Dr Arun Padiyar: Ushering in 'Milkfish' revolution

Florine Roche
Daijiworld Media Network - Mangalore

Mangalore, Aug 7: A few days ago, people could buy a new variety of fish called “Milkfish” in one of the malls of Mangalore city. As per the British Indian Government Documents (Gazetteer of India), this was the favorite fish of Tippu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore and he used to source it from Kundapur. This fish which is new to the markets of Mangalore was under test marketing phase and was sold here to assess the market reaction of this new member in the fish faculty. Though the market reaction in Dakshina Kannada is yet to be assessed, Dr Arun Padiyar, aquaculture specialist and the brain behind the farming of Milkfish here, says he has received excellent feedback and encouraging response from Karnataka, Goa, Andhra, Kerala and North Eastern states of India where the fish has found regular and repeat buyers.

Being a coastal area fish forms the staple diet of most people of undivided Dakshina Kannada district. But most middle class and lower middle class families can afford to have only sardines or mackerels with an occasional exception of surmai (seerfish), ladyfish or pomfret in their menu. Skyrocketing prices of marine fish is often a hindrance for people to experiment with a variety of fish available here and more often than not the quality of the marine fish is uncertain. A hundred rupee note these days can buy only sardines and mackerels sufficient for a day’s need of a nuclear family.

Dr Arun Padiyar with a fish doll of the world famous Atlantic Salmon, in Norway

Encouraging response

Now that the response from market is encouraging things are changing and for the better and soon there is a possibility that our fish markets will be flooded with milkfish which is affordable, tasty which can also fulfill the edacity for a big fish. Milkfish can really guarantee value for money and also meet the nutritional requirements of the people if made available in abundance and all through the year. “Milkfish” also locally known as ‘flower fish’ or ‘poomeen ’ is being cultivated in a trial basis and Padiyar who has been working on it in cooperation with the Fisheries College, Mangalore, Indian Council for Agricultural Research, New Delhi, fish farmer cooperatives and private sector fish feed companies for the last three years had put it for test marketing. As the market response has been cheering the fish would be cultivated in a large scale in the near future in Karnataka, Kerala, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Padiyar and his team of farmers, traders and scientists are gearing up for the challenge ahead.

“Milkfish has great potential to provide additional livelihood and increased sustainable food production opportunities to people in the coastal areas and also for generating foreign exchange through its export. The immediate need is to standardize and promote the farming technology and produce massive quantities of fish seeds by establishing hatcheries in India”, says Dr Padiyar. This young and enterprising consulting aquaculture specialist and aquaculture entrepreneur, hailing from Panemangalore, in Dakshina Kannada, had therefore, taken up milkfish farming on experimental basis in the coasts of Karnataka and Andhra and his experiment is yielding good results.

He says that he chose milkfish farming because “it is easy to cultivate, is disease resistant, high yielding, low cost, low risk with a crop period of 3 months and upwards depending on market needs. Each fish can grow up to one kg size within 8-10 months period which is what makes it quite an endearing option for farmers. Also, it is widely adaptable to either seawater or fresh water and is capable of catering to pan-Indian taste buds of people. Above all it is highly sustainable, depends on vegetable-based feed and has high feed conversion efficiency.

This means there is going to be a new revolution in aquaculture with ‘Milkfish”, to provide sustainable and affordable fish to the people. For the last few years he has been working silently and with a dogged commitment to develop low and medium-value farmed fish value-chain in India with the active support of various institutes, retailers and contract farmers. His experiment was started in Kundapur and Andra Pradesh in a 50 acre aquafarm.

Irresistible option

In response to the market needs Dr Padiyar and his team of farmers are now going ahead for cultivating milk fish on a large scale. By January next year the fish market and malls will be flooded with “milkfish” to give the people an option to go in for a large, tasty and reasonably priced fish. If this happens, it would go a long way in providing “food for all”. It would also improve the quality of their life by providing nutrition, additional livelihood and would alleviate the crisis in food production lurking at us.

Padiyar did his masters in Fisheries Science from College of Fisheries in Mangalore. He followed it up with a Ph.D in Aquaculture from Deakin University in Australia. Planning and implementing fisheries and aquaculture programmes, facilitating fish farmer cooperatives and international seafood trade issues, has been his forte. His in-depth knowledge about giving a fillip to rural livelihoods keeps him in good stead both as an aquaculture specialist and as an entrepreneur.

He was greatly enriched by the experience he had between 2005 and 2010 where he had the opportunity to lead post-Tsunami and earthquake rehabilitation and development programmes of Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UNO and International Finance Corporation of the World Bank group in Indonesia as Chief Technical Officer (Fisheries and Aquaculture). It was during his stint in Indonesia he noticed that people in Indonesia and other South East Asian countries simply loved this milkfish. He found out that the fish was available at affordable rates all through the season and was sustainable because they were farming this fish in these countries.

Milkfish which derived its name due to its milk-white belly is mostly found in Pacific and Indonesian oceans and to some extent in the Indian Ocean including Indian coastal waters. But Padiyar points out that the stock levels of the fish is so low it is not possible to harvest it in plenty in the wild (sea) and that is why there is scope for farming it. “The fish can tolerate high variation in salinity thus making it very sturdy, is good for children as it contains high omega 3 fatty acids, essential minerals such as Calcium, Selenium and Iron and therefore is highly nutritious”, he avers.

He further says that it is a quite a challenging venture for him in terms of investment and hard work. “I cannot deviate from my focus. My purpose is to provide sustainable fish to the people at Rs. 100-200 a kilo which is affordable and have invested my savings in building a world-class fish breeding company in India. It takes long time to achieve the desired results and success. I believe that what I do should contribute to the overall development of the society”.

Assorted benefits

The benefits of cultivating ‘milkfish’ are manifold – it is affordable, as compared to the high price of marine fish, supply is sustainable from fish farms. The freshness of the marine fish is relatively poor due to prolonged fishing period and poor post-harvest fish handling practices where as the freshness of farm fish will be good due to the post harvest care taken. Since ours is an agrarian hub the cost of production will be low and this benefit would ultimately go to the consumer.

Until now he wasn’t quite sure about the success of his venture because it was a gamble and hence he was not confident enough to encourage his contract farmers to take to fish farming. But the positive market response has spurred him and has given him the confidence. Now he has asked the farmers to go ahead with the farming as he is confident of marketing their product and equally confident of giving them technical advice.

Crisis makes way for gain

Becoming an entrepreneur was the result of the mid-life crises Padiyar went through. He wanted to do something innovative and challenging in his own field. Aqua farming he undertook is gamble considering the huge investment involved due to the long gestation period. The risk factor was high and he had put in more than three years of hard labour and now the gamble has paid off. He says the support of his family was an essential feature of his taking such a huge risk in his mid 30’s. “My wife Poonam is aware of what I was doing and that is important. I have her complete support and encouragement which has played a crucial role in my giving full attention to a business venture of this kind”, he confides.

India is now caught in a quagmire in its efforts to pass the National Food Security Bill to ensure food and nutritional security to people who don’t have access to food at subsidized rates. But providing sufficient food on a consistent basis is a challenge which our government alone cannot handle without the support and cooperation of organizations and private individuals. Incidentally, there is no dearth of individuals in our country who are enterprising and concerned about providing food for all and Dr Arun Padiyar belongs to the rare breed of people who think the larger interest of the society.