The Potential of Community-Based Organizations in the Development of the Tropical Fish Industry in Sri Lanka

Author :

Kapila Tissera

Mr Kapila Tissera is the leading Sri Lankan expert on ornamental fish aquaculture. Having graduated with a specialization in Ichthyology and Aquaculture from the Astrakhan State Technical University of the former USSR, Mr. Tissera gained experience in aquaculture and extension work during his tenure in the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources in Sri Lanka. His marketing skills were honed during his training in international trade at the CBI, Netherlands. He gained further experience in the international marketing of seafood products and live tropical fish during his tenure at the Sri Lanka Export Development Board. Mr. Tissera’s work experience ranges from Uzbekistan to Los Angeles and India in tropical fish production and marketing. He is also a well-known speaker in international forums on tropical aquarium fish farming technology and has published numerous academic works on the subject. He currently works as an independent aquatic industry consultant.

Ornamental fish farming has a role to play in providing jobs, being a significant promotable sustainable industry sector and inputting into the economic development of nations. Sri Lanka has an ornamental fish farming presence which needs support and nurture to provide employment and contribute to livelihoods in developing local economic ecosystems.

Tropical and ornamental fish farming involves the rearing of attractive, colourful fishes of different varieties and characteristics in a confined aquatic system. Keeping colourful tropical fish in home aquariums and garden ponds is a popular hobby spread worldwide. Tropical fish provide excellent companionship. The décor and the feeling of having a piece of nature in your living room is unmatched by any other pet-keeping hobby. Specialists aver that watching a well-kept aquarium and its calmly swimming inhabitants can lower your heart rate and stress levels.

The markets for pet fish are essentially in the developed countries in the West. The year-long warm weather, lower labor and associated costs has made it more competitive to produce these fish in tropical countries and then exporting them to markets in the West. The ornamental fish industry is therefore polarized into end markets in the developed western countries and suppliers in developing countries of the Tropics.

After a strongly felt blow to the international trade in tropical fish due to the 2008 global recession, the industry returned to a developing path. An increase in the “work from home” workforce and decrease in international travel and other outings due to the recent pandemic seem to have boosted the global tropical fish trade during the last few years. The global annual turnover of ornamental freshwater and marine livestock was valued at USD 5.4 billion in 2021 and is anticipated to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.5% from 2022 to 2030 thus doubling in revenue to USD 11.3 billion.

Ornamental Fish Data

The major markets for tropical fish are the United States of America and the European Union (EU). Within the EU, Germany, Netherlands, and France are the larger markets. According to statistics from the International Trade Center, the year 2021 saw twenty countries importing 80% of the global trade in tropical fish, and thirteen countries contributing to 80% of the global supply. Countries like Singapore and the Czech Republic are primarily importers and re-exporters.

Hence, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Israel can be considered the competitors in this commodity, with Viet Nam coming up fast in the significant suppliers’ list.

Being a lush tropical island 645 km north of the equator, Sri Lanka boasts a wide range of colorful and playful tropical fish. Their habitats range from the pristine freshwaters of mountain streams through rivers, lagoons, and estuaries to the rich blue Indian Ocean. The geographical makeup of the island within elevations of 0 to 2,500 meters above mean sea level creates several climatic zones where the average atmospheric temperatures range from around 35 0C to 10 0C. These conditions and the availability of the softest to quite hard-water sources within the country have made it a cradle for a wide variety of indigenous and endemic tropical fishes and an ideal location for commercial production of exotic tropical fishes.

The interest in tropical fish in the country dates to the 1930s. Mr. Rodney Jonklaas, a biologist, passionate diver, tropical fish enthusiast and a pioneer in the Sri Lankan tropical fish industry, recognizes the collectors and enthusiastic breeders of the early 1930s as the beginning point of a hobby that later developed into a thriving industry.

Until the post-World War II development of civil aviation, passenger steamers were the mode of transport for tropical fish from Asian sources to European destinations. Wild specimens collected in the streams, lagoons, and ocean were the main varieties of fish exported through these means. However, the formation of Lumbini Aquaria in 1952 by Lloyd Perera and Gratian Peiris was as a turning point in producing farm-bred fish for exports together with the popular wild-caught varieties.

The initiation of open economic policies in 1977 in Sri Lanka was a significant factor in making the country’s tropical fish industry enter the global markets. The formation of the Sri Lanka Export Development Board (SLEDB) and its decision to include tropical fish farming in the list of non traditional export products for active development assistance by the State was a historical decision that made Sri Lanka a global competitive player in this industry.

