The city of Croix des Bouquets (pronounced 'quad ah boo-kay') is hot, and dry wind whips through, distributing a small film of dust on everything. There, outside a bustling police station, Val pulls up
next to us in a Toyota Hilux and instructs us to follow him, which takes us just outside of town, past half-built cinder-block walls and over grooved roads. Eventually, we make a left into the Caribbean Harvest Foundation's tilapia hatchery where clean rows of metal hatchery ponds brightly reflect the Haitian sun, and whose overall presence after leaving the chaos of Port au Prince seems so foreign that it could be Haiti's Area 51. Without getting out of the truck, however, I can tell from the organization and cleanliness of this operation that something good is going on here.
|Hundreds of thousands of hybrid tilapia are produced annually at the Caribbean Harvest Foundation's tilapia hatchery near Croix des Bouquets. (Source: Steve Midway)|
We quickly exchange handshakes with Dr. Abe, who is eager to show us around his hatchery operation. Corrugated metal walls encircle individual hatchery ponds about 20 feet in diameter, of which there must be over 30 uniformly placed throughout the hatchery compound. Val is expecting to talk with my hosts about the possibility of building some homes in Croix des Bouquets, so he grins with enthusiasm when he finds out that they have a fishery biologist (me) in tow.
We walk back about 4 or 5 rows into the matrix of ponds and Val begins to speak over the wind, "These fish are brood stock—we are using them to produce eggs and hatchlings."
A few small, light-colored shapes are barely visible through the pea-green water. Darting around closer to the surface in the neighboring pond, however, small pink hatchlings look like Christmas lights. Val then continues to tell us about the operation, namely that they rear both Israeli and Egyptian species of tilapia. Although Israeli tilapia are a freshwater species more suited to the lakes of Haiti, the salt-tolerant Egyptian species have faster growth rates, a trait incredibly important to any fish farming operation. By creating hybrids Val can customize the variety of tilapia depending on the lake in which it will do most of its growing.
Val also mentions that the hatchery produces several thousand fish a week, although this fact is not hard to believe staring out at row after row of ponds. Val then walks us through the bio-filtration system that operates on the hatchery and is eager to note that the filtered waste from the facility is donated to nearby farmers, who have not had to invest in or use conventional fertilizers since this donation program began.
|Egyptian (red) tilapia have fast growth rates and prefer saltier waters. (Source: tradenote.net)|
The pond waters are thickly green and I ask how much phytoplankton make up their diets. "They can live on it but they don't grow well," says Val. "We feed them fishmeal in order for them to achieve the growth rates that make this operation work. It's one of our largest expenses."
Of course, the fishmeal needs to be imported, like everything in Haiti. Later, Val would explain to me that they tried to use fruit pods of a local tree for fish food, which would considerably reduce feed costs, but the high fiber content of the pods meant that not much of the feed was being retained.
Several attentive Haitian workers are keeping busy while we finish the tour, and by the end, my first impressions are confirmed: the Caribbean Harvest Foundation is running an impressive operation in a country where challenges are a way of life. Val could simply raise the fish in the ponds, which would probably reduce mortality from transportation and provide him with more control over their growth. He could then sell the fish to Haitian fish markets, or use them as a source of protein for Haitians who lack proper nutrition. He could do that—but he doesn't. He probably wouldn't have been included in TIME magazine's top 100 most influential people of 2010 if he did that.
Instead, the fish—each carefully customized 2-inch fingerling—will be loaded onto a truck and transported down barely-passable roads to Lake Azuei, Haiti's largest freshwater lake just a few miles from the hatchery facility. Villages along the lake are poor, even by Haitian standards, which qualifies them as some of the poorest places in the world. Fishing used to be main economic activity there, but the lake is now empty. There are no jobs, no schools, no medicine, and sometimes no food. But Dr. Abe and his tilapia are changing that.
Check back next week for the final part to this series.