Posted at Business Mirror on Tuesday, 14 February 2012 19:43
DR. JOEBERT D. Toledo, the Filipino scientist who heads the Aquaculture Department (AQD) of the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Council (Seafdec), was candid enough.
Genetic manipulation, he said, is not yet acceptable to aquaculture production.
Ironically, Seafdec has been at the helm of major breakthroughs in aquaculture using biotechnology, if not on genetically modified organisms or GMOs.
In fact, Toledo said that Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala was amazed when he saw at the AQD center in Tigbuan, Iloilo how they harness the potential of the popular mud crabs.
Through biotechnology, Seafdec scientists were able to lessen the mud crabs’ cannibalistic traits and new feeds were formulated for these crustaceans.
Today, he said mud-crab biotechnology has become an emerging technology, and has been the subject of 40 scientific journal papers, most of which were published after 2000.
According to Toledo, they are encouraging their AQD technologies to be backed by scientists’ research and by peer-view papers in science journals.
For instance, he noted that the milkfish had 160 papers in science journals, with the first paper published in 1976 and the latest in 2006.
Now, Seafdec has focused on the expansion of bloodstocks of donkey’s ear abalone, once known to the Chinese as one of the “heavenly goods,” which has become very much in demand in the international market.
Seafdec hopes to improve the frequency of spawning abalones using biotechnology techniques and expand the rate of their growth under experimental conditions and eventually under grow-out conditions.
It’s the market demand that matters.
Obviously, Seafdec’s gauge for success is the commercial viability of their research.
Actually, the milkfish, our bangus, and the tiger shrimp were Seafec’s two pioneering commodities in aquaculture.
When he joined the Seafdec in 1980, Toledo recalled that he was immediately tapped to work on the agency’s bangus culture.
In that year, AQD just started a national breeding program in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture (DA.)
Today, Seafdec supports 16 hatcheries that have recently mushroomed as backyard operations.
These hatcheries were also the answer to the fry shortage a few years ago and are now indispensable to the growing milkfish sea-cage industry.
In the case of the tiger shrimp, which had become a sunshine industry in the 1970s and early 1980s, Seafdec managed to introduce the mangrove-friendly shrimp technologies developed and tested in the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
Like most research institutions, Seafdec’s ADQ, which turns 40 this year, also takes pride in having been able to sustain high-caliber scientists. Maintaining them at the agency, Toledo admited, has been a challenge to his administration.
When he was named to the top aquaculture post in 2006, Toledo, a Japan-trained fisheries expert, said they were only 20 scientists in the center.
Today, their number has increased to 40, including 26 scientists having completed doctorate studies.
Seafdec has also trained more than 7,000 people from more than 20 countries in 68 kinds of training course topics. Most of the trainees have gone on to positions of responsibility in their home countries and have represented their respective countries in Seafdec-hosted regional meetings and consultations.
Harnessing mass-production technology
WITH its track record, Seafdec gained recognition from grant-giving organizations.
Its collaborating partnerships have increased to 14 under Toledo’s term from only 8 in 2005.
The center’s financial support also ballooned to P25 million while the Philippine government’s support increased to P175 million annually.
Due to this, Seafdec has been able to strengthen its Laboratory Facilities for Advanced Aquaculture Technologies (LFAAT), or popularly known as the biotech lab,” which actually focuses on areas including molecular microbiology, molecular endocrinology and genetics, algae production and fish-feed technology.
Hundreds of studies have been done in the laboratory facilities acquired through a grant-in-aid by the Japanese government.
These studies have used biotechnology methods to improve broodstocks and prevent the spread of fish diseases.
Take the case of Seafdec’s study in improving the quality of seaweed stocks. Laboratory studies have shown that optimized laboratory culture conditions of the Kappaphycus may anchor the eventual establishment of facilities for seaweed mass production technology.
Toledo said that with the dwindling fish supplies from the wild, the region’s hope to minimize fishing pressure would have to rely on aquaculture.
He said that the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), along with other agencies, had set up about 50 mariculture parks, starting with milkfish and now with high-value marine fish species like the grouper, snappers, seabass and pompano.
Local Seafdec scientists have begun breeding the local catfish, which dwindled after the proliferation of the much- bigger Thai and African catfish.
“At first, the farmers didn’t want it because they’re smaller, but the premium there is that you can sell them at a higher price because they are tastier,” he said.
In partnership with the DA, Seafdec pushed for livelihood programs using science-based technologies with the local government units (LGUs) and their non-government organizations (NGO) partners through their institutional capacity development for sustainable aquaculture program
Seafdec also developed a program providing consultancy services for private entrepreneurs under the ABOT Negosyo or Agree-build-operate-transfer Aquabusiness.
In June 2011, senior ministers on fisheries belonging to the Seafdec’s 11 member-nations convened in Bangkok to work out on their action plan for the next decade.
“The challenge is how to sustain aquaculture without compromising the products. We also have to maintain environmental integrity, without compromising the environment in increasing production,” Toledo said.