In the last fifteen years, aquaculture in Costa Rica has acquired an increasing importance, not only as an alternative to producing protein of aquatic origin, but also from the point of view of business development.
At present, freshwater aquaculture is the dominant practice in Costa Rica; focusing in fish cultivation, specifically trout and tilapia. In 2004, over 18 000 tonnes of the latter species were produced, aimed at both the internal and international markets. For that same year, trout production exceeded 500 tonnes, mainly for the internal market. With regards to brackish water cultivation, shrimp farming of the litopenaeus genera is the dominant activity, having reached a production of over 5 000 tonnes in 2004.
The cultivation of the giant river prawn (Macrobrachium rosenbergii) is carried out at a very small-scale, with yearly productions of around 5 tonnes.
The number of producers has increased significantly, reaching 1 146 aquatic producers for 2004 at the national scale, of which 68.41 percent are tilapia producers, 23.30 percent trout producers, 7.85 percent shrimp producers, and 0.44 percent farm either the freshwater prawn or the channel catfish.
The development of aquaculture in Costa Rica, as in other Latin American countries, was oriented towards the adoption of simple technologies in rural areas for the cultivation of the introduced species, specifically tilapia.
The aim was to develop low-cost animal protein production alternatives, which simultaneously would favour the socio-economic development of rural areas.
The nascent aquaculture began to develop with the introduction, in 1963, of Oreochromis mossambicus and Sarotherodon melanopleura, brought from El Salvador by the Ministry of Agriculture and Husbandry (MAG) (Ruiz, 1980); the Inter-American Institute of Agricultural Sciences having implemented the first organised efforts in 1965.
It should also be mentioned that new tilapia species were imported through cooperation by the Agricultural Technical Mission of the Republic of China (Taiwan Province of China).
The Department of Aquaculture was created in 1974. Its function was to promote the development of aquaculture at the national level, which was achieved due to the creation and improvement of the basic infrastructure of experimental stations (ASBANA, 1979). Among them outstand: the Enrique Jiménez Núñez Aquatic Station in the province of Guanacaste; the Los Diamantes Aquatic Station, province of Limón; the Aquatic Station in Cuestillas de San Carlos and the Research and Aquatic Production Centre Ojo de Agua in Dota.
As the activity flourished, the Support Programme for the Development of Fisheries of the Central American Isthmus (Pradepesca) started its activities in 1992, which, through its Regional Project for the Strengthening of Aquaculture, contributed to the provision of adequate research means in support of the development of the activity throughout the isthmus.
Marine aquaculture has been mostly oriented to research on the production of commercially important species, including their biometric and gonad evaluation under captivity.
The cultivation of molluscs began over twenty years ago, with studies on the growth of the oyster Crassostrea rhizophorae.
Shrimp culture began in 1975 with the establishment of the private enterprise Maricultura S.A. in Chomes, Puntarenas, whose aim was the production of three species: Penaeus vannamei, P. stylirostris and P. occidentalis. (BID-FAO, 1977).
Finally, in 1996 the cultivation of marine fish formally began in Costa Rica within the framework of an agreement between the Peninsular Integral Rural Development Project (DRIP) and the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca). This activity is still in its experimental stage. (Pers. comm.: Biol. Álvaro Otárola, Aquaculture Department, Incopesca).
As can be observed in Table 1, by 2004, 1 146 producers of the various aquatic species had been recorded. However, taking into account the existence of large tilapia producing farms in the zone of Cañas (Aquacorporación Internacional S.A., La Pacífica, Guanapez and El Pelón de la Bajura) and that there is also a processing plant (Terrapez) where all tilapia farmed for export markets is processed, it is estimated that in this region alone, the activity benefits 1 328 people. The employment generation in the rest of the country add up to a total of 3 396 people directly related to the productive sector. Their different tasks of personnel with primary and middle school education include: feeding, grading, harvesting, and processing of cultured organisms, pond water level control, maintenance of the hydraulic infrastructure, etc. The larger shrimp and tilapia farms, such as Aquacorporación Internacional S.A., La Pacifica, Guanapez, El Pelón de la Bajura, etc. employ professionals graduated in biology and agronomy who take on the technical tasks (research, nutrition, management of the production systems, diseases, etc.).
In the case of small and medium-sized fish farming projects, the proprietors themselves carry out the tasks of managing and operating their farms, with technical assistance by aquaculture professionals from the Costa Rican Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture. (Pers. Comm.: Biol. Álvaro Otárola, Aquaculture Department, Incopesca).
Table 1. Number of aquaculture producers by species Costa Rica: 2004
Other: freshwater prawn and catfish
Due to the great variety of micro-climates and the excellent hydrographical conditions of the country, aquaculture development has taken place all over Costa Rica.
