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  • IMPROVED MANAGEMENT, INCREASED CULTURE AND CONSUMPTION OF SMALL FISHSPECIES CAN IMPROVE DIETS OF THE RURAL POORShakuntala Haraksingh ThilstedThe WorldFish CenterConsultative Group on International Agricultural Research(CGIAR), Dhaka, Bangladesh


    Photo credit: Finn Thilsted

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    AbstractIn many low-income countries with water re-sources, small fish species are important for thelivelihoods, nutrition and income of the rural poor.The small size of fish favours frequent consump-tion by and nutrition of the rural poor, as these fishare captured, sold and bought in small quantities;used both raw and processed in traditional dishes;and are nutrient-rich. All small fish species are arich source of animal protein, and as they areeaten whole have a very high content of bioavail-able calcium. Some are rich in vitamin A, iron, zincand essential fats. Measures to improve manage-ment and increase culture and consumption ofsmall fish include community-based managementof common water bodies; culture of small fish inponds and rice fields; use of small marine fish fordirect human consumption, especially in vulnerablepopulation groups; and improved handling, trans-portation, processing especially drying and mar-ket chains to reduce loss and increase accessibility,especially in hard to reach population groups. Recentintegrated initiatives such as Scaling Up Nutrition(SUN) Framework and Roadmap: 1,000 Days GlobalEffort, focusing on the linkages between agricultureand nutrition give good opportunities for promotingimproved management, and increased culture andconsumption of small fish species.

    1. Introduction In many low-income countries, with water resources,fish and fisheries are an integral part of the liveli-hoods, nutrition and income of the rural poor. Inthese population groups, a large proportion of thefish caught, bought and consumed is from capturefisheries, and made up of small fish species. However,as national statistics on fish production and con-sumption fail to capture data on these small fishspecies, their importance in diets is neglected (Rooset al., 2006). Very few consumption surveys have re-ported on fish intake at species level. InBangladesh, data from some rural surveys showthat small freshwater fish species make up a large

    part of total household fish consumption; fish is atraditional and common food; the frequency of fishintake is high; and the amounts consumed aresmall. These surveys also show that fish is an irre-placeable animal source food for the rural poor;adding diversity to a diet dominated by one grainstaple, rice. In addition, survey data show that thetotal fish consumption among the rural poor hasdecreased, as well as the proportion of small fishspecies of total fish consumption (Thompson et al.,2002). In Bangladesh, small indigenous fish speciesare characterized as species growing to a maximumof 25 cm or less. In some African countries, for ex-ample, Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, the im-portance of small fish species, for example kapenta(Limnothrissa spp.) as a major animal source foodin the diets of rural populations, living close to lakesis recognized (Haug et al., 2010). In coastal commu-nities, small marine fish species are also importantin the diets of the poor.

    2. Factors related to the small size of fish whichbenefit consumptionThere are many factors related to the small size offish species, which make them especially favourablefor inclusion in the diets of the rural poor. InBangladesh, the diversity of small fish species is large;and a large proportion of the over 267 freshwaterand 400 species from the mangrove waters in theSundarbans is of small size (Islam and Haque, 2004;Rahman, 1989). Capture fisheries continue to be animportant source of fish. In the monsoon and post-monsoon periods (JuneNovember), the floodplainsare inundated, providing an ideal habitat for themany fish species, and people have access to thesefor consumption as well as local sale. Much of thesmall fish is sold in small rural markets, and this isthe major source of fish for consumption by therural population. Small fish are sold in small heapsof mixed species, can be bought in quantities whichare affordable, and can be cooked for one meal orfor daily consumption, favouring a high frequency ofconsumption (Roos, 2001). This is important, taking

