An MBA graduate, an engineer, and a self-help group member – that’s the diversity of entrepreneurs taking up cage aquaculture in Odisha under the state’s Reservoir Fishery Policy. The cages of different dimensions and shapes are enclosed spaces with intricate net walls allowing the exchange of fresh water, with an opening on the top for feeding and maintaining the fish stock.
As part of a pilot project to augment freshwater fish production in the state, 96 entrepreneurs from across the state have taken up cage fish farming under the subsidised scheme. From these, 86 are in Hirakud, the world’s longest earthen reservoir.
With around 138 reservoirs covering an area of around two lakh (2,00,000) hectares, the state fisheries department plans to adopt advanced fish farming techniques for optimal fish production. Under the pilot project, the department plans to use only 1% of the total surface area under its control.
Odisha has one of the highest fish consumption populations in India. The per capita fish consumption in the state increased to 16.4 kg in 2019-’20 from 7.7 kg in 2000-’01.
In 2020-’21, Odisha produced 3.7 lakh (3,74,000) metric tonnes of freshwater fish with 7.7% share of reservoirs. However, to meet the consumption demand, the state continues to import freshwater fish. In 2019-’20, the state imported 46,273 metric tonnes of fish, an increase from 38,118 metric tonnes in 2014-’15.
Experts say that the gap between supply and demand can be bridged with the cage culture technique for fish production.
“Odisha has diversity in terms of fish consumption, but there is a net deficit of inland fish,” said Biraja Dwivedi, Deputy Director of Fisheries, Sambalpur. “We have tried multiple techniques like the tank system which produces 0.5 kg fish/cubic metre or bio-floc pisciculture which produces 5 kg-8 kg fish/cubic metre. But cage farming can assure production of 20 kg-40 kg of fish/cubic metre.”
Of the four major reservoirs in the state, the pilot project is initiated in Hirakud reservoir located in Sambalpur district.
At present, freshwater aquaculture in the state is by and large pond-based. However, there are limitations to growth in pond-based aquaculture. “There are often conflicting cross-sectoral demands for water and land and there is a huge capital investment required for pond-based aquaculture but without the adequate returns,” Arun Padiyar, a fisheries and aquaculture specialist and India lead of WorldFish, a non-profit focussed on sustainable aquaculture and fisheries. WorldFish is providing technical expertise to the state government in implementing the project.
“In a reservoir-based cage culture, the minimum production in terms of biomass is at least 20-30 times more. Even the quality of fishes is better because of the flowing water, as compared to ponds where the water is stagnant,” Padiyar said.
Experts and authorities envision cage aquaculture as a way promote entrepreneurship in aquaculture and create job opportunities for local youth.
Odisha’s new initiative is considered investor-friendly, environmentally sound, and socially equitable to be taken up by private entrepreneurs or companies in partnership with Primary Fishermen Cooperative Societies and self-help groups.
In 2020, under the state policy, cage culture zones were opened up in Hirakud and Indravati reservoirs for leasing to the private sector through Expression of Interest. Expression of Interest were invited from interested farmers and entrepreneurs for availing long-term leases for 5 years, extendable to a maximum of another 5 years.
“Hirakud is the longest freshwater reservoir, and we have seen that this huge freshwater resource has been lying unutilised,” said Saransh Pansari, an entrepreneur who started cage culture farming with his partner Bikash Sarada. “Five years ago, when the government of Odisha started cage culture in a public–private partnership model, we had been following it up for results. And as the results were positive, we took up this opportunity.” Pansari and Sarada were the first entrepreneurs to bring seed stock varieties. Together they have four sub-zones. One sub-zone can house 24 rectangular or three circular cages. For each sub-zone, the partners have invested nearly Rs 55 lakh (Rs 5.5 million) with a 30% subsidy from the state government.
Each sub-zone has a cage surface area of 600 sq m and can accommodate a maximum of 24 rectangular cages of 6 m length x 4 m width x 4 m depth dimension or three circular cages of 16 m diameter. In a rectangular cage, around 3,000 kg of fish can be harvested.
After a one-time investment, however, there are monthly expenditures too. For instance, salaries for three farm members including an aquaculture expert, feed for nearly two lakh (2,00,000) fish, fuel charges to ferry the boat, and other maintenance costs. The duo, however, is hopeful of returns. “This is the very beginning for us,” Sarada said. “But we have closely studied and researched cage culture. We have even visited other states where it has already been implemented, to understand the results. The fact that this is a part of the food industry, there will always be a demand to meet, ensuring sales and profit.”
In their rectangular cages divided as nurseries (for fingerlings with more density) and grow-outs (for matured fish with less number per cage), they are growing the exotic Pangasius catfish (Pangasius sutchi) and tilapia variety of fish.
Hardly a km away from their zone, another young entrepreneur Bidyut Biswal has invested in circular cages in six of his seven sub-zones. His cages are the only ones where Indian major carps are being harvested. Circular cages of 16 m diameter are considered more suitable for choppy waters with a wave and wind-driven turbulence for culture of Indian major carps.
“The production capacity is higher in circular cages and there is less maintenance. One circular cage has up to 25 tonnes of production capacity which is higher than rectangular cages,” Biswal said.
Apart from private entrepreneurs, the state government has also roped in a 40-member self-help group from Balbaspur village of Kilasama panchayat of the district to undertake cage fish farming. For over 20 years, since its inception, the the group has been involved in drying fish and floriculture. “We were provided an initial capital of Rs 30 lakhs (Rs three million) by the state government through the Odisha Livelihood Mission,” president of the group, Padmini Behera, said. “So far, there has been zero investment from our end. It’s been six months and we are expecting a harvest in the next three months. Only then can we gauge the profitability.”
However, for the self-help group, in the absence of investment from their own end, the sustainability of the project remains a concern. “This model is being tested. But we believe that it can be sustained with the support of an external investor who can partner with the self-help group,” Dwivedi said.
With a huge investment, the new technology continues to face challenges in terms of market linkage, sustainability, disease outbreak, poaching, and other input logistics. Cage culture for now relies on specific species which are not majorly found in local markets. “There is a need to create a market locally for these species,” Biswal said. “They are in demand in neighbouring states where we can eventually export the fish, but that adds to transportation cost as well.” He is yet to harvest his first batch of fish. The lack of processing units also poses a challenge.
For other inputs like feeds or seeds, the entrepreneurs depend on neighbouring states like Andhra Pradesh. “There is a lack of good quality feed for these species here in Odisha,” Sarada added. “So, we rely on feed from Andhra Pradesh. But this also creates an opportunity for us to diversify into fish feed to cater to the local market.”
In the first cycle, Pansari and Sarada lost 30% of their fingerlings to overfeeding. “At an initial stage due to lack of proper awareness, we overfed the seeds in the nursery, losing 30% of our stock. We made sure to hire an expert to also check any disease outbreak and control the mortality due to any internal or external factors,” Pansari said.
They have started harvesting their first batch.
The fisheries department is however planning to build additional infrastructures and also address the gaps in input by starting various units for better production.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.