The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, September 03, 2007



This is a cautionary tale about the dangers of literal translation and imposing Western cultural values on Indonesia. It's also a story about the hazards of aquaculture.

Almost a century ago administrators of the then Dutch East Indies established a complex of 44 big concrete tanks in the village of Punten (near the central East Java town of Batu), to be used for breeding fish.

The colonials chose the site well and built soundly because the hatchery is still operating, now under the control of the East Java provincial government. It's claimed to be the only government-run fish farm producing larvae and fingerlings for farmers in Indonesia

Thousands of big colorful fish splash through the constantly running water. They're ikan mas, said hatchery director Dewi Nur Setyorini. This translates as goldfish, and that sounded right, though many looked far too big to fit into a round bowl on the drawing room dresser.

These aren't just for decoration, they're also for eating, she explained.

Westerners with closed palates and minds find many kitchen practices in the archipelago strange, and some repulsive. The delight in dog-meat shown by people in North Sulawesi is particularly abhorrent for those who think eating man's best friend is on a par with cannibalism. (If you fancy some it's sold under the euphemism RW.)

Grilling the family goldfish is a mite less disgusting, though it ranks alongside barbecuing the budgie. Neither would make a decent meal.

Fortunately for the credibility of this story a check of the Latin name revealed that ikan mas translates more accurately as carp, a distant relative of the goldfish.

But we still weren't in clear water for in some Western countries carp have pest status. They're considered inedible because they're muddy-water feeders, have an unpleasant flavor (say the detractors) and their flesh is bony. They're also despised as a game fish.

That's the situation in Australia and parts of North America, but not Asia where carp is a much-favored dish. Which means that there's no accounting for taste, and that the Punten hatchery should never be short of local clients.

Provided it doesn't get contaminated.

A past record of business success is no guarantee of future prosperity. Dewi is well aware of the dangers because the hatchery doesn't control its own source of water and pressures from other users are increasing.

"When the hatchery was built in 1918 it was in an isolated area," she said. "Now we're surrounded by houses and farms. The river has to flow through 1,500 metres of other people's properties before it reaches us. The water is discolored, particularly after rain. Fortunately so far no problems."

Professor Rustidja who heads fisheries research at Malang's Brawijaya University and works with students at the hatchery agreed that the chances of disease or poisoning were significant.

Farmers upstream are supposed to notify the hatchery when they plan to use pesticides, but rivers in East Java are considered drains, the place where everything from human excrement to plastic bags can be dumped. Over-use of chemical fertilizers on riverside crops is raising nitrogen levels in many waterways.

"The hatchery was hit by a virus in 2001 that inevitably wiped out the whole stock," he said. When all tanks share the same water there's no escape.

"Sediment is already a problem and the tanks have to be regularly cleaned of sludge. We must be constantly alert to any changes."

At the hatchery the biggest and best carp are selected, three males to every female, and put in a breeding tank overnight. The females lay their eggs – 80,000 per fish - in a floating network of palm fronds.

These are then removed, the fertilized eggs are washed out and either sold or allowed to grow for sale as fingerlings. Another species produced is the gaping-mouth lele (freshwater catfish) that's as popular as chicken in roadside eateries throughout Java – and a lot cheaper.

The nursery runs workshops to help farmers understand the complexities of aquaculture and the opportunities for expansion. Although excavated ponds can be used these are prone to leakage and contamination. Concrete pools are more efficient and manageable, but the capital cost is high. Seacage aquaculture is reported to be getting more popular. (See Sidebar)

Where running water isn't available ponds must be regularly aerated using pumps and sprays, adding to the expense. The upside is that the market is huge and hungry, particularly as chicken prices rise. Fish provide the most important source of animal protein in the world.

The Punten hatchery, together with Brawijaya University is also experimenting with fresh water lobsters (also known as crayfish) as a possible commercial crop. These originally came from Australia, though two varieties found in Papua have also been used for research.

So far farmers who've tried growing the lobsters have not been impressed with results, reporting losses of up to 50 per cent.

"The potential is there because the lobsters fetch high prices," said Rustidja. "More research needs to be done on management. Other fish varieties, including seawater species like kerapu (groper) can also be farmed.

"The demand is certainly impressive. Unfortunately inquiries from up-market restaurants and exporters can't be met. That's because we can't yet guarantee consistent supplies of large quantities."


According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, almost 90 per cent of the world's fish farm production takes place in the developing world, with Indonesia ranking number two in output.

The fresh and salt-water industry is scattered across the archipelago with most enterprises small scale. Seacage aquaculture tends to be run by villages.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science has been working with Indonesian scientists to check the impact of seacage aquaculture on the environment and develop management guidelines. Most research has been done in Europe and North America – little in the tropics

If the farms aren't run properly pollution and disease may affect fish in the wild.

This is a major concern in Australia where the industry is tightly regulated. In Indonesia there are reported to be few controls and the seacage business is expanding rapidly.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 31 August 07)


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