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rural aquaculture
(Part 1)

Provincial Aquaculture
Development Project

Dr. Simon Funge-Smith
FAO Aquaculture Development Advisor


The Provincial Aquaculture Development Project (LAO/97/007) is funded as part of a UNDP country programme for rural development. The project is government executed through the Department of Livestock and Fisheries, with technical and management assistance provided by FAO. The project duration is three years (November 1997 December 2000).
LAO/97/007 follows on from previous UNDP/ FAO aquaculture development projects that had started aquaculture activities and established feasibility. During these previous projects it was emphasised that the capacity of the government Livestock and Fisheries service to extend aquaculture on a wider scale was extremely weak. This has been due to a variety of reasons:

  • poor accessibility of rural areas, lack of roads and government vehicles;

  • difficulty in co-ordinating and managing national scale iniciatives due to provincial autonomy;  

  • previous restrictions on inter-province travel;


  • lack of government funding for rural livestock and fisheries extension;

  • insufficient staff at Provincial and district level;

  • lack of capacity and poor incentivisation/ management of district livestock officers; and

  • shortage of fish fingerlings and lack of distribution network during peak seasonal demand.

LAO/97/007 is working in five provinces: Oudomxay, Sayaboury, Xieng Khouang, Savannakhet and Sekong Provinces. Within these provinces, there are 14 districts involved with a total of 37 farmer groups (440 families). The target provinces are distributed along the length of the country and incorporate both lowland and upland environments. The project objectives are to:

improve fish fry production from government hatcheries through structural improvements and training;
encourage fish fry production by farmers/ entrepreneurs through extension of simple techniques and farmer training;
develop the capacity of Department of Livestock and Fisheries staff to plan and conduct extension of fish culture techniques to farmers;
form farmers groups and introduce them to fish culture as part of Department of Livestock and Fisheries extension process; and
assist farmers and hatchery entrepreneurs in their activities through provision of fish fry, broodstock and access to credit facilities.


Lao PDR has extensive water resources in the form of rivers, lakes and wetlands. Capture fisheries and the collection of aquatic animals during the rainy season are important activities in the country and provide an important part of the national diet. Rice cultivation (rainfed, irrigated and hill rice) is the predominant agricultural activity.

The country is a largely mountainous (80 percent), requiring the terracing of rice fields. The climate is characterised by a 6 months dry

season (November - April) and an equal period of rain (May - October).
A survey by LAO/97/007 of production and consumption in rural households showed that most households surveyed were on the borderline of the World Bank defined poverty threshold (1995) of 11 472 Kip ($1 = 700 Kip in 1995). Based on the survey of 5 provinces, provincial household net income year (net income = Income - cost of goods purchased) was Kip 2,090 - 6,547 Kip per capita per month (1$ = 2 400 Kip). Adjusting theses income figures to include the value of home-produced and consumed goods [i.e. net income = [Income from sale of goods + value of home produced goods consumed] - [household expenditure]] yields an average theoretical net income of 12 355 - 15 864 Kip per capita per month for 1997-98. However, since the Lao currency in 1995 was stronger than in 1997-1998, the adjusted income values were still below the World Bank threshold.
Lao rural families tend to be large with an average of 8 3 persons per household (range of provincial averages = 6.7 - 8.3). About 50 percent of the members of the households surveyed were younger than 15 years and only 10 percent were older than 51. Life expectancy is low, with an average of 51 years. About 30 percent of the adult population is illiterate and per capita GDP is estimated at $350 (UNDP 1996).

Consumption of aquatic products

Aquatic products form a major part of the Lao diet. During the rainy season, these products are collected from all forms of water bodies and wetlands (rice paddies). During the dry season, there is a major effort to collect the remaining animals trapped in shallow ponds, etc., created by receding waters. Surplus aquatic products produced during the rainy season are preserved in a variety of ways according to cultural preference and prevailing local conditions (commonly: fermenting, pickling, drying and smoking). The preserved products (principally fish) are then utilised throughout the dry season when food is relatively scarce.
Annual per capita fish consumption is reported to be 7 - 10 kg. This is lower than neighbouring countries and may reflect the extreme dry season and rapid runoff of water (due to the


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mountainous topography of the country). These values are probably under-estimated since surveys often fail to record the consumption of some widely consumed aquatic products. A recent survey of consumption by farmers in target areas of LAO/97/007 returned fresh fish consumption figures equal to or higher than previous estimates. If the contribution of dried and preserved fish and other aquatic products is included, total consumption would be 22 kg.capita-l.yr-1 (Table 1).
Fresh fish ranked second by value after rice (in household consumption) in 3 out of 5 provinces and was within the top four in all five provinces

