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In Haiti: feed the fish, then the people

By Lori ValigraContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / December 4, 2003

Sweet and flaky tilapia often graces the dinner tables of Americans, surpassing trout as one of the most popular fish to eat. But in its native tropical habitat in countries like impoverished Haiti, the tilapia often remains a runt - as malnourished as the local people.

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Some American researchers hope to change that. Working with local missionaries in the L'Acul area of Haiti's northwest coast, some 40 miles from Port-au-Prince, the scientists are trying to increase the fish's weight substantially, from 10 grams to about 450 grams. Their secret weapon: a nutritious fish-food pellet made from local Haitian tree leaves.

Their aim is to produce about a one-pound fish, almost half of which would be edible animal protein, a key ingredient missing from the average Haitian's 800-calorie daily diet. Haiti - one of the poorest countries in the world, where 80 percent of the population lives in poverty and 70 percent are unemployed - represents a key experiment in using seafood to alleviate human hunger in the world.

The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Mass., which is directing pellet production for the Haiti initiative, hopes to expand the program to other islands and impoverished nations.

Currently, some 800 million people remain undernourished worldwide. Seafood-improvement programs could boost and diversify their food stocks, scientists say.

While tilapia grow quickly in hatcheries when fed properly, in Haiti their only food source is algae and surrounding vegetation or bugs that might fall into the water.

Commercial fish food sent to Haiti spoils rapidly because of heat, lack of refrigeration, and difficulty in transporting it to rural mountain areas. Another problem: When commercial food arrives from other countries, some Haitians eat it instead of giving it to the fish.

"Typical commercial fish foods made here in the States are probably more nutritious than anything down there that they would be able to eat," says Bill Mebane, superintendent of the aquaculture engineering division of MBL's Marine Resources Center. "A lot of our fish food has a very high percentage of animal protein in it, as it's primarily made from fish meal."

The marine lab got involved in the program through Mr. Mebane's parents at a church in Pennsylvania that helps missionaries in Haiti.

The missionaries, Rodney and Sharyn Babe, have worked for the past 10 years to reforest the L'Acul area with nitrogen-fixing trees that also would enrich the soil.

Vegetarian pellets

Large parts of Haiti suffer from tree depletion and soil erosion, because the local population strips away anything that can be used as firewood. Three trees that grow naturally in Haiti have high nutritional value, and they can be used to make feed pellets for the tilapia locally.

The plant-based pellets aren't as palatable as imported commercial feeds, and can cause illness in people who try to eat them. The trees used to make pellets - Calliandra, Leucaena, and Moringa - have been successfully reestablished.

Mebane and his colleagues, Rick Goetz, leader of the program in aquaculture at MBL, and Scott Lindell, manager of aquatic resource services at the marine lab, already have made several formulas of test pellets.