Paraguay’s Pioneering Tilapia Aqua Farm

Acahay, Ybyraity County, Paraguay

With the South American country of Paraguay’s having no ocean frontage or seaports, until twenty years ago the only way to acquire seafood in commercial quantities was to import it at great expense. Thus not many of the country’s consumers could afford to buy a fish dinner. Then along came entrepreneurs Luc Van Ruymbeke and his wife Aida Ramos who saw a need that could be filled and they built the country’s first aqua farm. Luc is an agricultural engineer from Belgium and Aida, my wife’s sister, is a marine biologist from Honduras. They have combined their talents into a thriving family enterprise, Granja Aida 1, a 124 acre aqua farm containing 105 ponds, each one being about 3,000 square meters in size. At capacity the farm can supply slightly in excess of a half million pounds of fish per year including other countries in South America, Europe and the United States.

Luc and Aida selected this remote location outside the small town of Acahay, about a three-hour drive easter from the capital of Asuncion, because of the natural aquifers underground and abundant rainfall. They actually had to drain the swamp and install berms to create the ponds. Because the water table is high no plastic or concrete lining is needed to retain water. They designed the water system so that water flows by gravity using channels. The only place where pumps are needed is at the farmhouse.

Recently Ruth, our children and I, were invited to spend nearly two weeks at the farm. We had never been to Paraguay before and I had not met Luc nor daughters, Suzy and Sophie previously. On our first tour of the property we learned that the aqua farm business here is not without its hazards and risks. This former swamp land still has all the critters you would normally find in a swamp. Poisonous snakes are a menace. Fortunately the snakes are in winter hibernation this time of year but when they wake up in a few months they will be hungry and will bite anything that moves. They have been found inside the house and they like to curl up in people’s boots. This gives new meaning to “shake your booty” when you get up in the morning! Other seasonal predators that steal great quantities of fish if left uncontrolled are cormorants. This is the same species of birds used in Asia for fishing. Asian fishermen place a ring around the bird’s throat to prevent it from swallowing the fish. Here these birds are unwanted. This time of year they have flown north for the winter but they will be back.

The biggest threat to the aqua farm, however, is the weather. Tilapia have only a certain tolerance for cold. With July and August the coldest months extra precautions must be taken to prevent the fish from dying prematurely. For instance the other night Luc took the kids out to light fires so the warm smoke would settle over the waters and provide cover for the ponds. This same method is used by tomato growers to help prevent the crop from freezing. Yes, we have no tomatoes here, however. But if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate even smoke won’t help. After freezing temperatures at night, if the sun doesn’t come out for one or two days to heat up the water again all can be lost. A few years ago during winter the sun didn’t shine for ten days in a row and the farm suffered a substantial loss.

One morning we witnessed a funny scene from an upstairs window. A dog had caught a fish in one of the ponds. As he trotted down the dike with the fish dangling from his mouth, looking for a place to enjoy his meal in privacy, he didn’t go unnoticed. First one vulture, then another joined in, followed by a third and fourth. The birds of prey all went running after him in a single file parade trying to get in on the action. The dog turned, saw the birds, and quickly ducked into some bushes to escape from his pursuers. The vultures stood around for a while waiting for the dog to come out but eventually they gave up and flew away.

© Robert R. Talley 2011