Get out of a plane in Costa Rica and you will soon hear the country’s motto, Pura Vida, from the mouth of a taxi driver, hotel clerk or the person helping you at a restaurant. It expresses joy for life; it quickly relaxes you and makes you feel welcomed in a country where nature is still pure and full of life.
Martec Mariculture’s fish hatchery is at Punta Islita, on the Pacific coast. It was built on the location of an older shrimp hatchery and to reach it you travel over 50km of dirt roads that cross beautiful forests and hills. The area is sparsely populated, with no polluting industries for miles around, and when you get there you really think you’ve arrived in paradise.
Challenges of a new species
The spotted rose snapper, Lutjanus guttatus, is one of the latest species in the list of farmed marine finfish. Although research on its reproduction started in Central America during the 1980s, it was only during the first decade of the new millennium that the first natural spawns were achieved in captivity.
Carlos Lara, head of Martec Mariculture, was one of the pioneers in the farming of this species and was involved, as an entrepreneur, in attempts to industrialize the reproduction and mass production of fry.
The project developed at the Parque Marino del Pacífico (PMP), a coastal management agency within the Ministry of Environment (MINAET) of Costa Rica, with the support and collaboration of Martec, then just exploring the viability of this species for commercial farming. A marine fish hatchery was equipped; broodstock gathered; and from 2005 the first spawnings in captivity began.
By 2008 over 70,000 fry were produced, a number that allowed the stocking of experimental cages in the Bay of Nicoya. That was when Martec Industries created its Mariculture Division and opted to go ahead with the industrial farming of the spotted rose snapper.
A new species is always a challenge: how to achieve maturation (especially in a climate where water temperature and day-length are constant year-round); how to synchronize maturation of males and females; best protocols for larval development; larval nutrition, weaning, etc. All is new.
As this snapper is similar in many ways to other marine species such as the sea bass or sea bream farmed in the Mediterranean, the learning curve was fast but many issues around maturation, sex-ratio and growth, that may be linked to protocols used in the hatchery are still only partly understood. Nevertheless the hatchery has managed an excellent growth in performance, compressing the time it took Mediterranean hatcheries to reach industrial-scale production by a factor of three or even four.
Reaching this performance required two key ingredients: people and technology.
Building the team
Although located conveniently close to paradise, Martec’s hatchery is not near large centers of industrial marine fish production and so building a competent team required two main tactics: importing know-how in the form of experienced marine finfish hatchery managers, and training a local team to retain this expertise and know-how.
Today’s manager at Martec is Piero Benedetti, a veteran with many years’ experience in bass and bream hatcheries in the Mediterranean. He also worked with barramundi in Saudi Arabia.
Piero has the right set of skills to set up the processes for industrial-scale production of snapper. He also has the problem-solving attitude to understand and fine-tune production to match the specific needs of this species; the result has been a steady improvement in the survival rates from egg to fry and an increase in the size of batches delivered, weekly, to Martec’s on-growing farm in Quepos.
Over the last few years Martec has been investing in training and in building competencies for their staff at the hatchery, many from local communities and others brought in from further away. Piero’s right hand is Yole Buchalla from Brazil, an aquaculture engineer who was working for a Costa Rican shrimp hatchery and whose competence was spotted by Martec’s management years ago.
Supported by technology
After a few years spent understanding the key aspects of snapper reproduction came the decision to transform an old shrimp hatchery into a modern finfish larvae and fry production facility.
There was considerable investment in new buildings, a new broodstock facility that would guarantee the continuous stream of eggs, and water treatment systems that can supply good quality water to the whole facility.
Martec’s hatchery uses the latest water treatment technologies and has partial water recirculation for most of its broodstock tanks, allowing for careful control of the environment in each tank.
The larval and nursery rearing areas are modern and very versatile, allowing Piero the ability to play with a number of environmental parameters such as water flow and temperature, tank color, light levels, etc., just as you would expect to see in a research facility. There are already plans to expand areas such as the nursery to cope with ever-larger batches of weaned fry coming out of the hatchery.
Growing is only linear in books and manuals; the real world always presents us with new challenges and surprises. During my visit to Martec what mostly impressed me was the fact that the team had put in place effective and robust production processes that guarantee the level of production they need in order to expand grow-out activities. These are not necessarily the most efficient processes, but efficiency will only become a priority when more aspects of production are perfectly under control. And this is the biggest challenge for the team: to do in a few years what for other aquaculture sectors took decades.
— Diogo Thomaz
Diogo Thomaz, PhD, MBA, is a Technical and Business Consultant for the aquaculture industry based in Athens, Greece. After 15 years as R&D project manager and other industry positions he now leads Aquanetix (www.aquanetix.co.uk), a business intelligence service for the global aquaculture industry. He also heads RealSales Ltd a sales and technical consultancy company that supports aquaculture businesses expand opportunities and markets. He can be contacted by email on email@example.com