The Future of Fish

A research-fueled revolution is transforming how we eat seafood


January 1, 2021

By David Baker

Traffic on the road north from the Bangladeshi capitol of Dhaka to the city of Mymensingh is a system of organized chaos. Six lanes of vehicles squeeze onto a two-lane highway. Battered busses swerve around rickshaws and trucks barrel toward parting crowds of pedestrians. It’s a white-knuckled ballet of dodges and near misses mediated by a series of honks and hand gestures, but with the grace and synchronicity of a school of fish.

Perhaps that’s why aquaculture researcher Hillary Egna seems pensive and relaxed as she stares out the window of our microbus at the frenzy of traffic in one of the world’s most densely populated countries. But then she’s been working in developing nations around the world for more than three decades, so she’s seen it all before.

We are on our way to Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU), which has had a longstanding tie to the AquaFish Network, which grew out of a USAID-funded series of programs Egna directed at Oregon State University, where she is a professor of fisheries sciences. AquaFish and its precursor programs have played key roles in the transformation of Bangladesh’s aquaculture industry. Egna’s here to check on the progress of programs she helped establish and to oversee the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the two institutions, adding one more link binding researchers from both countries, together.

“None of this was here,” Egna says gesturing to unfinished concrete high-rise buildings out the window. The ground floors appear long inhabited while the top floors sprout crowns of rusted rebar to indicate either further ambition or a loss of funds. “When I first started coming 30 years ago you could still see signs of the war. You could see people with missing limbs. Now you can see that people have food. They’re taller.”

Hunger and malnutrition are problems Egna has dedicated her life to solving. At 10, she saw a magazine story depicting the plight of hungry children. At that moment she decided to dedicate her life to feeding the world.

But the path she chose is unique. Instead of focusing on political or economic tactics to address hunger, she decided to explore a relatively new agricultural field of farming fish. In the 1970s, the practice of growing fish for mass consumption was in its infancy. Historically, raising fish had been more of a hobby, an ancient art form and a curiosity, not a full-fledged industry. When she began her journey in this field, less then 5% of the seafood that humans consumed was farmed. Today, more than half of the fish we eat come from aquaculture systems. The World Bank expects the figure to increase to 60% by 2030 as wild fish stocks decline and aquaculture continues to evolve as a science and global enterprise.

At OSU, Egna has served as both principal investigator and director for a series of USAID-funded programs with a goal of developing sustainable aquaculture that improves food security while also advancing environmental and human health. The programs have included collaborators in more than 30countries. More than 1,600 students connected to the programs have received degrees, and 30,000 people have attended workshops or received short-term training as part of the programs. Egna also helped create advanced degree programs focused on aquaculture at universities in Ghana, Kenya, Nepal and Mexico.
But perhaps nowhere in the world has seen such a dramatic aquaculture transformation as Bangladesh. This low-lying country is wedged between India and Myanmar. It’s the size of Iowa but home to 180 million people. It’s a country defined by its waterways. It contains the world’s largest river delta and is crisscrossed by some Asia’s mightiest rivers that converge in the Bay of Bengal. It’s not surprising that this is a fish-eating country. Fish is a delicacy and a staple. Bangladeshis celebrate festivals by eating hilsa, their national fish. It’s served fried, mashed or dried and made into a paste to provide a preserved protein. But with a population explosion that has only recently begun to taper off, the wild fish resources have been taxed, and Egna found Bangladesh hungry for new sources of aquatic protein.

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Fish markets like this one in Mymensignh now sell almost exclusively farmed fish.

When she first arrived seeking research partners to help grow the industry in Bangladesh, she was met with skepticism from the international development community and from NGOs. But she did find one willing partner: a BAU researcher named Abdul Wahab, who she met through connections in Thailand. Wahab is a fisheries scientist whose aquaculture enthusiasm matched Egna’s. Together they developed some of the first fishponds on the BAU campus. Now after further generations of collaborative projects, plus several generations of scientists (Egna calls Wahab the “grandfather of aquaculture in Bangladesh”), the country’s research-driven industry has become a global leader, ranking fourth in the world in fish exports.

MANNA FROM HEAVEN

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Hillary Egna and Abdul Wahab began their work together nearly 25 years ago with a project to build BAU’s first research ponds.

Out the window of the microbus, the fishponds are multiplying. They’ve replaced the cityscapes and form a checkerboard spreading to the ruler-flat horizon. Egna assesses the health of these ponds as they flash past. Iridescent green indicates good levels of phytoplankton, a primary food source for the farmed fish. Darker, soupier ponds thickened by algae are less productive, as are the clearest ponds. The beauty of this style of animal farming is that the primary food of many species of fish grows organically in the process. “This is low-input farming. Maybe you throw in a little phosphorus to stimulate plant growth, but then you add the fish and it’s a self-sustaining system. It’s like manna from heaven,” Egna says.

