After relishing a decade of tremendous growth in production, Ghana’s tilapia farmers have been hit with severe setbacks in the last two years.

The first blow came with massive fish kills on the lake Volta in 2018 as a result of an infectious disease outbreak. This high fish mortality, according to the Fisheries Commission, were caused by a new bacterial introduction of the Streptococcus agalactiae (type 261), whose DNA is of Asian origin, as well as a combination of bacteria with other parasitic pathogens.

In 2019, the Volta river was again plagued by an Infectious Spleen and Kidney Necrosis Virus (ISKNV), which continued to crash the industry. According to the Fisheries Commission, as much as 150 tonnes of tilapia were lost by just one farm.

These mortalities and the subsequent closure of farms by the regulators, brought a severe impact on the industry and the livelihoods of farmers. ‘Bad news’ regrettably affirmed its long standing position as a best seller when news of the series of mass tilapia deaths began to cause fear and panic about the safety of tilapia from even the unaffected farms.

Thus, the several unaffected farms were not spared of this heavy blow. Purchase and consumption of tilapia began to decline drastically to compel most farm owners to either fold-up their investments or down-size their workforce. According to Dr. Peter Ziddah, a Fish Health expert at Ghana’s Fisheries Commission, the challenge being faced by the sector is a reminder of the crucial importance of biosecurity and sustainability measures.

He asserts that poor biosecurity measures are exposing most farms to this tragedy. In a 2019 study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and CSIR-Water Research Institute (CSIR-WRI), the attention of stakeholders was drawn to this biosecurity and other factors making these farms vulnerable to diseases.

Poor sanitation and biosafety measures and poor aquaculture management practices were emphasized as the major problems exposing farms to diseases in the report. The study further warned that the productivity, profitability and survival of farms will continue to be threatened if measures are not put in place to improve sanitation and biosafety and general farm management practices.

Following the declaration of the wholesomeness and safety of products from these farms by various local and international laboratories, the Ghana Aquaculture Association and other stakeholders tirelessly drummed home the report findings to allay the fears of consumers, restore calm on the market and save the industry from total collapse. Just as the industry began to bounce back from the crashes, COVID-19 reared its ugly head.

As a result of COVID-19 and its related restrictions, most farms, are reducing further their workforce and operating under their production capacities. The need to provide stimulus for industry players has become crucial to ensuring the recovery of the industry, boost productivity and increase profitability. For Dr. Catherine Ragasa, a Senior Research Fellow of IFPRI and project lead on the TiSeed , a lot can be done to save the situation and alleviate the suffering of farmers through the provision of technical support to distressed farmers.

To this end, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is leading an effort in helping small scale Tilapia farmers to promote the adoption of best aquaculture management practices for increased productivity. Dubbed the Ghana Tilapia Seed (TiSeed) project, IFPRI in collaboration with CSIR-Water Research Institute, Fisheries Commission, KIT Royal Tropical Institute of Netherlands and WorldFish has set off with a series of interventions geared towards accelerating the development of the aquaculture industry in Ghana.

Dr. Catherine Ragasa

Seeking to enhance knowledge capacity of fish farmers for increased management performance among small scale Nile Tilapia farmers, the project between July and August 2020, provided handholding technical training to 227 fish farmers and Fisheries Commission (FC) zonal officers from selected Districts in the Bono, Bono East, Ahafo, Ashanti, Eastern and Volta Regions to help them scale over the current challenges. facilitators took turns to address challenges including pond and cage preparation before stocking, feeds and feeding, water quality management as well as harvest and marketing strategies.

Fish farmers were also introduced to the following; social media platforms such as whatsapp group, facebook, online links to project sites (IFPRI and WRI platforms), as well as a newly developed mobile app. The mobile app serves as data depository, solution platform for fish health, water quality and other production challenges a farm might have, marketing platform, where quantities and price of harvested fish are displayed for prospective buyers to easily make real time contact for direct trade.

Hatchery operators also have been equipped with technical skills in best hatchery practices, broodstock management, mass fingerling production, records keeping and tiered certification system. Touching on the expected outcomes, Dr. Seth Koranteng Agyakwah, a Research Scientist and the lead of the local consortium partners in Ghana at the CSIR-WRI, expressed optimism about the adoption of best aquaculture practices, improved biosecurity measures and reduced fish health problems, improved farm management practices and increased fish production.

According to Dr. Agyakwah, the project beside these hand-holding skilled trainings, is rolling out a mobile application to assist farmers to capture and track their records as well as receive regular farm management tips. In addition to this mobile app initiative, which has been well received by farmers, the project is seeking to improve access to high-quality fingerlings and reduce mortalities associated with transportation.

To this end, hatchery/farm certification protocols aimed at ensuring adoption of best aquaculture practices towards production of high quality seed and safe fish, and establishment of fingerling nurseries especially in remote areas are in the process of being implemented.

Already, the implemented actions are firing up most industry players especially women and youth, to get onto the highway of recovery from this recession which has bedeviled the aquaculture industry since 2018. “I was on the verge of stopping fish farming, but this training has urged me to go into it again,” said a farmer in Sunyani. “We are grateful for this capacity building opportunity and would be pleased to have more periodically conducted to help us have fresh ideas to improve our practices and productivity,” said a farmer in Dormaa.

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The writer works with the Centre for Fisheries Communication