A long overdue post

Dear all,

A great deal has happened since my last post – it has been a non-stop learning journey! I hope you’ll forgive me for this somewhat late follow-up, as I’m just now finding the quiet to organize many of my thoughts and experiences.

I’ve finished up my brief, but incredibly information-packed, few weeks in Indonesia and am now back in Bangkok. Over the next month I’ll be wrapping up my project in SE Asia and trying to fill in some of the gaps in my understandings before I head off to New Zealand! Since Indonesia was a rather spontaneous and serendipitous addition to my project, I was not quite attuned to many of the local contexts I would in inhabit when I arrived. There was a great deal I learned about Indonesia only once I was in the country that seemed incredibly crucial for understanding the aquaculture I observed there. Indonesia is comprised of somewhere between 17000 and 18000 islands, of which somewhere around 922 are inhabited. It is the largest island nation in the world and, although it is the 15th largest country overall, it is the fourth most populous. It’s one thing to read this on paper, certainly it meant something fairly abstract to me until I was actually in country. But it helps explain how Indonesia is the third most productive country for farmed fish and seafood in the world. The industry, similarly to Thailand’s, is dominated by small-scale farmers. Indonesia’s large presence in the world of aquaculture arises not from several huge multinational corporations, but from the sheer number of farmers who manage fish and seafood sites.

Indonesia is also an incredibly diverse country; home to ethnic and linguistic groups numbering in the hundreds. Its national motto roughly translates to “Unity in Diversity”. Perhaps somewhat conveniently, this motto might also be applied to the aquaculture I observed in Indonesia. Although my experiences were more akin to an impressionistic painting than a crystal clear snapshot, one thing that was abundantly clear was that the most cohesive understanding I’ve developed about aquaculture in Indonesia is rooted in the immense diversity I observed with respect to location, species, technology, and social structure. I saw catfish farmed in rural, areas as well as tucked between large residential buildings in an urban setting. I encountered tilapia co-cultured with rice as well as housed within bamboo cages in a small river. Some farms were managed by a single farmer while others were under the management of a farming collective. Aquaculture in Indonesia, like the country’s population itself, is both massive and incredibly diverse.

Given the overwhelming amount of information I processed/am still processing, I decided to try and break up my thoughts into several posts. Since I was fortunate enough to observe the same species cultivated in several different environments, it seemed fitting to divide them up with respect to these variations. Today I’ll primarily write about catfish culture with plans to write about tilapia and some general thoughts about Indonesia in comparison to Thailand as well.

Although I learned very little Bahasa Indonesia (the primary language spoken in Indonesia), lele (=catfish in Bahasa) was one of the first and most prominent words I learned. Lele was painted on the sides of transportable food carts and printed on plastic banners in restaurants everywhere I looked, which impressed upon me just how important catfish is for domestic consumption. I observed two catfish farms in the small city of Sukabumi, about a 4 hour train ride south of Jakarta. Both farms shared a great deal in common, but also differentiated from each other in ways that suggested a sort of “adaptive radiation” by which each farm uniquely inhabited its local context.

The first farm I visited was located in a rural, agricultural area and looked similar to some of the farms I’d visited in Thailand – at this point, it fit well into my understanding of inland aquaculture.The Ministry of Marine Affairs (MMAF) suggested I visit this site because it uses new, experimental biofloc technology. Biofloc refers to small particulate matter, often composed of excrement, detritus living in the water column. Although it sounds less than appetizing, biofloc particulate actually detoxifies catfish waste and promotes nutrient conversion into an edible form for the fish. A bacteria/probiotic/molasses mixture is infused into the ponds to enhance this process and allows farmers to reduce the amount of water cleaning/exchange in the pond since the bacteria clean it for them. Perhaps a more appetizing way to think about biofloc is to imagine these ponds as more complete “ecosystems”. Beneficial bacteria help form a biologically based recirculation system by managing the waste products of the catfish.

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The benefits of this system are significant: it requires less water because the bacteria behave as a natural cleaning system, it enhances biosecurity (e.g. there’s less risk of bacterial/viral disease because beneficial bacteria dominate the microscopic landscape), and reduces feed conversion ratios (less feed is required to grow the fish to the same target weight).  The “catch” for biofloc systems is that they tend to be more labor intensive for farmers than traditional methods of catfish farming, leading to resistance from older farmers to pick up this relatively new method. The catfish biofloc system I visited also served as a working “demonstration farm”: They received financial and training support from both the local government and the ministry of marine affairs to use biofloc technology in the hopes that they would be able to disseminate information and training for management of the new technologies. When I sat down with farmers and government officials one of the things they emphasized was how important the popular uptake of biofloc technology could be strengthening catfish aquaculture in the country. So encountering catfish biofloc farming here was not random. The existence of biofloc technology on this farm was part of a concerted effort between several branches of the government to encourage the technology in an area where catfish farming was already well established.

