I love Bali: Aquaculture and the paddy

by Chris O’Connor on 2013-05-24

For a long time I knew something was bothering me about the island’s rice fields but was unable to pinpoint exactly what it was. Despite the obvious beauty and often enigmatic rituals that surround rice production, there was something I felt should be present, but was missing, from the landscape. This morning, as I read the latest report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) relating to global fisheries and aquaculture, I realized what it was.

Wet rice cultivation is thousands of years old with the earliest known paddy dating to 6,280 BC, based on the carbon dating of grains of rice and soil organics from the Chaodun archeological site in Kushan, China. Rice throughout the region has long been associated with prosperity and ancient Chinese tombs from the Han Dynasty bear witness to this timeless fact being covered in rice field designs.

The association of rice with wealth and prosperity also runs deep in Bali, and the ceremonies surrounding both life-giving water and rice itself are plentiful, elaborate and very important. But there is a key difference between Chinese and Balinese ritual in that here we do not revere the paddy for mass aquaculture. Perhaps this is because the sea and rivers have always historically provided more than enough fish.

Today, however, the sea is not able to sustain the growing demand due in the main to overfishing and destruction. Global fish stocks are exploited or depleted to such an extent that, without drastic measures, we may be the last generation to catch food from the inshore and offshore waters in sufficient volume to sustain the human race as it has for millennia.

In 2011, global fish consumption hit a new record of 17 kg per person per year, rising to 24 kg per person in southeast Asia. Due to improved global transportation and commercial availability, four times more fish is consumed per person than in 1960 when the world’s population was only 3 billion. Today, only 53 years later, with population exceeding 7 billion, the planet’s marine life has an exceedingly grim outlook. Approximately 85% of global fish stocks are overexploited, depleted or fully exploited, and many species have already vanished forever.

Nationally, while concern about food security rises, fish stocks seem on the low priority list. A report published recently, “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2012”, by the FOA stated: “It has been some time since most humans lived as hunter-gatherers – with one important exception. Fish are the last wild animal that we hunt in large numbers. […] we may be the last generation to do so.” The report also states that catches in the region are expected to decline a further 40% by 2050.

In Bali, as fish numbers and size continue to shrink, fishermen turn more readily to destructive methods and encroach further on the island’s beautiful reefs. The current destruction is already catastrophic in places, but there may be a solution dating back thousands of years.

Paddy ecosystems provide ideal habitats for a range of naturally occurring aquatic creatures, often harvested, but they also offer opportunities for the culture of aquatic life: fish, snails, freshwater mussels, for example. Thus, the integration of rice and fish farming is, to my eyes, a natural progression. Integration can be total and provides huge potential for enhancing food production in managed aquatic systems which, in underdeveloped areas and areas of high poverty, is an excellent prospect.

Perhaps for the island rice-fish cultivation is a way forward. Not only does it provide a source of food or income at a local level, it takes the pressure off the sea and rivers thus allowing stocks and the wider environment to recover. Indonesia already produces 92,000 tons of aquatic produce this way, so the knowledge and experience already exists. In comparison to China, which produces over 1.2 million tons of fish, we can see the huge potential for a very small investment.

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