Morrison Mast | Tilapia: Keeping Turtles off the Menu

Tilapia: Keeping Turtles off the Menu

June 15, 2014  •  1 Comment

When Amanda and I first visited Armila as recent college graduates in late 2012, we sat with the chiefs (Sahilas) of the village to identify the most pressing issues within their community. The one that kept coming up was the scarcity of protein, an issue that not only affects people, but sea turtles as well.

The community had found out about a government initiative to support individuals and small communities in the cultivation of tilapia, a very hardy, very tasty freshwater fish that can be grown with minimal expertise and materials.  However, they needed to raise $2,000 to be able to undertake the project, and ARAP (a government institution similar to our USFWS) had agreed to donate training, baby fish, technical support, and food for a year.  Amanda and I took this project under the umbrella of a fundraiser to support sea turtle conservation in Armila.  Thanks to the generous support of over 50 donors, within a few months were able to provide the community with the funds they had solicited.


The reason that this is a turtle conservation issue is that in Armila, from as early as October until as late as April (up to half the year), the windand waves are so strong in this coastal town that fishermen can’t go out to sea to fish.  Neither can motorboats get in or out of the town to resupply it.  All food must be hunted or gathered from forest or river, or be carried over a jungle-covered mountain by mule.  The tilapia aquaculture project aimed to keep turtle off the menu in a region where long-held taboos on eating turtle eggs are starting to show signs of wear.  And after having lived through Armila’s windy season, let me tell you that ANY kind of eggs or meat start looking pretty appetizing after having eaten nothing but SPAM and plantains for a couple months straight.

Two years after our fist visit, I am happy (and relieved) to be able to say that our first 300 tilapia are now happily swimming around with full room and board in Armila.  During those two years, there were several points at which the project seemed in jeopardy, and each time the community was able (sometimes with a bit of urging from Amanda and me) to surpass these obstacles and move on. 



When Amanda and I first started working full-time in Armila, we arrived in the town to some interesting news.  According to local authorities, a demon (yes, a demon) had been spotted near the construction site for the tilapia project.  This had not only halted construction, it had placed the aquaculture project at the center of a rare, traditional religious ceremony that the Guna perform to exorcize malignant spirits from their town.  Amanda and I were asked to leave the town while the intricate, ancient ritual took place.  This included the smoking of copious amounts of tobacco, building a makeshift town for women and children on the other side of the river where they spent the better part of two weeks, and opening a metaphysical portal into which the demon (metaphysically bound and gagged with the help of spiritually-animated wooden dolls) was cast into the fourth level of the Guna underworld.

We discovered later that the woman who had spotted the demon was the wife of one of the town’s most prodigious fishermen, who was afraid the new source of protein would drive down the price of fish in the community and destroy his livelihood.  The process of explaining the benefits and drafting regulations on the use of the limited source of tilapia took several months of sitting and communicating with townsfolk, both in their homes and in the village council.

After this had all blown over, Amanda and I lobbied for the project to go forward.  The community still believed it would be in their best interest in the long run, but many people were scared to continue; no one wanted to take the reins.  We discussed the issue with the religious leaders that had led the cleansing ceremony and confirmed that it was okay to proceed, then gave pep talks to several people in the town who re-organized and slowly began to dig out the massive fish tank.  Funds from our Indiegogo campaign, managed by a dedicated Sea Turtle Commission in the town, paid for plumbing, blowtorches, shovels, pickaxes, wheelbarrows (locally constructed), and cold drinks when it was particularly hot outside.  CArd2-409CArd2-409

Several times throughout the year, the project seemed destined to fail.  Since the workers spent a majority of their day looking for food to feed their families, they could only afford to work a couple of hours per day, in the hottest part of the dry season.  But the community always found a way.  At times, project funds would feed the families of the workers so that the men of the house could break their backs digging this tank all day. A couple of times, the local police force would put down their machine guns, place an armed security detail in the jungle surrounding the tank, and throw pickaxes and shovels alongside the community.  Amanda and I would go out every afternoon for nearly 2 months and move earth with the community, and afterwards go to the town council to help the “Tilapia Co-Op,” as they referred to themselves, quell the incessant complaints of the fishermen.

While by day they worked the earth, by night the battles were fought in the town council. Would the tilapia tank reduce the town’s water supply? Would the pond breed mosquitoes and spread disease in the town?  Would we anger the demons by spiting them with this project?  Should we sell the fish or give it away?  If we sell it, at what price? To whom do the benefits go, the town, or the people who put the work in to build the tank?  While the town dug, delayed, and deliberated, deadline after deadline was missed and thankfully extended by the national government.  In the end, all these issues were resolved and Armila finished the tank spectacularly. 

DSC_3459DSC_3459 The final tank measures around 80x70 feet, about 4 feet deep all the way around, the largest aquaculture tank in the region and the first in Guna Yala (see video below or on YouTube for a view of the tank).  A tube comes off from the town’s aqueduct to provide water and oxygen.  Amanda asked the government to train two more people from Armila in managing the fish, and the community sent two young students to the other side of the country (partially with funds from the Indiegogo campaign) to learn proper tilapia care and tank maintenance.  In a few months, these fish will be of reproductive age and will give birth to the first generation of tilapia born in Armila.  After that, the government has already destined a large plastic tank (the size of a small house) to Armila to help with the reproduction and harvesting process. 


The Future of Tilapia in Armila

Although I won’t be able to taste the tilapia by the time I leave this year, I feel like a major milestone has been reached in this project.  The people of the town come to me every day telling me how big the fish have gotten, asking me whether they’re getting enough water, and generally showing a lot of positive interest in the project.

The Tilapia Co-Op and the Sea Turtle Commission are not only proud of their work, they’re now thinking of other ways they can pool their manpower to feed the town in diverse ways.  They want to use the runoff from the tank to grow rice, or fence off some of the surrounding area to start an iguana-cultivation project.  I’m excited to see how these two bodies will collaborate in the future to defend the non-consumptive value of leatherback sea turtles in Armila’s local culture.


Maria Teresa Garcia(non-registered)
Wow guys, what a great job. Congratulations to both of you!!!!!!!!!
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