Thoughts on humans, tilapia, and rhythms

Dear all,

Thank you for being so patient with me as I slowly update my blog. My days have been filled with so many new experiences that it has been hard to pick which stories I want to tell and what narratives I want to construct. I know that some of you (hi mom!) are desperate for more information than I’ve been sharing. So over the next week as I do some project reconfiguration I’ll be doing some rapid-fire posting: trying to post something new everyday. These posts won’t be in any particular order and won’t necessarily be the most grammatically correct, but I’m hoping they might give you a better idea of what I’ve been doing and how I’m feeling day-to-day, beyond the more formal writing I’ve been trying maintain here.

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First let me bring you up to speed on my second week at Nam Sai Farms. At the end of my first week I felt significantly more confident than when I’d arrived; I still only had a very basic grip on some key Thai phrases, but I was much more comfortable in my role as an observer . By the second week I had also gained enough familiarity with the rhythm of daily life on the farm to know that the mornings held most of the work for the day. If I wanted to catch the bulk of the action, I needed to make it to the farm by 8 am. From then until 11 am, the farm was constantly humming with human activity. Men might be in the ponds rapidly collecting eggs, women portioning off healthy fingerlings into air-and-water filled plastic bags to be bought by tilapia farmers, a mixed-gender team might be draining a pond to collect grown tilapia for sale or to add to the breeding population (broodstock), managers would be writing down the weights of fish or collecting water samples for quality tests, and so on. Within this time frame, it was clear to see how Nam Sai is one of the largest and most productive tilapia hatcheries in Thailand. But by 11:30 am, much of this activity had died down. For much of the afternoon I joined people napping, playing checkers, listening to music, and experiencing quintessential break time.Workers had waded out of the ponds and washed off, managers had returned to the break rooms to record numbers, and the farm was almost completely devoid of human activity.

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I want to emphasize human activity, because the farm was still very much buzzing with non-human activities while we were resting. In the 5 day interim between egg collections, tilapia were still quite active breeding and producing offspring. Similarly, the 4 month wait to drain a pond and add new tilapia to the broodstock was still full with action as tilapia grew and sexually matured. So the rhythms of work and rest, of industrious activity and quiet down time, that I experienced with other humans were very much informed by other non-human rhythms of activity. The rhythms of daily, weekly, and monthly life for both farmers and tilapia were intertwined, both species informing the action and behavior of each other.

I couldn’t help but think about Nam Sai in relation to agriculture in the United States. The tilapia had feeding schedules just like crops have watering schedules. The acidity of the earthen pond’s soils was treated with lime, dolomite, and fertilizers in the same way that farmland might be enriched with fertilizers. Workers at Nam Sai collected eggs and fish as American farmers would harvest crops.

It might seem odd that I connect American agriculture with Thai aquaculture. But it seems to point back to some of the original rationale for my project: When humans practice aquaculture they have a radically different relationship to their food as compared to when they catch it from the ocean. There are a wealth of narratives about humans and the seafood they catch from the sea. The Perfect Storm (book/movie), The Old Man and the Sea (book), and Deadliest Catch (TV show) are all great examples of how Americans romanticize the danger and seduction of wild-caught seafood. There is no room for “break time” on the ocean because humans (almost always men) are fighting for their lives against the wild, uncontrollable power of the ocean. Aquaculture seems incredibly tame by comparison. In many ways, wild-catch seafood is to hunter/gatherer societies as aquaculture is to agrarian ones. The former suggests a “battle” with the wild, the latter suggests a site-specific (almost bucolic) alternative. Perhaps this helps explain the tendency of many people in the U.S. to think negatively of aquaculture. Sensational media reports of aquaculture combined with the dominant agri-business model in America may be playing off of each other to strengthen American consumer perspectives that farmed fish is less “natural” or “authentic” than wild-caught seafood. Indeed when I spoke informally with friends, professors, and family members, many expressed concern about weaker taste of farmed seafood or the associated environmental risks.

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But Nam Sai, despite being one of the largest hatcheries in Thailand, is not industrial or large-scale in the same way that we think of American corn or soy agriculture. Genetic research on tilapia is nowhere near as advanced as it is for other farmed species or for GMO crops. Eggs and tilapia are still collected by hand (although a large pump is used to help drain the pond if needed) unlike the industrial harvesting machines found for American corn and soy. After spending time at Nam Sai it seemed to me that comparing tilapia farming with agriculture was okay on a general level. But this comparison could also be detrimental from an American perspective because it could invite Americans to import their collective, culturally informed fears of agri-business into a flattened understanding of fish farming.

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Of course, I am working within a very specific site of understanding. I have only been to one farm in Thailand so far and since it was a hatchery, I did not have the opportunity to observe a large grow out process (which, naturally, has its own distinct daily rhythms of activity). I also recognize that the production of tilapia for a local market makes for a very different experience than shrimp production for a global market. And production methods between regions and countries can vary greatly depending on local contexts, so my observations and thoughts are not meant to cover all aquaculture everywhere in a general manner. Instead I’m beginning to seek out the specifics of these aquaculture systems that contribute to this diversity. I’m sure there will be endless more discoveries to be made when I look at different species, in different regions, and so on.

This concludes my first post for the week, but tomorrow I’ll be at it again! I’m not sure what my next post will be on, but there will definitely be one! If you’ve enjoyed the photos in this post, you can check out more in the sidebar which links to my flickr account. As always, any comments, constructive criticisms, or general words of encouragement are greatly appreciated. Thanks for following along on my adventure!

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “Thoughts on humans, tilapia, and rhythms

  1. Hi Noah! I just wanted to let you know how much I am enjoying your blog. Recently we have been enjoying Basa (?) from Viet Nam and to start linking how it gets from there to here is so interesting. I had no idea that these farms even existed and now to be able to enjoy how the fish breed and grow in these farms is just mind blowing!

    Like

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