Thanks to the self-help measures taken by fishermen in New Taipei City’s (新北市) Gongliao District (貢寮), a ray of hope has finally appeared for the survival of abalone farming in the nation. Only after further efforts have been made will it become clear whether Taiwanese abalone production can be revived and whether it can regain the prosperity it once enjoyed.
At a loss for solutions to the problems faced by abalone farmers, the government had encouraged them to suspend or abandon cultivation of Haliotis diversicolor abalones, or to start raising alien species, such as Haliotis discus discus or Chinese hybrid Haliotis discus hannai — but without establishing any risk-assessment system for alien species.
Faced with this policy change, Taiwanese abalone farmers did not give up, even though they do not get much funding or scientific and technical support. Some of them went to Japan to find mates for their abalones to improve their stock and resolve the underlying problem of genetic deterioration. They are to be admired for their spirited determination, which is a traditional characteristic of Taiwanese, but sorely lacking in the nation these days.
There are many factors behind this miraculous recovery of domestic abalone cultivation that merit joint examination and consideration by industry, officialdom and academia.
First is the serious problem of genetic deterioration. One of the main reasons for the big die-off of abalones was inbreeding, which led to genetic deterioration and reduced resistance to disease. Poor immunity puts animals at higher risk of death when they encounter threats, such as vibrio bacteria, viruses or dramatic climate change.
This problem is widespread among fish and other important aquatic animals raised domestically, including sea eels, groupers, giant tiger prawns and common orient clams. However, fisheries authorities only care about promoting plans for doubling production, while paying scant attention to the fundamental problem of genetic deterioration. Consequently, farmers have had to travel abroad to seek suitable varieties to bring back home for breeding.
On this occasion, private abalone farmers have been successful with their breeding efforts, allowing a miraculous revival of abalone cultivation. However, gene matching and hybridization require a high degree of expertise, and this kind of work must be done using strictly controlled equipment and management. Poor-quality progeny should not be disposed of carelessly, because if it gets out into waterways, the result could be disastrous. The whole process must be thoroughly controlled and regulated.
Second is the over-emphasis on the acquisition of intellectual property rights. In the interests of making research more effective, the government encourages researchers to apply for patents, which entitle them to 40 percent of the technology transfer fees. As a result, researchers prefer to work on projects for which they can apply for patents. This policy does result in more technology transfers. However, the problems that farmers and fishermen urgently need to have resolved are often very difficult, so fewer researchers are willing to get involved, and their research results are no longer provided free of charge.
This has affected the technical advancement of agriculture and fisheries in Taiwan. If the new strain of abalone had been bred by an experimental research institute or other academic institutions, it would have taken a long time for the researchers involved to get a patent, and the content of research is usually kept confidential while a patent application is being reviewed. This would certainly have had an impact on the timetable for making the technology and larvae available for commercial use. If that had happened, the question of whether abalone cultivation could be revived in Taiwan would probably still be unanswered.