Fishing for sustainability in Haiti

December 10, 2009

When Bill Mebane presented a paper on his work with fish ponds in Haiti at the annual agricultural conference of ECHO (Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization) in December, he was achieving one of the goals for next steps in this ministry. Mebane wants to disseminate what he and his colleagues have learned about sustainable tilapia farming to others working to address hunger among poor rural people.

Mebane, a member of Church of the Messiah, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, has been the key bridge between the Marine Biological Laboratories (MBL) at Woods Hole and CODEP, the comprehensive development project of the Haiti Fund.

Originating in the First Presbyterian Church of New Bern, North Carolina, 20 years ago, the Haiti Fund enjoys ecumenical support and partners with Episcopal congregations in the Cormier Valley, about 20 miles southwest of Port au Prince, Haiti, where CODEP work is focused.

At MBL, Mebane serves as the superintendent of the Aquaculture Engineering Division of the Marine Resources Center. His work involves the systems that keep alive marine organisms used in research, as well as helping design experiments.

"The fish project now seems to be carrying its own weight, and the people are raising fish without much help from us," he reported. "This was our original goal, to create a sustainable way for them to raise fish without our, or anybody's, help. They have learned the methods and are doing it."

Mebane gives the example of Mme. Inez, one of the farmers, who in late 2008 sold enough tilapia to pay three children's school fees for one year and buy an 88-pound bag of rice. Twenty-eight pounds of fish had grown from the seven ounces of fish with which the pond was stocked. Harvests like this occur about every six months, related to Haiti's two rainy seasons.

Steps to success
But such success was not always so. About 50 fish ponds had been built, with the idea of growing a local protein source. But they depended on imported fish food.

"Importing fish food is not only expensive, it is very hard to keep the food from getting contaminated in the tropical climate," recalled John Winings of CODEP. And, Mebane said, depending on mission staff and volunteers to transport the fish food to an area of political and climate instability was unreliable. An attempt to have those tending the fish ponds make pelleted fish food themselves proved difficult because of the time involved for people consumed by subsistence tasks like gathering water and wood for cooking fuel.

Because CODEP knew Mebane and his skills in aquaculture, they approached him about the problem. "It was very frustrating for people," recalled Mebane. "The fish weren't growing. The ponds weren't producing."

After some study visits to the project in Haiti, Mebane thought it might be possible to promote fish growth working with the natural environment. He and his colleagues at the MBL proposed composting in the ponds to stimulate algal blooms. They built a tropical greenhouse at the MBL, recreating the temperature and humidity of those found in Haiti, so they could test their ideas.

"As a result of these efforts, the time period from concept to field trial and field success was very short," Winings said.

Called periphyton algal technology, the method requires increasing the substrate in fish ponds, for example by placing palm fronds or bamboo. Then materials like papaya leaves, collected manure, table scraps and waste from legumes grown for food are placed in a big basket, like those used to carry bananas, and partially submerged to provide nutrients for the periphyton.

"This works like a giant tea bag," said Mebane, "and the periphyton, a mix of plant and animal planktons, starts to bloom," growing on the substrate and providing food the tilapia would eat naturally.

"It won't support the density that fish pellets will," he noted, but it uses waste available locally to produce high-quality protein and requires less time and effort.

Future goals
"I think they've done a fantastic job," said Matthew St. John of Episcopal Relief and Development, which has been cooperating with CODEP. The average family in the developing world spends 60 to 70 percent of its income on food, so efforts such as Mebane's that help develop the local food supply sustainably are critical, he said.

The fish ponds form part of the bigger picture of CODEP's efforts, which began with a goal of reforestation. The extensive use of wood for cooking fires contributes to deforestation. When erosion from tropical storms follows, it creates a situation in which rural agricultural life becomes unsustainable. CODEP responded with a scheme to reward the planting of fast-growing shade trees, which reclaim land for planting vegetable gardens and coffee and fruit trees.

The next goal for Bill Mebane and his coworkers from MBL is to help reduce the burning of wood by introducing small cook stoves that burn ethanol. Traditional open-wood cook fires are inefficient and pose health and safety hazards, as well as cause deforestation, Mebane said. So-called "smokeless stoves" would be another piece in the puzzle of helping Haitians improve and sustain the quality of life in their rural communities.

Asked why a scientist gets involved in faith-based development, Mebane reflected: "We all have talents. That's the biggest thing. So many times our talents get consumed by what we do every day, by the noise of making a living. But we are all fellow travelers on this planet."