As can be observed in Table 2 the main species, by production volume and number of cultivated hectares are Nile tilapia, Oreochromis niloticus, whiteleg shrimp, Penaeus vannamei, and rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss.
Table 2. Hectares under production by cultured species. Costa Rica: 2000-2004
Source: Aquaculture Department – Incopesca. Database 2005.
Tilapia production is the most important aquaculture practice undertaken in Costa Rica. The culture of tilapia may fall under two categories: an intensive industrial type and semi-intensive rural practice. The first one is practiced by private enterprises owned by foreign and national investors, whose production is mostly channelled to U.S. markets, and only a small portion is retained for the national market. Most of these larger enterprises are located in the Canas, Bagaces and Liberia areas, within the Province of Guanacaste. Production is carried out under intensive and semi-intensive cultivation systems. Water is exchanged at rates of 24 to 48 times per day in intensive earthen-pond systems; pond sizes vary between 500 to 1 000 square metres; nationally produced extruded feeds are used with stocking densities of 100 fish per cubic metre. Intensive cultivation in cages is carried out in Lake Arenal. Cages measure 4 x 4 x 3 metres and fish are stocked at densities of 100 to 150 per cubic metre; nationally produced extruded feeds are also utilized. Semi-intensive tilapia cultivation is carried out by small and medium scale farmers. This practice includes three cultivation stages: nursery, pre-growth and on-growth
The trout cultivation activity occurs in the highlands, at an altitude of over 1 500 metres above sea level. The current production scheme for this species is based on intensive systems practiced either in rectangular or circular concrete tanks, as well as in earthen ponds, with high water exchange rates (12 to 24 per day).
Shrimp production is located in two provinces: Puntarenas and Guanacaste, in areas neighbouring the Gulf of Nicoya, the Central Pacific and the South Pacific.
At present, two cultivation systems are practiced:
The single species cultured under this modality is Litopenaeus vannamei, at stocking densities of 11 to 14 shrimp per cubic metre, with survival rates of 50 to 70 percent (Soto, 2005). Pelleted extruded feeds are provided to the shrimp. The production cycle has duration of between 3.5 and 4 months, which allows two and a half harvests per year. Production per cycle may reach between 1 200 and 1 300 kg/ha which corresponds to a total of 3 000 to 3 250 kg/ha/year.
Semi-intensive shrimp cultivation with partial harvests
Since about a year ago, some shrimp farms have reduced their production strategy to one single cultivation cycle a year, covering only the winter months. During this single cycle, a series of partial harvests are carried out. Average survival rates are about 42 percent and production may reach approximately 4 500 to 5 000 kilograms per hectare/year. The purpose of this strategy is the reduction of costs and risks, as well as the increase of productivity (Villarreal, 2005).
Table 3 shows production data for the period 2000-2004.
Table 3: Aquatic production by species (tonnes)
The graph below shows total aquaculture production in Costa Rica according to FAO statistics:
The main markets and distribution channels consist of farm-gate sales, distribution or sales in Exclusive Fairs (also called Agricultural Fairs). Sales in nearby restaurants and bars offering the whole-product presentation have recently expanded.
Also, the selling system called “Fish and Pay” has become popular, particularly for trout, which is the sport or recreational fishing in the farm ponds of the producer.
In the last seven years, the marketing of aquatic products as retail sales in the various national supermarket chains and exclusive fishmongers’ stalls in the municipal markets in the cities of the Greater Metropolitan Area has expanded due to the significant increase in consumption of fishery products. The diversification of product presentation in these markets has also occurred.
The marketing margins of aquaculture products range on average between 50 and 75 percent, depending on the product. These high percentages are comparatively higher than for fishery products due to fact that fewer intermediaries participate in the distribution of aquaculture products.
In Costa Rica, neither labelling nor certifications of aquaculture products have been implemented. This is particularly true for the domestic market, where traceability records do not exist. Since all export products must have the corresponding label, processing plants do comply with such requirement.
According to estimates by the Department of Marketing of Incopesca, the aquaculture production of small-scale and medium-sized producers generated an overall income of US$6 473 858
The government agency vested with administrative control of aquaculture is the Costa Rican Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture (Incopesca), created by Law 7384 and published in the official journal “La Gaceta” on 29 March 1994.
Article 2 of Incopesca’s creation Law, established its basic functions:
As can be observed in the institutional organization chart, the Department of Aquaculture at Incopesca depends directly from the General Technical Directorate. This Department is located at the institution’s central offices in San José.
