The marine fisheries surrounding the half-island of Timor-Leste account for over 90% of the country’s total fish production. But capture fisheries alone will not be sufficient to meet the country’s growing fish demand.
In response, the Government of Timor-Leste is looking inland to boost fish supply, by encouraging rural families to farm fish for home consumption and commercial scale.
Since 2014, the five-year Partnership for Aquaculture Development in Timor-Leste project funded by the New Zealand Aid Program, has been supporting rural households with quality fish seed to grow improved tilapia and giving training in better management practices.
The project is led by the National Directorate of Aquaculture with assistance from New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, WorldFish and Tisbe, a New Zealand-based consulting company.
“Tilapia aquaculture has the potential to boost national fish production, which will help reach our fish consumption target of 15 kg per person each year in 2030,” explains Horacio Amaral Dos Santos Guterres, National Director of Aquaculture, referring to the government’s National Aquaculture Development Strategy (2012-2030).
Access to fingerlings has been a major barrier to aquaculture development in Timor-Leste.
Despite five government hatcheries operating across the country, their combined output of less than 50,000 fingerlings annually was insufficient to meet growing farmer demand and the quality of the fingerlings was low.
“Through increased tilapia production, households can earn a higher income and access more nutritious foods, which is much needed in Timor-Leste because rates of malnourishment and poverty are high” - Acacio Guterres, Director General of Fisheries and Aquaculture
In late 2015, the project refurbished and upgraded the government hatchery in Gleno, Emera, with improved technology to increase its production capacity.
Hatchery staff were trained in tilapia hatchery management and seed production, and broodstock of the fast-growing Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia (GIFT) was imported from WorldFish, Malaysia.
Previously, Gleno hatchery was producing 10,000-20,000 fingerlings a year.
In the first four months of operations since relaunching in January 2016, the hatchery produced and distributed over 300,000 fingerlings of GIFT to over 500 farmers across 11 municipalities.
“The introduction of improved GIFT brood fish and hatchery technologies has significantly boosted the quantity and quality of fingerlings production and distribution in a very short time,” says Mr Adriano Dani Fernandes du Karmu, Hatchery Department Chief.
Fertilized eggs are collected in weekly intervals, incubated until they develop to fry stage and nursed in net enclosures known as hapas for six weeks until they are ready to be stocked in grow out ponds (3 -5 cm size fingerlings).
“Because of the improved access to quality fingerlings, communities have become enthusiastic about rearing fish, especially tilapia, which is well-suited to the growing conditions in Timor-Leste,” explains Acacio Guterres, Director General of Fisheries and Aquaculture.
“Through increased tilapia production, households can earn a higher income and access more nutritious foods, which is much needed in Timor-Leste because rates of malnourishment and poverty are high,” he adds.
A key aim of the hatchery is to maintain the genetic quality of broodstock, thereby ensuring that the inherent productivity gains of GIFT are preserved.
Currently, fingerlings are provided free of charge to any household with a fish pond, to support the growth of the burgeoning aquaculture industry. In the future, the National Directorate of Aquaculture is considering selling the fingerlings to farmers at a maximum of three cents per fingerling, with any profits reinvested into the hatchery for running costs and development.
To help farmers realize the on-farm benefits of GIFT, the project is providing modular training for one production cycle following a farmers’ field school (FFS) approach to households engaged in aquaculture in Ermera, Baucau and Bobonaro districts.
These sessions, co-facilitated by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and I/NGO staff, are synchronized with ongoing aquaculture activities in the farm so farmers can immediately apply knowledge and skills acquired from the training.
For Leonor Mendonca from Palimanu hamlet, Ermera, the training was eye-opening.
The mother-of-nine first started farming fish in 1994 for household consumption and to make an income. Despite her over two decades of experience, she followed traditional methods that often produced low yields, a common outcome for many Timorese fish farmers.
“Through the training we learned a lot about how we should change the way we farm fish,” she says.
“We learned that we should dig the pond to be 1.2m deep, with a total area of at least 100 m2. The pond should have an inlet and outlet for the flow of water. We also learned how to make feed by using locally-available ingredients.”
Now, since stocking her ponds with GIFT seed and following good practices, she is hoping to realize a fish production of at least double compared to her previous years' results.
Leonor has been using the money from farm-gate fish sales to supplement her income from vegetable farming, which covers her family’s household necessities.
To help farmers’ find a bigger market for their surplus fish, the project has also started to establish relationships with local supermarkets, schools and prisons.
By encouraging households to grow and consume more fish in Timor-Leste, the project is helping combat malnutrition, improve food security, increase income and reduce poverty for poor and rural households.