Ray of hope for abalone industry

By Du Yu 杜宇  / 

Wed, Nov 06, 2013 - Page 8

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.

The third problem is that the establishment of relevant institutions has not been effective. The government invested a hefty NT$1.74 billion (US$59.14 million) to establish the Aquatic Genetic Resource Bank, with most of the money being spent on buildings and equipment. The resource bank’s purpose is to develop key technology related to aquatic product larvae and the prevention of diseases in important cultivated organisms.

However, the way the recovery in abalone farming has been brought about shows that the resource bank has not set up a database of Taiwan’s autochthonous abalone species or actively engaged in systematic breeding research. Consequently, it was unable to provide the genetic resources and technical support that abalone farmers needed, and producers had to go to Japan to find mates for their abalones. This has led to questions about the usefulness of the resource bank.

The fourth problem is a widespread tendency to exaggerate. Whereas science stresses the need for proof, government departments and academia often prefer to engage in hyperbole.

For example, although some results have indeed been achieved with regard to disease prevention in giant tiger prawns, abalones and groupers, the development of commercial vaccines for fish and prawns, the breeding of cold-resistant and disease-resistant fish and shellfish, super-intensive production systems and so on, these achievements have been exaggerated and producers have ended up being very disappointed.

Farmers who were asked to recount the process of recovery in abalone cultivation have drawn attention to this kind of behavior. They say that industry, government and academia have come up with all kinds of weird and wonderful ideas about pathogens involved in the die-off and possible solutions, but none of them have been of any great use.

These officials are either concerned with reporting back on whatever government plan they have on hand, or take the opportunity to talk about some other issue, such as saying that the problem was caused by changes in algal growth brought about by global warming, or that abalone farmers should use deep-sea water. If farm production in Taiwan is to go forward, it will be necessary to correct this kind of counterproductive behavior.

The fifth and final issue is that viruses have become a great way for the government to evade its responsibility. When there is a big die-off of cultivated organisms, government officials and people in charge of experimental research institutes often blame it on viruses and say there is no medicine available to counter it, just like SARS in humans. They sometimes add that the virus was brought over by smuggling from China, and that the government is not to blame because there is too much smuggling going on for government officials to stop it.

True to form, government administrators and representatives of research institutes blamed the recent sickness affecting abalone on a viral infection associated with “continental cold water.”

They concluded that the only solution was a complete ban on abalone farming for two to three years, or for producers to quit abalone farming entirely. While this enabled officials to shrug off their responsibilities, it also caused producers to lose faith in the government.

As time goes on, aquatic cultivation will be an increasingly important source of animal protein for humankind. Taiwan has a chance of recovering its place on the world aquaculture scene — but it all depends on whether it can sincerely confront the problems it faces and whether it is bold enough to make whatever reforms are needed.

Du Yu is chief executive officer of the Chen-Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform.

Translated by Julian Clegg