By Patricia Grogg*
HAVANA TIMES, May 20 — Known for devouring anything that crosses its path, and even “biting people,” the claria (Clarias gariepinus) is stirring great controversy in Cuba, but when transformed into a fillet, it is eaten with pleasure on the family table.
The species, also known as the African catfish, was introduced in Cuba in 1999 with the aim of breeding it in freshwater ponds. However, the abundant rains that fell in 2001 and 2002 from hurricanes Michelle, Isidore and Lily caused the fish’s dispersion throughout the entire country. From that time on, a thousand stories feed its bad reputation.
The allegations against the fish range from its being “tremendously ugly” to “it eats anything.” Moreover, people are frightened by the fact that it can slither across land, taking advantage of its rigid fins and slithering body. The worst and most serious accusation is that it can wipe out other species, thereby placing the ecological balance in danger.
Something like that may have occurred in a lagoon on the El Retiro farm in Cárdenas, some 150 kilometers from Havana. Since the arrival of the claria, there are no other fish, nor even ducks or geese for that matter. Workers on the farm accuse the invading species of having eaten those birds’ hatchlings.
“But the fillet of these fish is good, so we have to figure out how to raise them in mass quantities in ponds on farms. In that way we would contribute to greater food preparedness,” said Raimundo García, director of the Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue, who is responsible for the El Retiro project.
The introduction of exotic species figures among the main causes of the loss of biological diversity in Cuba, in addition to the “weak integration between conservation strategies and the sustainable use of biodiversity and economic development activities.”
For environmentalists, the problem is not so much that the claria is “exotic,” but that regulatory mechanisms and control are not always error-free, and that environmental disasters are extremely difficult to reverse.
The United Nations decided to dedicate this upcoming May 22 as International Biological Diversity Day out of concern over exotic invading species, a tremendous threat to biodiversity and the “ecological and economic well-being of society and the planet.”
Since the 17th century, these species, animals, vegetables, viruses, bacteria and other pathogenic organisms “have contributed to almost 40 percent of the known cases of animal extinction,” affirms the Convention on Biological Diversity.
In Cuba, the official strategy to protect biodiversity ranges from conservation actions, the rehabilitation and restoration of ecosystems and degraded habitat, environmental impact assessments, and plans to manage and control exotic species of plants and animals.
The Claria is a Survivor
In defense of the claria, fishing-sector technicians contend that any species confronted with a prolonged lack of food can surprise us by eating organisms that are not a part of their usual diet.
“The claria is resistant; it can survive under the most adverse conditions,” noted ministerial advisor Julio Baisre.
“Studies on the stomach content of this species, the characteristics and position of their mouths, their smaller teeth and the fact that they only rely on their senses of touch and smell to locate their prey, indicate that they generally feed on organisms on the bottom of the water,” he pointed out.
Baisre considered “exaggerated and second hand” the negative opinions of the claria, arguing that there does not exit “clear, scientifically based evidence” that any Cuban freshwater species has been eradicated because of another exotic strain.
According to him, “Probably other environmental impacts related to the use and handling of water and the destruction of habitat” have had more negative influence on those species than has the presence of claria or tilapia (of the Oreochromis genus).
“Rigorous studies” on the environmental impacts of many introduced species are necessary,” Baisre recognized. “When they ask me about the African catfish, I respond with another question: Do you know of any species that serves as a human food but can be considered a plague?” he added.
Other defenders of the introduction of the claria in aquaculture argue that more than 65 percent of the freshwater species raised on the American continent do not originate from that area, as was the case with sugarcane and coffee.
“The introduction of fish is carried out based on comparative advantages with native species, like more rapid growth, more efficient and economical production, their high value in the foreign market and nutritional properties,” asserted Orestes Gonzalez, deputy-director of the magazine Mar y Pesca (Sea and Fishing).
The African catfish is known and accepted on the Cuban table, and it is frequently offered among the commercial products sold to national consumers. For that reason, Cuba is trying to develop aquaculture intensively.
High Demand at Fish Markets
Dionis Cruz, a vendor in a fish market in the capital, where a kilogram of fillet of claria costs the equivalent of a $1.50 (USD), assured that the fish is highly demanded. “It sells real quickly. I get in 200 kilos for sale and it’s gone in two days,” he boasted.
Specialists agree that the breeding of freshwater species is a “world necessity,” because marine fishing reached its limit years ago. Claria cultivation is not a Cuban “discovery,” because they are bred in more than 30 countries, these experts say.
In 2008, Cuban aquaculture produced more than 30,000 tons of fish, among these tenca (Tinca tinca), tilapia, claria and other species, a good part of which are raised in reservoirs where the fish feed on natural plankton.
Over the last few years, the intensive breeding of tilapia was conducted in floating enclosures, and that of the catfish in earthen and cement ponds. According to Baisre, this form of aquaculture is sustainable and part of the national strategy of food security.
Through variations in feeding, these intensive methods allow control over the number of fish that are in a certain place.
Thanks to a project financed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Organization for Agriculture and Food (FAO), Cuban aquaculture relies on nationally grown feed, which reduces costs.
Food produced in the Mampostón Aquatic Preparation Center, in San José de Lajas, some 30 kilometers from the capital, is based on by-products of the claria itself, to which is added soya, wheat or bran flour.
“The idea is to substitute imported fish meal,” said Mirtha Vinjoy, the center’s deputy-director.
*This article is part of a series produced by IPS (Inter Press Service) and IFEJ (International Federation of Environmental Journalists) for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (http://www.complusalliance.org). Originally published in Spanish on May 16 by Tierramérica, the Latin American newspaper network.
Translation by Havana Times