Incopesca’s main objectives related to aquaculture include:
Rules and regulations on aquaculture of the new Law on Fisheries and Aquaculture. These regulations are still being discussed at the institutional level, because the new Law on Fishing and Aquaculture went into effect on 25 April, date of its publication at the Official Journal La Gaceta. In Article 175 of the said law, a term of 90 days is established for the Executive to regulate the law.
Rules and Regulations of the National Programme for the Implementation of Good Management Practices and Quality Assurance of Hydro-biological Products (Official Journal La Gaceta 79 of 25 April 2003). These regulations went into effect since 2003 and stipulate the sanitary requirements for all stages of the value chain of fisheries and aquaculture.
Rules and Regulations for the Creation of the Environmental Levy on Waste Disposal (Official Journal La Gaceta, 121 of 25 June 2003). Whereby all physical and judicial, public and private persons who make direct or indirect use of the bodies of water to introduce, transport, dilute and/ or eliminate residues that modify the water’s physical, chemical and biological quality must be subjected to the payment of a levy for the use of hydrological resources for dumping polluting substances.
Today, a research programme focused on the reproductive biology of native species such as the “bobo” mullet (Joturus pichardi) and the native giant prawn of the Macrobrachium generis being carried out, mainly at the Los Diamantes Aquaculture Station, in Guápiles.
Research on aquaculture is only carried out at the national level in large tilapia-producing farms, such as Aquacorporación Internacional S.A., where biologists have been assigned specifically for this purpose.
Table 4. Research and Education Entities
During the past ten years, aquaculture has undergone a vertiginous development, specifically in terms of tilapia cultivation in inland waters. This development is related to the establishment of large foreign and national capital companies in the regions of Cañas, Bagaces and Liberia, province of Guanacaste.
These regions have a very expensive and extensive governmental irrigation infrastructure, which uses the water drained from the Arenal hydro electrical dam, and which supplies the large tilapia cultivation projects in the area.
The joint efforts of several of these companies, through strategic alliances for basic activities such as product processing, production of quality seeds, training, purchase of inputs, etc., have contributed to their high competitiveness. Thus, their production areas and their volume of product are expanded, both for the internal market and for export towards the United States.
Complementarily to these large tilapia enterprises, feed manufacturing businesses have strived to win markets for their pelleted feeds through offering quality and low prices. This has also benefited the small- and medium-sized aquatic producers.
Shrimp cultivation has shown an increase in production with ups and downs caused by the constant problems of diseases that have affected the activity. This problem has generated a change in culture practices, with a trend to diminish stress on shrimps to lower the risk of incidence of pathologies.
Also, the strongly enforced environmental restrictions in the mangrove and nearby areas, limit the growth of the activity.
Trout culture has developed slowly because of the restrictions imposed by the fact that it may only be established in high mountain ranges with adequate conditions for the activity. These areas occur only in the central area of the country, at altitudes of over 1 500 metres above sea level.
Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) cultivation has strived in the last five years and the product is already found in some supermarkets of the Great Metropolitan Area.
Marketing of aquatic products has evolved drastically. This may be related, firstly to the evolution in production systems, but also to the modernisation of the manufacturing of extruded feeds used for each cultured species.
For example, tilapia, which used to be a species used for subsistence fish farming, nowadays has become an important income-generating activity. One determining factor in the evolution of demand and consumption of tilapia —which has rapidly increased nationally—, is the taste and appearance of the product, modified through the improvement of the extruded feeds supplied to fish for ten years. Initially, tilapia was not fed adequate feeds; besides, tilapia had muddy off-flavour and its appearance was not very enticing. At present tilapia is a popular fish due to the above-mentioned factors, and also because a private company has carried out an important work in the marketing and promotion of the species.
The seasonal fishing ban imposed on the corvina or weakfish in the Gulf of Nicoya, which is the main artisanal fishery in Costa Rica, has contributed to the increase in demand of tilapia. To better illustrate the evolution in tilapia-consumption behaviour in the domestic market, and specifically in the Great Metropolitan Area, mention can be made that ten years ago, its consumption was estimated at 5 tonnes per year, but nowadays it is between 100 and 150 tonnes. With regards to the substitution of products, something similar happens with cultured shrimp during the seasonal bans on shrimp catches in the Gulf of Nicoya.
Another important cultivated species, especially for income generation in rural communities, is trout. Trout consumption or demand levels are not at all equivalent to those of tilapia; first of all, because trout production has not yet become the target productive activity for income purposes. Rather, it is practiced as a complementary activity. However, the demand for trout at market level is evolving positively and attractively because of the exclusive nature of this product. This is conditioned by the behaviour of the market. (Pers. Comm.: Biologists Álvaro Otárola and Rolando Ramírez, public workers at the Department of Aquaculture and Marketing, Incopesca).
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