The few exporters involved in the industry in the 1970-1980 period were exporting wild-caught fish from the streams and the ocean, and it was the goal of the SLEDB to change the product mix to at least 80% of farm-bred fish and to reduce the wild-caught component to around 20%. The SLEDB focused all its inputs on financial, technical, and marketing assistance to tropical fish exporters in achieving this objective. SLEDB’s assistance to small and medium-scale fish breeders to improve the quantities and quality of products to meet international standards paid for itself by increasing the number of different farm-bred varieties reaching the export trade. While exporting companies could develop their farms, the SLEDB also attempted to encourage large-scale corporate bodies to enter this field. During these assistance activities, a significant revolution in the industry was that Lumbini Aquaria, then run by Mr. Vibhu Perera, the son of its founder Mr. Llyod Perera, took a bold decision to move production activities to the grass-root level in remote rural areas. The Government offered agricultural land to the new generation of farmers in a fast-developing river diversion scheme to irrigate the drylands. Mr. Vibhu Perera, Managing Director of Lumbini Aquaria, quickly saw the developing opportunities and started an outsourcing program in this area where he offered fish seeds to farmers to be grown to market sizes with a buy-back arrangement. This activity became the turning point in tropical fish production in Sri Lanka, which until then was limited to the vicinities of exporting companies, to become a countrywide self-employment opportunity creator. Based on the success of this initiative, the SLEDB conferred “Pioneering Industry Status” to Lumbini Aquaria in 1985 with a handsome cash award.

The training, financial, and marketing assistance offered by the successive governments together with the outsourcing programs operated by large-scale corporate bodies in the industry ensured that the number of self-employed breeders rapidly increased to a few thousand in the rural areas. The National Aquaculture Development Authority (NAQDA) offers technical and financial assistance to these small and medium-scale tropical fish producers. The extension officers of NAQDA have been active in encouraging the formation of these community-based organizations for organizing the disbursement of financial assistance. They also are instrumental in organizing loans and grants to the rural tropical fish farmers. It is discouraging that these Farmers’ Organizations (FOs) lose momentum once the financial assistance schemes are over. Although the Covid lockdown and the current socio-economic situation in Sri Lanka have affected the activities of the FOs, they have the potential to play an active leading role in the further development of the tropical fish industry in Sri Lanka.

As a significant aspect of change in thinking, the FOs should empower themselves by taking the responsibility for the development and growth of the tropical fish industry. Once the FO identifies the needs to ensure sustainable growth of its members, it can become the instrument for collective bargaining and requesting government assistance to develop projects. The FO would need to provide the quantum of increase in their incomes and the timelines of operations as Key Performance Indicators in order to obtain State or other development assistance.

The tropical fish industry involves many species with their colour varieties and strains in popular demand in the global markets. Therefore, a collective of producers such as an FO can decide the species and varieties they would produce among themselves to prevent an oversupply of a given variety thus preventing a price competition that would eventually bring the supply price to marginal levels. A well-organized FO armed with marketing information can organize a profitable product mix for production within the area of their operations.

Currently, restrictions on foreign currency movements are a significant concern of the Government. However, several imported items play a critical role in producing tropical fish. In meeting this challenge, the authorities can give a Foreign Exchange value to the total fish sold to exporters by the collective membership of the FO every quarter. Based on the exchange value created by the farmers, the FO should be permitted to import the essential production inputs either directly or through an established importer. The FO can then sell the imported products to the membership at a reasonable price. Thus, the FO would play an essential role in supplying the essential imported requirement to its membership.

A feature of modern technology is that it improves at a rate faster than ever before. The FO should be able, if necessary, with external assistance, to undertake an audit of the production methodology used by their membership and compare it to the available technology and process improvements in the industry.. The FO can encourage the adoption of some the improvements  to minimize the technology gap through seminars, workshops, expert visits, and Government assistance.

The FOs can accomplish many valuable activities in aspects of marketing. There are some characteristics specific to the global trade in tropical fish. The exporters/suppliers have to inform the availability of stocks to receive an order. The orders are generally repetitive if the exporter’s quality, price, and service are acceptable to the importer. It is a live product, and when the exporter has to make several purchases within a given area, the fish stay in bags until they arrive at the exporter’s facility. Thus the fish first-in spend almost a whole day in bags during a collection trip. The fish are exhausted when they arrive at the exporters’ facilities.

Establishing a central collection centre in areas where several suppliers operate would be a good practice. The collection centre operator can harvest fish from peripheral projects, check for diseases, treat it if necessary, prepare them for travel, carefully pack, and deliver to the exporter. The collection centre becomes an aggregator, quality inspection unit and a distributor thus providing valuable one-stop end user connectivity service to the FO. The FO would be an ideal caretaker if it owns the minimum facilities to operate a central collection center. The FO can produce a detailed forward availability list to exporters based on the type and quantity of fish in the production lines of its members. This activity can ensure a just-in-time harvest and supply system that will benefit both the farmer and the exporter. The exporter can pay a nominal fee to the FO as he benefits from this service. They could train or employ one of their personnel to be in charge of such a center. By identifying the different varieties to be produced by the individual farmers within their organization, the FO should try to become a one-stop-shop for the exporter in the long run.

A properly run Farmers’ Organization can be a valuable center for collecting and storing relevant data in the country’s tropical fish industry. From varieties and types of fish produced and sold, contributions to local and export markets, changes in price structure, and many more aspects of the tropical fish industry can be collected easily by the FO from its members. Thus, the FO can become an essential juncture in a Geospatial Database; the country should be developing in the long run.