reliable supply of fry, feeds and other essentials to the operators to ensure consistent flow of products to the market.”
He said locals into fish farming could do their bit by setting up ponds and processing their own feeds but first, they had to be trained and exposed to the business.
Dr Lazard hoped tilapia farming would become a cornerstone for commercial fisheries in state to benefit especially the people at Bakun.