Aquaculturist, agriculturalist and greenhouse engineer, Dr Jason Licamele said local tilapia farmers are 95 per cent ready to produce fish to satisfy the export market needs.
Licamele, hosted by the Aquaculture Association of Trinidad and Tobago (AATT), spent a hectic eight days last week visiting local farms under the "Farmer-to-Farmer" endeavour, developed by the University of Arizona and the American Tilapia Association.
The AATT took Licamele to the larger tilapia farms from Cedros to Mayaro, Lopinot, Chaguanas and included the biggest private fishling hatchery in Cunupia on the tour.
His visit and the knowledge exchange meetings come at an especially critical time for the local fish farmers as Minister of Food Production Vasant Bharath has also been making the rounds, meeting with key producers in various industries under his purview.
Licamele, who was instrumental in the development of the tilapia export industries in Brazil, Costa Rica and Ecuador, said the local aquaculture industry lagged about eight years behind those countries, but with the right guidance and assistance, local farmers could profit from export to the US in a shorter time.
"The local tilapia industry has already gone very far without any Government support," he said. "But the industry still needs incentives and motivation to get to the next level and start filling that international market before somebody else does."
"The local farmers are definitely going in the right direction," he said.
Licamele said he toured farms at various stages of development in different countries and said local farmers needed to build a more cohesive unit to formalise the industry and act as a hub for information exchange to help nudge the industry forward.
"Right now, we have farmers reinventing the wheel when they could be benefitting from a central knowledge database. That formalisation could also encourage Government to develop incentives to subsidise the industry," he said.
Licamele's findings echo what local farmers have said all along, that they hit a glass ceiling with their fish production as they are unable to get their produce from the tank to the table.
Of the local farmers, Gerard Weekes runs the largest tilapia farm on the island and also owns the Tech Outsource Hatchery in Cunupia. Licamele visited that hatchery last Wednesday and looked over the process of breeding.
"Things are very close at this hatchery," Weekes said, adding with the right assistance, the hatchery could be ready to provide fish to market in as little as six months.
Tilapia, he said, could be the springboard to a whole new world of export while simultaneously reducing the country's massive food import bill. He outlined the processes that are taking place in South America right now where fish farmers have turned into hydroponic food producers.
"It's the beginning of an industry that could mean a lot of income for small farmers and add to the diversified income that the country is looking for," he said.