The Indian Subcontinent – A Cradle Of Aquaculture

By Tarun Shridhar September 29, 2021

Aquaculture is a traditional activity in Southern Asia Region, particularly the Indian subcontinent. The earliest examples of aquaculture were raising fish in homestead ponds primarily for family consumption.

The Indian Subcontinent – A Cradle Of Aquaculture
The Indian Subcontinent – A Cradle Of Aquaculture.

Fishing, in some ways, is akin to the vocation of primitive man many centuries ago, hunting the fish that nature provides, just as our ancestors hunted animals for food. But over a period of time, we have learnt to farm the seas, rivers, reservoirs and assorted water bodies as we do the land. We cultivate aquatic animals and plants, especially fish, shellfish, and seaweed, in natural or controlled marine or freshwater environments. This is what precisely defines aquaculture; simply stated, aquaculture is underwater agriculture.

Besides food, breeding and cultivation of aquatic animals and plants for ornamental use is also now a well-established economic activity widely distributed around the world. Even the ferocious crocodiles and alligators are commercially farmed in some countries for their hides and meat. However, there is a lack of reliable data on the production of such unusual ornamental aquatics. Even the sparsely available data on farm raised crocodiles is in number of animals rather than weight. For obvious reasons, these animals are excluded from the discussion in this article; our unflinching focus being aquaculture for food and the resultant livelihoods.

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According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), world aquaculture production recorded an all-time record high of 114.5 million tonnes in 2018. The total farmgate sale value of this product is pegged at US Dollars (USD) 263.6 billion. The major share of this total production consisted of 82.1 million tonnes of aquatic animals, basically fish and crustaceans, worth USD 250.1 billion, 32.4 million tonnes of aquatic algae valued at USD 13.3 billion and 26,000 tonnes of ornamental seashells and pearls (USD 1,79,000). The global aquaculture production has been growing on average at 5.3% per year during the current century till 2018. Aquaculture production has progressively surpassed that of capture fisheries. “Farming more than hunting/catching” has been the globally acknowledged strategy for enhanced fish production to meet the ever-growing requirement and demand for animal protein. However, despite the increasing output from global aquaculture, farming of marine fishes is yet to overtake marine capture production even though capture fishery has been demonstrating either declining or stagnant trends all over the world during the past decade or more, while fish farming or aquaculture has been registering an impressive growth.

The growth of inland fish farming has been much better than marine aquaculture, especially in the South Asian Region. In 2018, inland aquaculture contributed 51.3 million tonnes of aquatic animals, accounting for 62.5% of the world’s farmed food fish production. The share of finfish in this production gradually reduced from 97.2% in 2000 to 91.5% (47 million tonnes) in 2018, reflecting the increased pace of growth of other species, particularly crustacean farming in Asia, including shrimps, crayfish and crabs. Inland aquaculture production of shrimps includes significant volumes of marine species such as the Litopenaeus Vannamei, commonly known as the whiteleg shrimp, grown in brackish or freshwater.

Traditional activity

Asia shares a whopping 77.05% of the world aquaculture production, with China, contributing 57.93%, being the undisputed leader by miles. India with a share of 8.61% and Bangladesh at 2.93%, though far behind China are the other global aquaculture giants; the rest of Asia produces 7.58% of the world total. Therefore, quite evidently, besides China, it is the Indian Subcontinent which is befittingly called the cradle of aquaculture.

Aquaculture is a very traditional activity in the Southern Asia Region (SAR) in general, and the Indian subcontinent in particular. The earliest examples of aquaculture were raising fish in homestead ponds primarily for family consumption. Post-independence, India and Bangladesh laid emphasis on the development of modern aquaculture. Specialized institutions catering to aquaculture promotion were established and community associations were organized to undertake collaborative fish farming. International development agencies and FAO also played an important role in the transfer of technology and policy development in the region to promote aquaculture. Subsequently, domestication of Indian Major Carps (IMC), the introduction of other carps, mainly Chinese carps and common carp, development of shrimp farming with its tremendous trade potential, introduction of Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia (GIFT) and the introduction of the Pacific white leg shrimp, Litopenaeus vannamei catapulted the sector into big league. Bangladesh and India have been the biggest beneficiaries of these developments. Over time these countries have not only emerged as global leaders in aquaculture but also consolidated their position in the global fish trade.

Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives, the other nations in the subcontinent besides Bangladesh and India, are not being discussed in the present article as the size of their aquaculture has still not attained any significant proportion to make a substantial impact upon the performance of the sector in the region.

Aquaculture, especially pond culture, is a widespread traditional activity in Bangladesh. Drawing upon traditional skills, favourable climate, and adequate land availability, Bangladesh has emerged as the 7th major producer of aquaculture globally, sharing nearly 3% in production. In the case of freshwater carps and crustaceans, Bangladesh is the third-largest producer in the world. Freshwater aquaculture is the mainstay of aquaculture in Bangladesh and constitutes about 91% of the production, while brackish water aquaculture constitutes 9%. Carps comprise 54% of the total aquaculture production. The growth in carp farming, however, seems to be slowing down. In recent years, tilapia production, which contributes about 12% of the total aquaculture production, is growing rapidly. Bangladesh has had major success in developing the GIFT or Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia.

India’s spectacular growth

India is the second largest producer of farmed fish in the world after China and accounts for more than 8% of global aquaculture production. India’s share in global production has increased steadily from about 6% in the 2000s to 7% in 2010 and now to above 8%. The aquaculture sector has also recorded significant growth during the past decade, recording a consistent increase of 8% or over during the period.

The spectacular growth of Indian aquaculture owes a lot to the research and development support it received from the beginning of the planned development in the country, i.e. from 1950-51 onwards. Some of the earliest initiatives in this regard date back to the mid-fifties, when work on breeding of India Major Carp (IMC) species such as catla, rohu, and mrigal was undertaken at the Cuttack Research Station of the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI). In the early seventies, the full package of practices for raising IMC as a profitable business was ready for transfer to the farmers. While the package was being readied for transfer, India had also introduced three exotic carps, common carp from Hungary, and silver carp and grass carp from China. Thus, a technology using six species mix of IMC and exotic carps and labelled as ‘Composite Fish Culture’ or CFC was released for extension amongst fish farmers under an All India Coordinated Research Project on Composite Fish Culture (AICRIP-CFC) during the decade of the 1970s. Our inland or freshwater aquaculture is supported by this strong foundation.

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The significant shift observed in India during the recent period is the growing importance of brackishwater aquaculture. India is traditionally a freshwater aquaculture country with a historical record of fish farming in the private and community tanks/ponds. As of now, freshwater aquaculture contributes to about 88% of the total farmed fish production in India. However, of late brackishwater aquaculture production has been progressing at a relatively much higher rate and its share in total production has increased from around 3 % ten years back to more than 12% at present. In absolute figures, freshwater production has declined to the current level of 88% from 96.26% in 2010. The data, even though not too reliable, is an eye opener. Freshwater production has increased at an annual average rate of growth of 6.09% while brackishwater production has increased at a growth rate of about 65% during the same period. Marine aquaculture is still at a nascent stage in India having negligible contribution.

The Indian Major Carps (IMCs), catla, rohu and mrigal constitute about 58% of the aquaculture production in India. Traditional knowledge and domestic preference coupled with early innovations (e.g. Jayanti rohu) contributed to the successful growth of these species. The growth in brackishwater aquaculture is synonymous with the growth in Litopenaeus Vannamei, whiteleg shrimp production in India, which now is a major export commodity growing at nearly 50% per annum.

As of now, India is the largest producer of IMCs and the second-largest producer of white leg shrimp in the world. Capturing about 26% of the global trade, we have also emerged as the biggest shrimp exporter in the world.

Since wild or capture fishery is under constant and irreversible threat of extinction, a shift from hunting fish to farming fish remains the only future of fish: for food and nutritional security, and for securing livelihoods in some of the poorest parts of the world. Asia and the Indian subcontinent hold the comparative advantage.

 (The author is former Secretary, Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying, Government of India)