The Big Potential of Small Fish

By Evan Axelrad

Small fish species are an integral part of the diets of many living in coastal or water-rich areas of the developing world. They provide important proteins, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals to compliment the consumption of carbohydrate-rich staple foods such as rice or maize. But paradoxically, even as rural fishers are beginning to improve their livelihoods by engaging in aquaculture and commercializing their catch, malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies have persisted or worsened in places like Bangladesh, where approximately half the population lives below the food poverty line.

Experts from WorldFish at IFAD
This is because commercial aquaculture has emphasized the production of more profitable large fish species such as silver carp but overlooked the nutritional contribution that small fish can make, says Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, Senior Nutrition Adviser to CGIAR’s WorldFish Center. Dr. Thilsted, along with Dr. Patrick Dugan (Deputy Director General of WorldFish), came to IFAD headquarters in Rome on Friday, July 12th to discuss the important role which small fish can and must play in aquaculture in the developing world. During their well-attended morning presentation, they also shared some of the latest findings and successes from a relevant IFAD-supported project in Bangladesh.

Dr. Thilsted noted that official estimates of fish production and consumption tend to exclude fish caught, consumed, and traded in rural areas – therefore, the nutritional benefits of the small fish that are widely eaten in such areas remain poorly documented and largely underestimated. Additionally, preliminary data has found that fish intake in rural areas of developing countries is decreasing due to factors such as population growth, increased urbanization, and changing consumer preferences. The situation is particularly acute in Asian countries such as Bangladesh, where recent changes in rice production systems have diminished small fish habitats and affected migratory routes and breeding grounds. At the same time, pond aquaculture has become increasingly centered on the production of larger species of fish; in Bangladesh, the cultivation of these fish for markets has involved the practice of poisoning all smaller fish species in the pond, under the false notion that such small species compete with larger species for resources. All of these factors have led to decreased small fish intake – and therefore decreased nutrient intake – among the rural poor.

But research done by Dr. Thilsted and her colleagues at WorldFish is working to bring small fish back to their rightful place at the table. The research has highlighted that small fish can provide an excellent and sustainable source of both income and nutrition for poor fisher communities. Importantly, WorldFish research has also found that small fish tend to promote more equitable intra-household food allocation than do larger species, benefiting women and children. This can be particularly crucial for pregnant or breastfeeding women and their infants, who need the nutrients offered by small fish for their physical and cognitive development.

To harness the potential of aquaculture to improve nutrition and health, WorldFish has partnered with IFAD in Bangladesh on a grant-funded project, Linking Fisheries and Nutrition: Promoting Innovative Fish Production Technologies in Ponds and Wetlands with Nutrition-Rich Small Fish Species in Bangladesh. The project targets approximately 1,500 households with small fish ponds in the northwest districts of Rangpur and Dinajpur – areas that experience particularly high poverty rates and seasonal food insecurity (‘monga’) – and approximately 500 households in the northeast district of Sunamganj, an area dominated by wetlands and open water fishing. The project has focused on introducing  small, nutrient-dense fish species, particularly Mola (Amblypharyngodon mola) in highly efficient, diverse polyculture systems that include high value fish such as carp and freshwater prawn. It has involved the deployment of recently developed technologies and better  management practices for small fish production, including the introduction of Mola broodfish in sanctuaries, closed fishing seasons, fishing gear regulations, and market linkages for small fish commercialization. Preliminary results show that small fish productivity in the project’s ponds has increased from less than one to more than three tons per hectare, with concomitantly significant increases in household incomes and nutrition.

Fisher in Bangladesh.
As part of this project, household members involved in small fish production have also been trained on methods to effectively process and cook small fish, with a particular emphasis on nutrition education. Getting mothers to value small fish so that they are used in the household’s meal preparation is an important aim of the project, says Dr. Thilsted. Finally, so that the important role of small fish may be better understood and more widely accepted, a consumption survey will be conducted in the project’s households. This survey, the first of its kind, will seek to capture species level consumption information as well as seasonal trends in fish consumption related to micronutrient nutrition.

Through such advocacy and education, WorldFish and IFAD are working together to spread awareness of the big part that small fish can play in improving nutrition. Hopefully, the idea will “catch” on.

  • Estimated number of small household ponds in Bangladesh: 4 million
  • Estimated minimal production of Mola/pond/year: 10 kg
  • Estimated contribution that Mola production can make toward adequate vitamin A intake in Bangladesh: an additional 6 million children