(clothing and bedding was second in the other cases). About 81 - 97 percent of households reported that fresh fish was consumed in some quantity during the year.
The target districts surveyed in each province did not return fishing as a significant activity; the principle activity of the households was rice farming. Of the surveyed group, 315 families out of 373 had fishponds, although this sample is biased since respondents to the survey were generally those people already interested in fish culture.
The relative proportion of aquatic products and other protein sources in the diet of surveyed families is presented in Table 2. Fish consumption reported here principally reflects production from aquaculture and collection from small streams and rice fields.
Fish culture in ponds and rice-fields is practised in many areas and a variety of systems are used, according to the agro-climatic characteristics of the area. Government estimates of the land currently under aquaculture production are presented in Table 3. There are still considerable areas of land that could be developed for aquaculture either as fish ponds or as rice-fish culture. The production figures for pond culture in Table 3 are inflated, since most small ponds do not yield 2 500 kg per hectare due to low input levels and the short grow-out season. The government estimates approximately 2 400 farmers were producing fish in 1996, although it is likely that this figure is much higher now.

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Fish culture is becoming increasingly popular. Fish plays an important part in cultural activities of lowland Lao people and is the food of choice for celebrations and festivals. Since fish spoils quickly, and due to poor transport facilities and lack of ice, distribution of fish from the Mekong River system to more remote areas is restricted. As a result, during the seasonal migrations of fish up the Mekong, fish prices collapse in some areas (specifically southern Champassak), while relatively short distances away, markets for fish are still under-supplied.

During the dry season, fish are difficult to obtain and preserved fish are more commonly consumed. Peak price for fish is during the Lao New Year festival (mid-April), which coincides with some of the driest weather. Aquaculture provides fish during that season, allowing farmers to benefit from a good price for what is often a relatively low quality product.

Survey data suggests that most fish produced form rural aquaculture is consumed in the home or at least is not directly marketed. It is typical for a family to purchase fish from a neighbour in order to provide fish for celebrations.

Rural Lao fish culture requires a relatively low entry cost (self-construction of pond, fingerlings

for stocking and occasional feeding or fertilization). Species such as common carp and tilapia are popular partly because they breed in ponds with perennial water and farmers do not need to purchase fingerlings. Productivity of these ponds is extremely low, but the low financial risk makes this approach popular.

Importation of marine fish (from Thailand and Vietnam) is common although quantities are relatively small. Cultured fish from Thailand also can be found in most markets along the Mekong River. Wild caught fish from the Mekong may be landed in Lao but due to the higher price in Thailand are more likely to be sold on the Thai side.

Land and ponds

Land availability for fishpond construction is an issue in upland areas since flat land is primarily used for rice cultivation. The construction cost of fish ponds is prohibitive to most farmers who view aquaculture as a low investment, low risk enterprise. As such, farmers may construct a shallow pond, but are unlikely to invest significant capital in the operation, preferring the lower yield and financial security of a low input system. Tenancy of land is relatively rare since migration and re-population of areas during and after the war have lead to evenly


sized land packages. Previously, large family land holdings were divided amongst children ahead of time due to the concern that government requisition might ensue.

Good agricultural land and land suitable for wet rice cultivation is at a premium. Rice-fish culture is currently restricted to one or two provinces with a cultural heritage of rice-fish culture and/ or where rice-fish cultivation has been introduced through development projects.

In LAO/97/007 target provinces, the majority of Lao fish ponds are shallow (water depth less than 50 cm) and are hand constructed. Average fishpond area per household is 2 300 M2. Deeper ponds can be constructed in upland areas by damming valley streams, but this requires earthmoving equipment. Also, such ponds often collapse under spate water runoff during the monsoon season, since they usually lack diversion canals.

Fishponds which are able to hold water through the dry season until Lao New Year are able to command premium prices.

Fish Fry demand and production

Estimates of the fish fry requirement of the Lao PDR, based on land, reservoirs and rice-fields that are suitable for fish production are shown in Table 4. These figures are considered indicative or upper limits since not all listed sites/ areas are suited to aquaculture and the present fry stocking rates are very low. Despite this, it is apparent that fry production in the country is far below demand (only 30 percent of demand is supplied by in-country production). More recent estimates by LAO/97/007 show an increase in production from the provincial hatcheries but this is still well below estimated demand. The shortfall provides an incentive for the importation of fish fry from adjacent.

In situations where farmers are land-secure and possibly producing a rice surplus, inputs to the aquaculture system may become more significant. Feeding and fertilisation may be practised more regularly, and investment in pond
construction becomes more likely.

Where machinery is available, this may also be used for pond construction. Typically machine constructed ponds are found along roadsides where soil has been
removed for road construction, or
machinery operators have been paid to construct ponds in their spare time.

