The Key to Successful Fish Farm Management: Planning and Record Keeping

date : March 26, 2013

Imad Patrick Saoud, Ph.D.
Department of Biology
American University of Beirut
Bliss St., Beirut, Lebanon



The Practical Vol.4 issue 12
Jan-Mar 2013 



A successful fish farm is one that makes money. I believe everybody would agree to such a statement. However, what if the farm had a detrimental environmental impact or depended on child labour for profit. What if the farm made profit because of protectionist market distorting policies or government subsidies. Would we still consider such farms successful? Are such farms sustainable in our increasingly globalised economies?




A truly successful farm is one which makes profit even when they pay regular market prices for labor, energy and consumables, respect environmental integrity and sell their product in competitive markets. If such requirements were applied worldwide, many farms in Europe, Asia and Africa would be considered unsuccessful. For aquaculture to thrive globally and be sustainable, the majority of farms should be successful by the standards mentioned above. This requires proper planning before farms are built, continued planning during operation and proper record keeping so plans can be later analyzed and modified and so that problems can be better understood.





Many farms fail because of lack of planning. Investors tend to want to make quick profits by getting in early so they forgo pilot projects in regions where farms are a novelty. They fail to realize that local expertise is necessary and that even the best schools do not give their graduates enough experience in handling animals. A pilot project is a school for investors and employees and education costs money. This education is the plan.




Even if pilot projects are built, investors often go ahead and plan their farms before even running a pilot project. Often, that is the fault of the consultant who also wants quick profit. Consultants and engineers design a farm before they assess the requirements of the species and the local environment. The investor on the other hand runs the pilot project to see if his fish live but forgets to keep proper records of water quality, weather, feed management, growth and survival. By the time the first harvest from the pilot project is taken, the farm is already designed and under construction. This is often a formula for disaster. The design of a farm should only start after a pilot farm has harvested and proper records are evaluated. 







Once plans for capital expenses are made, investors should make plans for operating expenses before starting to build. Here, investors should be cautious. Many consultants charge their clients a percentage of calculated cost of project so they tend to inflate operating costs because capital costs are easier to estimate correctly by the investor and his engineers. Because operating costs are inflated, harvest prices of fish are inflated to show positive cash flow in the plan. Many an investor and his money have been thus parted. A proper market study should be done by the investor or by someone other than the consultant if a proper plan is to be made.



Having produced a blueprint and a management plan, the investor should now find out where he can get supplies and feeds and where to store them before starting construction. Often getting feed in a timely manner is very difficult in developing countries. Once the feed is available, it has to be stored properly. Also, a good management plan includes how much feed of every size a farmer will need over a season. A good manager will identify two potential feed sources and purchase half his requirement from each. This way, the farm has a backup in case something happens to one source. The same goes for larvae to stock.


Now that a farmer has planned well, he needs to manage properly. I generally have five rules for the people I advise. The first is: Aquatic animals are like babies in that they need 24 hour attention. If you are not up to it, do not invest in aquaculture. The second is that a farmer needs to have a lot of common sense and use it. Farming is not a factory production line. New situations arise all the time and need to be solved fast. The third is: Successful farmers are those that are always ahead in their preparation. Two weeks before stocking, they are already managing and preparing. Two weeks before harvesting, they already have the ice, containers, slot at the processor, the driver of the lorry that will transport the fish and even the tractor he will use to plough the pond after it is dry.




The fourth is that all managers should always carry a pencil (not pen) and paper and should write down everything he does. Proper records of water quality, feeding, disease, weekly size evaluations and anything a manager notices should be kept. These should be analyzed after each harvest. One should see if growth rates and survivals are similar among ponds and among seasons. If not, why? One should see if feed conversion is changing or not. If a farm gets a disease, can that be collaborated with weather or feed or maybe it can be blamed on someone who visited the farm after spending some time at another farm. Only good record keeping can help a farmer understand what happened.




Finally, the fifth and most important rule is to remember Murphy’s Law. Problems will arise when you least expect them but if you have planned well, if you are around, if you have common sense, if you have good records of what you did in the past, then you can deal with problems. If a farmer can do all this and still sell his/her harvest at a profit without government help in market distorting laws or subsidies, and without affecting the environment, then he/she will be successful.





Finally, please remember that aquaculture like much agriculture depends on scale. Small family farms operated by the owner can survive. However medium farms that need employees often cannot. They need to be big. Only in few cases will a medium sized farm that depends on employees and machinery manage to be successful. Often the farm loses a bit but the owner gets a salary for himself and spouse and children, thus justifying the loss. Even these need to be properly planned and managed farms.

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