  • into consideration that fish is highly perishable andthe rural population does not have the possibility tokeep foods cold or frozen. In northern Zambia,heaps of around 20 g raw chisense (many small fishspecies, dominated by Poecilothrissa moeruensis)are sold and bought. Fish capture and productionare highly seasonal with peak and lean seasons, andprocessing of fish, especially sun-drying gives thepossibility to make good use of small fish specieswhich are plentiful and affordable in the peak season,reduce weight which eases transportation andstorage, as well as extend the length of storage timeand duration of intake. Traditional products suchas dried, smoked, salted and fermented small fish,as well as fish paste and fish sauce are made athousehold level and bought in small quantities fromlocal markets. Raw and processed small fish arenormally cooked as a mixed curry or stew dish, withlittle oil, vegetables and spices. It is reported thatthese dishes are well-liked, easy to prepare, addtaste and flavour to meals made up of large quantitiesof one staple, for example rice or maize, as well ascontribute to dietary diversity. A dish with small fishand vegetables can be shared more equitablyamong household members, including womenand young children (Roos et al., 2007b). Surveys ofperceptions of small fish species in rural Bangladeshshow that many are considered beneficial for well-being, nutrition and health, and women rankedsmall fish as the second most preferred food to buy after fruits if they had more income to spend onfood (Deb and Haque, 2011; Nielsen et al., 2003;Thilsted and Roos, 1999).

    3. Intake and nutritional contribution of small fishspecies Some rural surveys have shown the effect of location,seasonality, year and household socio-economicstatus on fish consumption. In a survey conducted in199798, in an area in northern Bangladesh withrich fisheries resources; the average fish intake in thepeak fish production season (October), 82 g raw, ed-

    ible parts/person/d was more than double that inthe lean season (July); and five common smallspecies made up 57 percent of the total intake (Rooset al., 2003). The nutritional contribution of small fishspecies is high. It is well recognized that fish are a richsource of animal protein, and some marine fish havea high content of total fat and essential fats. Recently,some small freshwater fish species have beenreported as being rich sources of fat and essentialfats. Trey sloeuk russey (Paralaubuca typus) fromCambodia has a high fat content (12 g/100 g dried fish)(Roos et al., 2010). Dried usipe (Engraulicyprissardella) from an area around Lake Malawi contains1 700 mg docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) per 100 g driedfish, comparable to salmon. The DHA concentrationin the breast milk of women from this area wasfound to be about 0.7 percent of fatty acids; abouttwice the global average (K. Dewey, personalcommunication, 7 April 2011). However, the contribution of small fish species as arich source of vitamins and minerals has not beenwidely documented and is overlooked. In the above-mentioned study from Bangladesh, small fish con-tributed 40 percent and 31 percent of the totalrecommended intakes of vitamin A and calcium, re-spectively, at household level, in the peak fish pro-duction season (Roos et al., 2006). Some commonsmall species, mola (Amblypharyngodon mola),chanda (Parambassis spp), dhela (Ostreobramacotio cotio) and darkina (Esomus danricus) havehigh content of vitamin A. As most small fishspecies are eaten whole, with bones, they are also avery rich source of highly bioavailable calcium.Darkina, as well as trey changwa plieng (Esomuslongimanus) from Cambodia have a high iron andzinc content (Roos et al., 2007a). A traditional dailymeal of rice and sour soup made with trey changwaplieng can meet 45 percent of the daily iron re-quirement of a Cambodian woman. In addition, fishenhances the bioavailability of iron and zinc fromthe other foods in a meal (Aung-Than-Batu et al.,1976).


  • 4. Measures to increase the availability andconsumption of small fish speciesWith fast-growing populations in low-income coun-tries, changing trends in use of land and water,overfishing, degradation of fish habitats and lack ofmanagement of water and fisheries resources, theavailability of freshwater fish, especially small specieshas decreased. In some Asian countries, aquacultureof large, fast-growing fish species has been vigorouslypromoted in response to declining fish availability.In Bangladesh, pond polyculture of carps, and recently,monoculture of the introduced species, Nile tilapia(Oreochromis niloticus) and pangas (Pangasius sutchi),mainly for urban markets, have been very success-ful. The intake of silver carp (Hypophthalmichthysmolitrix) a large fish which is not well liked andmakes up a large proportion of aquaculture pro-duction has increased among the poor, as totalfish intake has decreased. Due to species differencesin nutrient content, as well as large fish not eatenwhole as small fish for example, the bones areplate waste this production technology of largefish does not favour increased fish consumption bythe poor or contribution to micronutrient intake(Roos et al., 2007b).

    Recognizing the decline in biodiversity of indigenousfreshwater fish species in Bangladesh, as well asgrowing attention to the nutritional importance ofsmall species, some measures have been taken toconserve, manage and culture indigenous fish.

