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Tiny Fish May Play Big Part in Feeding Hungry

Times Staff Writer

Robert Feldmeth is about to take 500 tiny fish from Claremont to the Amazon jungle in Ecuador, where he hopes they will help end hunger in the Third World.

At the same time, hundreds more of the new strain of a fish called tilapia will be introduced in Cameroon, in western Africa. There, the cultivation process that Feldmeth developed has the promise of becoming a new industry.

For now, tilapia are growing in laboratories at Claremont McKenna College and at the nearby Bernard Biological Field Station of the Claremont Colleges under the watchful eye of Feldmeth. Feldmeth is a botany professor and director of the school’s Natural Resources Center.

The center, one of seven research institutes at the school, works toward conserving natural resources in a growing, changing society.

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Feldmeth said he has studied fish that thrive in warm water for 20 years.

“And then I wondered how I could use all that basic research that would be of some value to society,” he said.

He worked on developing a tilapia hybrid and designed small solar-powered fish farms that can be set up in remote villages where people suffer from shortages of proteins.

“I think we’re onto something big here,” said Brent F. Howell, chairman of the board of governors of the Natural Resources Center.

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“The inspiration that Bob Feldmeth brings, his research and his knowledge are going to be important contributions to feeding Third World populations,” Howell said.

Males Grow Fast

The new tilapia species produces males that grow fast in warm, brackish, saline water. According to Feldmeth they taste good, are immune to diseases and are easily and cheaply cultivated, using mostly local water sources and plant supplies for food.

Tilapia, native to Africa, have been well known for centuries and some species are found as far north as the Jordan River, he said. Although the fish is not commonly known in this country, several commercial fish farms are experimenting with it.

The University of Arizona’s Environmental Research Laboratory also has successfully experimented with tilapia. A species, called blue tilapia, that is raised in the laboratory has been sold to local markets and restaurants, a university spokesman said. Last year, the university entered into an agreement with a private company to develop a commercial fish farm project that is expected to produce several millions of pounds of tilapia for commercial consumption in Arizona.

The hybrid that Feldmeth and some of his students have produced has the potential of thriving in tropical areas around the world, he said. Many of these places, such as Amazon villages in Ecuador, have been depleted of fish and game by growing populations that face malnutrition because of severe shortages of protein.

“It looks like maybe we can make an inexpensive protein available to a large number of people, and this could be a very valuable and important project,” Feldmeth said.

Look Like Perch

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He said tilapia resemble perch, and they grow to a marketable 1-pound size in six months. Each provides about 8 ounces of white meat that tastes best when the fish grow in plastic tanks, rather than natural streams and ponds, Feldmeth said.

He and student researchers have developed the tanks, solar-powered heating and filtering systems, inexpensive food and chemical growth stimulants--the necessities for small fish farms. Now he is beginning the construction of greenhouses at the Bernard Field Station, where he plans to build the first farms that will be a model for those in Third World countries.

The fish thrive in crowded conditions--400 in a tank 8-feet square and 2-feet deep.

“The only thing they can’t stand is cold,” said Feldmeth, who lost 1,000 experimental tilapia in January’s freezing temperatures when a solar heating system at the field station broke down while he was away.

In June, Feldmeth plans to take basic equipment for a fish farm and 500 starter fish to a village in Ecuador. That farm system will divert naturally warm local streams into tanks where the fish will be raised. The project will require no power for heat and filtering. The plan calls for giving the grown fish to villagers who are too poor to buy other food.

Smoked and Sold

In Cameroon, another fish farm will be established by an associate of Feldmeth. This one is designed to use well water and some local power sources, as well as solar systems. The fish are to be smoked and sold, providing employment for natives.

“I think this is a project that would work anywhere where there is enough solar energy to keep water warm enough in winter,” he said.

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Feldmeth said that to get permission to export the fish and set up the farms, he has to ensure that tilapia don’t escape into new environments. The only apparent problem with the fish is that they are so adaptable they take over new habitats and have been known to compete with natural fish.

Feldmeth began the fish farm project with a $10,700 grant from the Lindbergh Foundation of Minneapolis. He has received $50,000 from the Banbury Fund of New York, which gives scientific research grants.


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