Water supply to ponds is varied but the typical Lao pond is rainfed. Water retention in the ponds is
variable but most farmers would expect to stock the pond in June as it fills with rainwater and harvest in November - February, depending upon water depth and condition of the pond.

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Figure 2. Net cages (hapas) for fry nursing in Lao PDR

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countries (Thailand, Vietnam and China) where fry can also be produced at a lower cost.

Due to the short fish growing season, in the typically seasonal ponds of the country, and the better survival of fingerlings (compared to fry), a large number of advanced fingerlings (3-5 cm) has to be supplied in a relatively short period of time (peak demand is during the early part of the monsoon season (June)). Since production of advanced fingerlings at provincial hatcheries is constrained by lack of adequate nursing area, and as farmers only purchase fry in small numbers, small farmer-based hatcheries would be more suited to meet demand in their localities. These hatcheries can be assured of sale of all their production since orders are taken in advance.

Fry nursing (in net cages) by farmers has been promoted by the AIT (Asia Institute of Technology) Outreach Project in southern Lao PDR (Savannakhet province) for nearly 5 years. Expertise in fry production techniques is not required at the farmer level since fry are purchased from the provincial hatchery. The small farmers merely take fry and nurse for up to one month and then sell (Figure 2). The economics of the operation are favourable, although the capital cost of the net cage can be a problem. Typically, the farmers rent the net cages at a subsidised rate for the nursing period. Farmers in Oudomxay have nursed fry to fingerling size, for their own use, as part of LAO/ 97/007 activities. This has helped reduce fry importation and provided a market for the small two week-old fry produced by provincial hatcheries in high numbers; previously, these were unmarketable due to high mortality after stocking. The demand for small fry is currently

localised, but interest is expected to increase as nursing activities are extended to five new provinces in 1999.

Aquaculture inputs

Inputs to ponds are generally low due to lack of availability or the tendency to feed other livestock in preference to fish. Pond fertilization is practised, but again the availability of fertilizer varies and there may be some competition between use in rice cultivation/paddy preparation and fishpond preparation. Farmers who have no experience of ricefish culture are often concerned that the construction of channels in their paddies might critically affect their rice yield. Results from some preliminary farmer trials in one province have shown that rice-fish culture actually increases the overall rice yield, even though ten percent of the paddy area is reduced by channel construction. It is not clear whether the improved rice yield was derived from fish activities in the rice paddy (stirring up nutrients, predation of rice pests) or whether occasional feeding/fertilization (to promote fish growth) was greater than normally practised in the absence of fish. The latter, if true, would highlight the minimal input nature of Lao agricultural systems, whereby very small changes in inputs can have quite dramatic results on production.

Typically livestock are not penned and therefore single point sources of manures are rare. This increases the effort required for manure collection and decreases the likelihood that sufficient fertilizers will be applied to fishponds. Integration of livestock over fishponds can be very productive where livestock are provided with complete feed, but this is rare in rural Laos.


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Harvestingfish from rice-fish culture

In upland areas, the use of boiled cassava as a fish feed is common; cassava is also widely eaten as a staple. Mixtures of rice bran and cassava give good fish yields especially if farmers also apply some fertilizers to ponds. Fertilization of fishponds is a relatively common practice, although quantities are often inadequate for good pond productivity. Lime is often unavailable away from provincial capitals and, when available, is approximately three times the price in adjoining countries. Lime application is therefore uncommon in both aquaculture and agriculture.

Formulated fish feed (herbivorous fish and catfish pellet) imported from Thailand is available in large cities and some provincial capitals and is expensive. There is a possibility that commercial fish feed production may commence in Vientiane Prefecture if

Livestock integration with aquaculture is becoming established in peri-urban areas as more intensive livestock rearing methods are adopted.

Rice milling in Lao PDR is performed at village level due to the availability of portable machinery. The cost of milling can be paid in currency or exchanged for the rice bran produced. Farmers unable to pay for milling will trade their rice bran. The lack of bran prevents these farmers from practising small animal husbandry (chickens, pigs) or providing inputs to fishponds. Rice mill owners are frequently the most diversified livestock producers, engaging in all species due to the ready availability of bran for animal feed.


the market is found to be viable. Paradoxically, the high price of fish in markets makes use of formulated fish feeds economically viable. The tendency not to use feeds is probably due to perceive higher economic risks.


Fisheries Division. 1997. Fisheries Data. Department of Livestock and Fisheries, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Vientiane, Lao DPR.
LAO/97/007.1998. Consumption and production survey database. Provincial Aquaculture Development Project, DLF, Vientiane, Lao DPR.
UNDP. 1996. Country Strategy Note. UNDP, Vientiane, Lao PDR.

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