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Breeding improved prawns in India

Genetic Improvement of Freshwater Prawn (India)
Project leader
Raul Ponzoni
1 Jan 2012
31 Dec 2012
India has enormous freshwater and low saline brackish water resources that can be utilized for freshwater prawn farming. Since the mid-1990s, production of the giant river prawn (Macrobrachium rosenbergii) has boomed, making India the second largest freshwater prawn producer in the world. Over recent years, prawn production has been declining, threatening the ongoing success of the prawn industry, and the livelihoods of the communities it supports. The Genetic Improvement of Freshwater Prawn project aims to safeguard the future of the prawn industry in India through the establishment of a selective breeding program for high quality prawn stock.
Compared to fish, freshwater prawns can fetch a high price in the marketplace, making them an attractive option for aquaculture producers. However, farming of prawns in closed systems can present a problem when it comes to ensuring the genetic diversity of the population. Repeatedly sourcing the next season’s parents (brood stock) out of the previous generation’s growth ponds leads to inbreeding and a reduction in productivity. Prawn industries in Thailand and Taiwan have also fallen victim to the disastrous effects of inbreeding that the Indian prawn farmers are experiencing.
One solution to the genetic decline of prawn stock is a concerted effort to breed improved varieties with greater productivity, while retaining genetic diversity. Selective breeding has been applied to a range of livestock species, resulting in high-yielding breeds of a majority of farmed animals. This is in stark contrast to the situation for aquatic species, where less than 10% of the world’s aquaculture production is derived from genetically improved stocks. This project is therefore at the forefront of scientific advancements being introduced into the aquaculture industry. 
The project continues an ongoing collaboration between WorldFish and the Central Institute of Freshwater Aquaculture (CIFA) based close to the eastern Indian city of Bhubaneswar. In 2007, the collaborators established a much-needed genetic improvement program or the giant river prawn. To ensure genetic diversity, wild prawns were collected from three geographically distant and ecologically distinct regions – Gujarat in the west, Kerala in the south, and Orissa in the east.  From these base populations, selective matings followed by careful analysis of the resulting offspring is expected to yield a high quality, fast growing prawn strain after several generations of selection. The project utilizes the latest quantitative genetics techniques to select prawns for production traits, while preventing inbreeding.
As the project progresses, a better understanding of the genetics of the giant river prawn will emerge. By measuring prawn physiology and development, researchers will be able to assess the effectiveness of the selection strategy being implemented, and modify processes as required.  After several generations of selection, the improved strains will be field tested in on-farm evaluations. These evaluations will take place in a range of culture environments, enabling researchers to better understand how environmental and genetic factors interact to produce quality prawn varieties suited to different regions.  This will ensure that the improved strains generated by the project will be suitable to aquaculture producers across the industry.
The project is expected to positively impact the lives of many in the aquaculture sector. With small-scale producers comprising the bulk of the freshwater prawn industry, and numerous opportunities for employment of women in the sector, the repercussions of a failing prawn industry could be devastating. Conversely, the potential economic and social benefits from the success of the genetic improvement program are enormous. By preventing further declines caused by inbreeding and focusing on the improvement of production traits, the project is helping to maintain a thriving industry that can provide prawns to both the domestic and export markets, and support the livelihoods of thousands.