Pet fish is big business
Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer
FOUR YEARS after The Competitiveness Company launched its Ornamental Fish Farming Project, some 150 young men and women in more than 50 inner-city communities have been trained in various aspects of production and trade.
The company has the aim of a cultural transformation among Jamaican youth who had for decades reared "pet fish" as a hobby.
The aim is to develop a profitable ornamental-fish sector, while empowering young fish farmers from inner cities.
To date, Jamaicans have only begun to nibble at the potentially huge earnings to be had from trading in ornamental fish and the value-added earnings from the construction and sale and repairs of aquariums and filters.
Conrad English, Christopher McFarlane and Paulette Johnson are among the latest batch of young people trying to cash in on the global trade in an estimated 1.5 billion ornamental fish exported each year with a trade value of approximately US$400 million, the majority of which are sold on the North American or European market.
Their value tends to double, or even triple, contributing to an aquarium retail industry valued at well over US$6 billion.
With a love of pet fish as children, all three have come full circle, with a greater understanding, knowledge and love of an activity they admit to having enjoyed but which was a hobby.
In fact, having received an entire system - vats, feed, and piping - Johnson is banking on the expertise of her brother, who showed his prowess when they raised mostly "ticki-ticki".
So when they heard that The Competitiveness Company was offering training for the ornamental-fish programme, she was quick to register.
A relative newcomer, she is looking to the hard work and rewards of a well-managed home-based business, thanks to the kindness and support of The Competitiveness Company.
"Them give wi the fish house and some fish, the vat dem and dem, come an' set it up an' wi a gwaan good. Sky is the limit because it nuh have nuh boundary pon it," she shared during a visit to her Waterhouse home.
A short distance away, Christopher McFarlane's operation is well ahead of Johnson's - and with good reason.
"I was actually in love with ornamental fish from I was a kid," he told The Gleaner. It was a love for which he paid dearly at that early stage, after his father administered a serious whipping for stealing some pet fish from a farm.
It's been two years since the 26-year-old answered the call to reconnect with the industry, and his mother, Charmaine Jones, is impressed by what she has seen since.
She told The Gleaner: "The fish keep him occupied; most of all, that's where you find him. It's amazing, man."
RETURNING TO HIS PASSION
Despite his "love and passion" for pet fish, McFarlane had some time ago diverted into electronics and become certified as a personal computer technician. But by the time The Competitiveness Company came calling, he took a second look.
"The recirculation system (piping) and how it operated and the types of fish that were now available, that kinda spark my interest to go back into ornamental fish farming and, from ever since I got a system, I didn't look back. I just continue from strength to strength, actually gaining experience, knowledge about new species of fish, how to take care of them, and that was one of the biggest factors why I had to give it up in the first place," he said.
"I was always buying fish and getting fish, but I didn't know how to take care of them properly and that was the major issue, so my interest in it kinda declined 'cause it wasn't worth it anymore for me to spend money buying fish and feed and not being able to take care of it properly and so I gave it a break."
After getting his system, McFarlane also kept jumping ahead of his colleagues by reading up on the different exotic breeds on the Internet and in books. The knowledge he garnered is reflected in the precise layout and flow of his farm.
He explains: "It just therefore actually start flowing for me naturally now, and what I have here is just a small set-up compared to many of the farmers in Jamaica. It small, but with lot of potential because I am doing a lot of species here that nuff farmers in the country aren't doing, are afraid of breeding, and which they don't have in their possession, as a matter of fact. So I feel pretty privileged and blessed to be doing what I'm doing right now."
Over in Bay Farm Villa, which is viewed by the general public as part of the Waterhouse community, stands a 19x19 mesh covered building, located out of the way but pretty much in a public space. Each morning, before the sun rises, Conrad English is up and having the usual discourse with occupants, running a visual check to ensure all is well as he serves up breakfast. He gives a running commentary explaining why flakes are the ideal form of feed for top dwellers such as the Zebras, while for the in-between and bottom feeders, the sticks and pellets are more appropriate.
English is living his dream. His day job with The Competitiveness Company involves sharing his tremendous wealth of knowledge about ornamental fish before he goes to work, and upon returning home, most of his time is spent with his more than 20 species of ornamental fish.
His knowledge is based on years of hard work grounded in a love for all things ornamental fish.
His advice to anyone interested in getting into the business: "It doesn't make sense fi you have 5,000 fish and a 5,000 handicap - it value zero dollars. So you waste like quality time doing nothing ... Good food brings out good quality."
He added: "I also feed them on beef heart and all those things. I give them live food, but I boil it, grate it and I mix it with me cod liver oil and vitamin C. I mix it also with high-protein food because when you are trying to sustain a market, you want to sustain quality over quantity. That a first thing you fi always remember."
In fact, it was in recognition of, and in a bid to strengthen, such local quality-control efforts that the Inter-American Development Bank, UKaid and the Canadian International Development Agency in July donated US$500,000 in grant funding to the Jamaica Ornamental Fish Cluster.
"You will then have a lot more capacity to hold and quarantine fish, which is very important because quarantining is important for the disease status of the fish, and also for the holding capacity to ensure that there is always somewhere for the farmers to unload their fish," explained Nicardo Neil, of The Competitiveness Company.
This way, as soon as the fish become mature, they can be offloaded to the export site.
It is The Competitiveness Company which seeks out export markets for the farmers. After the fish are marketed, the repatriates the money, leaving them free to focus on rearing them under hygienic conditions.
For Dr Beverly Morgan, head of The Competitiveness Company, it is the sense of empowerment given to young people, some of whom were unemployed or underemployed, that brings the greatest joy.
With more Jamaicans getting hooked each day, she is convinced that in the very near future, Jamaicans will be enjoying a much bigger slice of the global ornamental fish trade.