Sustainability attracted her to this form of farming. Aquaculture can be extremely efficient, requiring far less feed to produce a kilogram of fish than beef, pork or chicken. And the fact that the industry is in its infancy presents an opportunity. “We have a chance to do agriculture right, this time,” she says. Her aim is to find a way to feed hungry masses without the massive environmental costs of other agricultural intensification practices that require more feed, chemicals or fertilizers, all of which can foul freshwater resources. This is something that is especially important in a low-lying, riverine country like Bangladesh, where waterways are the arteries that connect the nation and give its people their identity.

To keep sustainability at the forefront of the industry, the research that Egna and her collaborators have conducted needs to find its way to fish farmers. That’s why Egna’s programs have included outreach to teach farmers how sustainability and productivity can go hand in hand. And true to form, we interrupt our trip to BAU to check in with a local producer. Soon we’re pulling to the side of the road in front of a low-slung cement building surrounded by ponds ranging from chartreuse to mud brown. It’s a commercial farm that has thrived alongside the industry’s growth. Egna steps out to meet the owner, Shamsul Alam Badal, who wears a dress shirt and slacks and sports a trim mustache that makes him look more like an accountant than a farmer. He welcomes her into his office for tea and sweets in formal gesture of South Asian hospitality underlain with genuine respect and appreciation. Egna’s reputation clearly precedes her. Flanked by colleagues from BAU, Egna grills Badal on his practices, successes and challenges, sharing a lively exchange before he leads the group on a tour of his ponds. She comes away impressed by how he’s managed to grow his business. He’s not only producing fish, but he’s also providing seed for small aquaculturists in the region, a way to diversify his offerings

Badal leads the growing caravan across the road to a market jammed with buyers, wholesalers and auctioneers. Farmers unload fat fish from tanks or stacks – like cordwood – in the back of trucks. Piles of fish spill off of scales under tents. Growers haul crates through the crowd and stack them onto tables. The sound of auctioneers barking prices rises above the clamor. Grinning men proffer fish proudly for Egna to photograph with her smartphone. She grins back, the bustle of the market offering clear evidence that aquaculture is working in Bangladesh: unlike markets in years past, all these fish on display today have been grown by farmers, not caught by fishermen.

As we wade through the crowd, a shirtless man pulls a tilapia the size of a small dog off of his truck bed. He cradles it like an infant, petting it and grinning with teeth stained brown from chewing betel nuts. He’s not trying to sell us the fish: he’ll find a buyer soon enough. He merely wants us to admire it. Our team gathers around him to oblige, the awe over the size of the fish genuine. His grin grows with evident pride.

PARTNERSHIPS: PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

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Future scientists see aquaculture as one of the best ways to contribute to their country’s growth and development.

It’s only 112 kilometers from the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka to Mymensingh, but because of traffic and a few detours, the journey takes us eight hours. We arrive on the BAU campus to find a reunion where professor Abdul Wahab holds court. Like Egna, he is a returning celebrity, having left the university to head Bangladesh operations for an international NGO, WorldFish, based in the capitol of Dhaka. Wahab’s former students are now senior faculty, and they’re accompanied by their graduate and undergraduate students, all of them studying in new degree programs in aquaculture.

The USAID-funded programs Egna directed weren’t specifically designed to build university programs, but it is something extra that she has always included in her work. She explains that such institution building “was never something we were funded to do, but if we want aquaculture to succeed over the long term, there needs to be robust programs in place to develop future generations.” Encouraging universities around the world to invest deeply in aquaculture is perhaps Egna’s most lasting legacy.

A kilometer away from the river there is another chessboard of greenish pools. These are the university’s research ponds. A sign from the first USAID project that Egna started marks one of those ponds, and here Egna and Wahab meet to reflect on their work together over the decades. A good-natured dispute arises as the pair jabs index fingers at one another. But it’s not with accusation: each is insisting that the other is the true pioneer who sparked the aquaculture revolution that has catapulted Bangladesh to a leading role in global exports.

Across the pond we conduct interviews with the next generation of aquaculturists, a group of students studying for their master’s degrees in aquaculture. Maybe it’s the long and even evening sun, which is ever the camera’s friend in the tropics, or maybe it’s the inherent, hopeful glow that these students exude, but there’s a golden aura of hope hanging in the air. One by one we ask them why they chose to study in the field of aquaculture. They all give earnest variations of the same answer: “because I want to do something for my country.”

The following day we’ll witness the signing of a new memorandum of understanding between Oregon State University and Bangladesh Agricultural University. That formality is the latest milestone that belies the long history of partnership between two universities, two nations and two passionate scientists. But Egna’s and Wahab’s greatest contribution will always be the young scientists they’ve inspired to follow them into a future that’s bolder, better fed and more sustainable than anyone would have imagined three decades ago.

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