The second catfish “farm” I visited could not have felt further away from the  bucolic farm I’d seen earlier in the day. I put farm in quotes because it felt so far removed from any previous definition of farm that I’d had. In fact, I did not realize when we first arrived because we had to walk through an alley between several buildings on a busy road to find the concrete catfish ponds tucked among residential buildings. I had arrived at a “fish culture in an urban setting” farm. Perhaps one of the most exciting things about being there was being able to expand my definition of fish farming to include these spartan ponds among large buildings alongside tilapia in earthen ponds in rural Thailand.

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Upon seeing the ponds I was surprised and excited to see that they employed a type of technology that I’d first encountered while in high school: hydroponics. Hydroponics technology creates a closed-loop system whereby water from a fish pond (loaded with toxic fish waste) is pumped across a bacteria-laden media (nothing fancy; soil is a textbook example of a bacteria-laden media). The bacteria convert the nitrogenous waste into an edible form for plants and cleansed water is returned to the fish pond. At this catfish farm, potted plants formed a ring around the perimeter of the pond soaking up the nitrogen before returning the water to the ponds.

I also learned that this second catfish farm had been licensed by the MMAF to provide hydroponics aquaculture training to individuals who wanted to develop aquaculture in an urban setting. It seemed that this training was geared less towards full time farmers and more towards families or groups of families who might have the space to farm subsistence catfish in a more crowded area. Hydroponics, like biofloc, greatly reduces the amount of water required to maintain the quality of the ponds by relying upon the natural machinery of bacteria. However hydroponics is also less labor intensive and seems to be better suited to subsistence farming rather than larger, more commercial ventures (although these are still not huge corporate ventures). As in the case of the first farm, encountering hydroponics technology in this urban farm was not accidental but could be argued to have directly arisen from the local context and be targeted towards the needs of the immediately local population.

Various training/educational services offered by the urban catfish farm

I wrote in one of my earlier posts that I expected my definitions of local context to shift as I prioritized different factors of aquaculture. My experiences at these two catfish farms seem almost textbook perfect examples of this shift. I could frame catfish farming as an important industry throughout the island of Java because of pervasive domestic consumption of lele. Prioritizing the species meant incorporating an understanding of this consumption. But when I zoomed in further to the immediate surroundings of different catfish farms, taking into account some of the local environment or population, it became clear that the technologies employed and disseminated for catfish farming diversified with respect to the needs of these ultra-local populations. It’s been exciting (and incredibly challenging) to watch my project unfolding in ways that I couldn’t have previously expected and often only make sense in hindsight.

I’d like to end by talking about how hydroponics and biofloc have helped open up the ways I think about technological advances. These systems do not involve advanced machinery or happen in sterile, sci-fi environments. In fact, they seem to even reduce the need for machinery or sterility by relying on bacterial work to keep toxicity levels in check. But I think it’s important to continue to acknowledge them as technology precisely because they do not conform to traditional ideas of the term. When we recognize how bacteria can become technological (how their own behaviors can be defined as cellular machinery) and how macro-machinery can become outdated (how pumps or water purifiers might be less efficient at water management than preexisting organisms), we can loosen our grip upon notions of technology and progress that favor developed countries and the Western world. It seems much more prudent to recognize the value that a “fleet” of diverse technologies allows us to accomplish with respect to aquaculture than to split these technologies into categories of rudimentary and advanced. I do not yet have the context to compare the technologies I’ve learned about here to those in first world countries like New Zealand and Norway, so my thoughts on diversity in aquaculture technology remain somewhat half-baked. But I find myself constantly returning to the language we use to describe aquaculture and how this mimics or maps on to larger systems of power and privilege, especially how the idea of ‘yellow peril’ may be (sub)consciously mapped onto American perceptions of farmed seafood and farming technology in SE Asia. I’ll continue chugging along, collecting these thoughts and hopefully developing them even more as the year goes on.

I know this post was a bit lengthy, so thanks for staying with me as long as you have! I’ll continue to update with more of my thoughts over the coming dates as well as share some exciting news for my next big country leap!



6 thoughts on “A long overdue post

  1. Noah, your adventure is breathtaking. I’m so impressed with how you express your experiences. What a contrast to how we usually learn. I’m sure this will shape what you will do in life. I look forward to your next step in this endeavor. Lots of love, Aunt Elaine


    1. I have to say, Shedd laid an EXCELLENT foundation for all of the marine science that is popping up along my journey! There are photos on my flickr which can be reached from the right-hand side of the blog!


  2. This is so interesting. My first thought about the farm in the urban setting is whether or not there is a smell connected to this type of farming? Could this be done in the US in an urban setting?

    Thank you for sharing!



  3. I just saw the pictures associated with this post. They are amazing (hardly seems adequate to just say amazing). Thank you for sharing something that we would likely never see if not for your vision.


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