Though not cleared for farming, the South American fish has a growing market.
It’s large; it’s exotic; and it’s delicious.
But the Red-bellied Pacu (Piaractus brachypomus) a native of South America, which has taken over fish farms and kitchens in Kerala, is an illegal species, which has not yet been cleared for farming. Reports of the fish being cultivated in Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Kerala and some parts of Uttar Pradesh have left fisheries experts worried.
The Ministry of Agriculture has not cleared it, said Director of the National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resource (NBFGR), Lucknow, Kuldeep K. Lal.
However, with demand for the fish growing, several local fish farmers in Kerala have taken to breeding the species and ensure a regular supply to the stalls. On an average, the fish fetches ₹200 a kilo. Adults weighing over 3.5 kilos and over 45 cms long are now available in fish stalls across Kerala.
The rich and tasty meat of the fish, which is comparable to that of some local varieties, has many takers in the local markets. The fact that no fish diseases were reported during pacu farming has made it the darling of Kerala aquaculturists.
Dr. Lal explains that before permitting the culture of a fish species, a risk analysis of the species in Indian waters needs to be carried out. Only species cleared by the National Committee to Oversee and Regulate the Introduction of Exotic Aquatic Species in Indian Waters can be farmed. Currently, exotic species pangasianodon (pangas), tilapia and white leg shrimp have been cleared for commercial farming.
The Department of Dairying, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries is reviewing a report submitted by the National Fisheries Development Board (NFDB) on the risks and benefits of pacu farming, based on a study conducted by the ICAR-NGBFGR, Dr. Lal said.
The impact of farming the species was studied in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, with the Kochi-based Peninsular and Marine Fish Genetic Resource (PMFGR) Division of NBFGR, conducting the study in Kerala.
The Union Ministry of Agriculture had earlier banned the farming of African catfish (Clarias gariepinus), which again was illegally introduced into aqua farms. The elimination of the species was ordered to prevent it from establishing itself in Indian waters, prevent cross-breeding with Indian species and to control the spread of fish diseases.
An earlier study, carried out by N.R. Chattarjee and B. Mazumdar of the West Bengal University of Animal and Fishery Sciences in Kolkata, reported that the pacu was “introduced as an alien species into India via Bangladesh.”
The PMFGR study conducted as part of risk assessment surveys in 2016, confirmed pacu farming in around 75 private farms in 39 panchayats of Alappuzha, Ernakulam and Thrissur districts.
The smaller varieties of pacu have a greyish-silver body with an orange hue that starts from its lower jaw and runs till its anal fin. The adult ones have more of a dark grey body with the orange hue. Experts say the dentition helps them distinguish pacu from its dreaded cousin, the piranha.
However, the State Fisheries Department has started acting against the farming of the species. Notices were issued to farmers in Ernakulam, said Deputy Director (Ernakulam Zone) of the State Fisheries Department, S. Mahesh.
Notices were issued by invoking Section 6 (i) of the Kerala Inland Fisheries and Aquaculture Act, which has prohibited the “propagation, rearing and marketing of fish species which is not indigenous.” For the first-time offenders, the Act prescribes an imprisonment of three months and fine of ₹10,000 or both. Though some Kerala farmers had tried farming the banned species way back in 2011, it spread only in the last three years. Agents source seeds from West Bengal, the NFDB report said.
Piranha vs pacu
The report says farmers use a wide range of feed options for the pacu — from slaughter house waste and fish feed to boiled tapioca and rice, food waste, groundnut oil and coconut oil cakes, wheat and vegetable waste. Though often mistaken for its deadly carnivorous cousin, the piranha, pacu are considered vegetarian, feeding on aquatic plants.
The ecological impacts of pacu farming have not been assessed in Kerala as no conclusive evidence of the species establishing itself in the natural waters of the State is available, V. S. Basheer, Scientist-in-Charge of the PMFGR Centre, said.
However, some instances of pacu in natural waters were reported from Edathua, Pulinkunnu, Kuttanad, and Thakazhi in Alappuzha district and from Thriprayar River and Kettuchira in Thrissur during the ICAR-NBFGR study.
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