    Conservation and management of common fisheriesresources and fish migration routes through com-munity-based and community-managed fisheriesapproaches have proved successful in increasingtotal fish production many times, the diversity of fishspecies, as well as the proportion of small fishspecies captured and consumed by landless andsmall farming households (Center for Natural Re-source Studies, 1996). Similar positive results havebeen achieved in the Management of Aquatic

    Ecosystems through Community Husbandry(MACH) projects (19982003) which included inter-ventions to restore three major wetlands habitats,ensure sustainable productivity and improve thelivelihoods of the poor who depend on these wet-lands, through community based co-management(Anonymous, 2003).

    Pond polyculture of carps with the vitamin A richsmall fish, mola was introduced in Bangladesh in thelate 1990s. No significant difference in total fish pro-duction was seen between ponds stocked with carpsand mola, and those with carps alone. However, thenutritional quality of the total fish production im-proved considerably in the ponds with mola. In thisproduction system, the eradication of indigenous fish,the majority being small species, by repeated netting,dewatering, and the use of a piscicide, rotenone; pre-stocking of carp fingerlings based on the rationalethat competition exists between native and stockedfish was stopped. As small fish species breed inponds, frequent partial harvesting must be practised,and this favours home consumption. In addition tothe production of carps, a small mola production of10 kg/pond/y, in the estimated four million small,seasonal ponds in Bangladesh can meet the annualrecommended vitamin A intake of six million children(Roos et al., 2007b). This production technology ofcarp-small fish pond polyculture has gained wide ac-ceptance by the Government of Bangladesh and de-velopment partners, and is also being practised inSundarbans, West Bengal and Terai, Nepal. Carp pro-duction and management of indigenous fish speciesin beels (floodplain depressions and lakes) have alsoresulted in large increases in total fish production(over 0.6 tonnes/ha, in 6 months, of which 45 percentwere non-stocked fish, mainly small species) (Rah-man et al., 2008). Depending on geographical locationand season, different culture practices with fish andrice have shown to increase fish diversity, as well asthe nutritional quality of the combined rice and fishproduction (Dewan et al., 2003; Kunda et al., 2009).


  • A central issue regarding the availability of smallfish species for direct human consumption is thevast amounts of small marine fish (about 23.8million tonnes in 2006) used to produce fish mealand fish oil, primarily for aquaculture (Tacon andMetian, 2009). There is growing concern of thedwindling supplies and population collapse ofsmall marine fish species (Pinsky et al., 2011).More focused advocacy and awareness, as well asdevelopment and implementation of policies, reg-ulations and interventions are needed in order tosignificantly reduce this trend. Fish powder madefrom small marine fish can be used as an excellentsource of essential nutrients in feeding pro-grammes for pregnant and lactating women, youngchildren, school children, the sick and elderly. In theWINFOOD project presently being conducted inCambodia and Kenya, complementary foods foryoung children with powdered, nutrient-rich smallfish species have been developed, and efficacy stud-ies are being carried out (Roos et al., 2010).

    Improving handling and transportation, process-ing and market chains to reduce the largeamounts of fish lost due to spoilage and waste cangreatly increase the accessibility of small fish andfish products to the poor and population groupswhich are hard to reach. Recognizing that im-provements in transportation and storage systemsfor raw fish can be difficult to achieve in low-in-come countries, much more efforts should bemade to improve traditional sun-drying methods.In Mali, a simple, robust mobile fish dryer hasbeen developed which eliminates contaminationcaused by spreading the fish on soil, and the useof insecticides to keep away flies during sun-dry-ing. In addition, the time needed for drying isshort, and the temperature used is controlled andlower than that reached from direct exposure tothe sun, resulting in a product of high nutritionaland food safety quality (Heilporn et al., 2010).

    5. Conclusion Recent attention to linkages between agriculture,human nutrition and health gives new possibilitiesto focus on management and culture of small fishspecies for improved diets. There are initiativessuch as the CGIAR Research Programmes; USAIDfunded Feed the Future; Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN)Framework and Roadmap: 1,000 Days Global Effort;Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Chal-lenges Explorations Rounds 7 and 8: Explore Nutri-tion for Healthy Growth of Infants and YoungChildren; and CIDA funded Grand ChallengesCanada: Saving Brains focus on integrated ap-proaches to improve nutrition. For implementingSUN: 1,000 Days Global Effort, recommendationsfor the increased availability, accessibility and in-take of fish as a rich source of essential...


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