Coastal farmers crack Sh20,000 crayfish market

A new system of rearing a shrimp-like creature known as Crayfish Artemia in sea water on coastal farms is delivering 100 farmers in a pilot project Sh20,000 per kilo for the harvested fish, prompting a roll-out of the new farming comprehensively along Kenya's Coast as an alternative to rain-fed agriculture.

The project managed by The Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) and funded by the Belgian Inter-University Council (VLIR) is taking advantage of the readily available ocean water to rear the Crayfish Artemia fish, known as an Artemia cyst, which survives in very harsh conditions and is much sought after globally. The farming holds out the hope of a new, lucrative alternative to rain fed agriculture, which has delivered often poor results at the coast.

The initial pilot project in Magarini District of Coast province has developed 23 ponds for farming the fish, but KMFRI and the Ministry of Fisheries now envision a roll out of 300 ponds over the next three years.

The Ministry hopes that the unique farming will move Kenya to the global average where aquaculture – or fish farming - accounts for half of all fish production.

“Kenya stands to make great strides in the fish farming industry in the next few years if it can produce its Artemia locally and make its supply more reliable and affordable,” said Fisheries Minister Amason Kingi.

Presently, more than 2,500 tons of Artemia are sold a year for use in fish and shellfish hatcheries worldwide, with much of it is naturally harvested from the Great Salt Lake, a shallow body of salt water in north-western Utah in the US.

The demand for Artemia cysts cannot, however, be met by the current supply. As a luxury and high quality product, it can fetch prices as high as Sh20,000 to Sh25,000 per kg in the world market.

Due to the huge demand for Artemia, there is a ready market for Artemia and Kenya's drive to produce its first batch to market is geared towards meeting this demand both locally and internationally, said the Minister.

Artemia is considered a delicacy worldwide, with American Indians terming it as 'delicious', and Arabs from the Nil riverbed in Iran use the product to prepare a specialist paste. As well as its nutritional value, the fish is also famous for its ability to reproduce and survive in the most extreme conditions.

The fish tolerates salt levels as high as 50 per cent, which is close to a saturated solution, and can also live for several days in solutions very different from the sea water, such as potassium permanganate or silver nitrate, although iodine, a frequent addition to edible salt, is harmful to it.

The fish color depends on the salt concentration, with high concentrations giving them a slightly red appearance. In fresh water, Artemia dies after about an hour, hence it must strictly be kept in salty water.

The shrimp feeds mainly on green algae and is very distinct, with adults having three eyes and 11 pairs of legs and growing to a length of 15 millimeters (0.6 inches). The females can produce eggs by mating or through parthenogenesis which is a form of asexual reproduction, where the growth and development of the embryos occurs without fertilization by a male.

Of the existing pilot ponds in Magarini, one is a reserve pond of 300 square metres, which stores water to supply the other ponds when tides are low in the Ocean. Two are fertilization ponds of 1000 square metres each, where the eggs of Artemia are put for fertilization.

There are then eighteen Artemia farming ponds of 300 meters-square each, which is where the species grow to maturity, and there are also two other crystallization ponds where salty water from the ponds can be crystallized to form salt as an additional source of income.

The project is also now to receive pond liners from the Ministry of Fisheries Development, which will help farmers to store water for a longer period without being absorbed by the soil.

"Once the project picks up, KMFRI with the help of the Ministry of Fisheries Development will go ahead to extend the project to other regions along the Coastal strip," said the project's director, Dr. Johnson Kazungu.

Farmers interested in knowing more about this kind of farming are advised to visit the KMFRI offices in Mombasa, or the Ministry of Fisheries Development Offices, also in Mombasa.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter