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.
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.
“The inspiration that Bob Feldmeth brings, his research and his knowledge are going to be important contributions to feeding Third World populations,” Howell said.
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 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.
Best in Plastic Tanks
He said tilapia resemble perch, and they grow to a marketable 1-pound size in six months. The fish provides about 8 ounces of white meat that tastes best when it grows in plastic tanks, rather than natural streams and ponds, Feldmeth said.
In June, Feldmeth plans to take basic equipment for a fish farm and 500 starter fish to a village in Ecuador. The plan calls for giving the grown fish to villagers who are too poor to buy other food.