Aquaculture management has taken Andrew Kaelin from shrimp farming in Panama in the early 80s to advising US sweetener firm Stevia Corp. on its latest developments, in a career arc which mirrors the evolution of aquaculture itself.
Nowadays aquaculture is a scientific undertaking, where fine-honing techniques can mean extra millions in revenue. When Kaelin got started in the industry, it was a different story.
“There's always been a certain amount of 'boom' mentality, of 'goldrush' mentality,” he told Undercurrent News, as part of the latest seafood entrepreneur interview.
“Aquaculture has developed a lot, and there's certainly been an improvement in techniques. Best practices have developed, and disease management has become a major part of this, as has sustainability,” he said.
Best aquaculture practices have come on leaps and bounds, he continued, particularly the sourcing and use of seed and feed - how you grow fingerlings, fry and larvae, and how good your feed conversion ratio is - "All of that is much more scientific compared to the early days, and it's a lot more competitive”, said Kaelin.
Aquaculture has also improved in respectability, even if this is not the case in everybody's eyes.
“The shrimp farmers were always the ones blasted for mangrove destruction, when in fact they were responsible for a smaller percentage than human settlement, or charcoal. They managed to sort that out.”
Scottish salmon farmers too deserve some positive press for the techniques established there, he added.
From crude beginnings, aquaculture is now at a point where detailed scientific research can significantly change the outcome of farming.
Kaelin is seeing this first-hand, after being appointed an adviser to Stevia Corp.'s new fish feed development project.
The agribusiness firm has said while it will take a while to solidify the products and guarantee their results, it expects to see its probiotic, enzyme and general fish health extracts become a key earner in the future.
Africa's aquaculture future
"The next big aquaculture push is in the developing world. Africa is an area with untapped resources, it's the 21st century developing area"
The improvement in sustainability of production, moving from growing as much as possible, as quickly as possible, to a viable commercial business, is the biggest change, and one which means aquaculture in developing countries can improve rapidly.
Kaelin has spent much of his career advising the management of aquaculture in developing countries, and is responsible for the developing country program of the International Coalition of Fisheries Associations (ICFA) – a branch of the National Fisheries Institute.
“The next big aquaculture push is in the developing world,” believes Kaelin. “Certainly in central and south America, aspects have been well exploited – shrimp, salmon, fresh tilapia. But Africa is an area with untapped resources, it's the 21st century developing area.”
One of the themes of developing African fisheries has been exchanging wild capture, artisanal fisheries for aquaculture, something ICFA are looking at more and more.
Kaelin first arrived in Africa looking at concentrated pelagic fisheries off the coasts of Morocco and Mauritania, and it is fisheries like these that have gradually been replaced with more sustainable forms of seafood production.
“In terms of fish as an important food source for developing countries, you need to look for the million metric ton species,” he said.
“You look where they're indigenous, what grows well, where the demand for it is...those are the species that are important as food.”
He pointed to abalone in South Africa, and African catfish, as examples of successful, advanced aquaculture projects.
“Then there's tilapia, which came out of Lake Victoria and the Nile. They have tremendous potential to be food fish in Africa, and they can be produced,” he said.
"I do a lot of aquaculture consulting in the developing part of the world because I feel it's important - especially best aquaculture practices"
The 'million metric ton' species are where the advancement and potential lie, he said. Tilapia, salmon, shrimp, pangasius, and a few wild capture species are the fish that will feed growing populations.
“In China it was incredible, before the poultry industry came along it was the pond culture of carp. I always called it the chicken of China - when I started working there in 1989 they were producing seven, eight million metric tons of carp. They had an enormous contribution to feeding that massive population. That's what you need, and there's only so many of the million metric ton species left.”
Practitioner and consultant
After achieving a bachelor of science degree in marine zoology at the University of Miami, and a master's degree in International Management from Thunderbird School of Global Management, Kaelin found himself weighing up projects with economic potential to manage.
He chose shrimp farming in Panama, starting as he has largely gone on – working to develop fish production in developing parts of the world. Between 1983 and 1989 he managed this, before consulting with the World Bank on Chinese aquaculture.
“I've worked as a consultant for many years, I do a lot of it the developing part of the world because I feel it's important - especially best aquaculture practices.”
Since then he has started his own seafood company, AIS Aqua, which produces, processes and imports seafood from China, Indonesia and Panama. It has been a major supplier of scallops and shrimp to chains such as Darden Restaurants.
Kaelin's 2013 will largely consist of putting his various skills to the test with Stevia Corp.'s aquaculture products. Management, trials, certification development, packaging and marketing – aquaculture has come a long way from a 70s shrimp farm in Panama.