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Our First Successful Corporate Trial Run

Updated: Feb 21

By Upasana Sarraju and Subrata Deb

Earlier this year, we shared our thinking behind restructuring internally to form a new Farmer Engagement department and prioritize farmer-centric work. This change in strategy was intended to contextualize our corporate work as part of the broader project of transitioning farms: if fish-procuring corporations that mandate higher-welfare practices establish direct market linkages with farmers, farmers are more incentivized to meet the welfare mandates. This approach, however, had not been validated at the time of the restructuring.

Now, in the second quarter of 2023, we are excited to share that we successfully conducted our first trial run. In April, Captain Fresh, an Indian seafood corporation working with 500,000 retailers and individual sellers, procured fishes due to our mediation from a higher-welfare farm belonging to an Alliance for Responsible Aquaculture (ARA) farmer in Andhra Pradesh, India.

This post details the process.

Why Pursue Corporate Trial Runs

A simplified view of the supply chain governing aquaculture in India. Farmers generally sell to middlemen (traders and wholesalers). Fish-procuring corporations (and retailers) purchase fishes from these middlemen. Our corporate trial run attempted to directly link farmers with fish-procuring corporations to incentivize higher-welfare farming practices. Note that a real supply chain is not linear and includes complex, multidirectional relationships between stakeholders.

Our work to improve the lives of farmed fishes brings us into contact with different participants in the aquaculture supply chain. In a simplified sense, the main participants are farmers, corporations, and consumers:

Farmers can regulate the quality of water that fishes live in, ensure fishes receive proper nutrition and medical care, and fulfill the unique needs of each species living in a farm. Farmers in Andhra Pradesh sell fishes to local traders who sort the fishes by species, size, quality, and weight. This selling price is set based on the market price—a highly variable quantity.

Corporations purchase large quantities of these sorted and graded fishes from traders (and directly from farmers, on occasion) at a higher price than what the traders paid to procure the fishes. Corporations "process" the fishes into various products.

Consumers purchase processed fishes and fish-based products from corporations for consumption.

Our direct farmer work empowers farmers to maintain a higher level of welfare for fishes in their farms: ensuring recommended dissolved oxygen levels, judicious use of chemical inputs, proper feeding regimens, preparing and maintaining the ponds themselves, fighting disease, etc. For long-term and stable welfare improvements, we need to be able to provide farmers a strong incentive to continue supporting higher fish welfare in their farms.

We believe that we may have a greater impact on fishes’ lives and be able to incentivize more farmers to implement our recommended farming practices if higher fish welfare becomes a prerequisite for farms before any fishes can be sold or bought.

A successful welfare-centric linkage between the aquaculture market and aquaculture farms could help us reduce the suffering of many farmed fishes. A corporate trial run thus evidences the idea that it is possible to directly link farmers to corporations in favor of more reliable procurement, better resilience to changing market conditions, and, most importantly, higher fish welfare.

The First Steps

We defined our primary and secondary objectives of this trial run as:

  • Learn what it takes to initiate, facilitate, and conduct successful procurement of fishes by a corporation from a higher-welfare farm.

  • Identify the most pressing fish welfare concerns through the entire process.

  • Provide technological and technical inputs to the procurement process and observe its impact on reducing the fishes’ suffering.

  • Use the learnings to determine if market linkages are viable, impactful for higher fish welfare, and replicable across Indian aquaculture.

From here, we began identifying potential corporate partners and their policies that govern how, why, and where procurement of fishes is performed.

A typical "harvest" process in progress at a fish farm in Andhra Pradesh, India. Large nets are used to gather fishes to a corner of the farm. This is followed by the manual removal of fishes from water—asphyxiation, particularly when prolonged until death, causes fishes pain and suffering.

Bringing Together Stakeholders

In early March, we met with three fish-procuring corporations that expressed interest in supporting our higher-welfare ARA farms. Captain Fresh, a corporate partner of FWI since September 2022, was one such corporation whose procurement policies and interests aligned best with the conditions that an ARA farmer could meet.

We performed a similar review of farmers in the ARA. Farmers were first evaluated based on the size of their farm, number of fishes reared in the farm, stage of the farming cycle, reliability, and interest in participating in the trial run. Nine farmers were shortlisted. Among them, three farmers from Nellore, Andhra Pradesh, expressed interest in engaging with corporations and confirmed that the fishes reared in their farms would be ready for “harvest” by the end of April 2023.

We invited representatives from Captain Fresh and the three ARA farmers to meet at our Nellore office.

FWI staff facilitate a meeting between fish farmers from Nellore and Captain Fresh representatives.

In Indian aquaculture, the main points of contention between farmers, traders, and fish-procuring corporations tend to be:

  • The average body size or weight of fishes in the farm.

  • The marginal profit for farmers (which should support and exceed the costs of farming activities, farm inputs, and labor throughout one aquaculture cycle, that lasts for approximately nine months in case of Indian major carp).

  • The quality of fishes in the farm (visible signs of disease, injuries, malnutrition, parasitic infections, chemical overexposure are some factors involved in ascertaining the quality of farmed fishes).

  • The minimum number of fishes (measured by total or average weight instead of by number of individuals) required to be harvested.

  • Species-specific requirements for weight and quality control.

  • How soon and how reliably money is disbursed to farmers.

  • Cost of executing the harvest.

While we were successful in bringing together aquaculture stakeholders, in the end, we identified only one ARA farmer whose willingness to participate, farm characteristics, and fish population status suited Captain Fresh’s negotiated policies.

The Trial Run

In the last week of April, the trial was successfully executed in an ARA farm in that has been implementing our recommended higher-welfare practices and corrective actions for over a year in Nellore, Andhra Pradesh, India.

For a typical harvest, fishes are gathered to one corner of the farm using a large net and removed from the water by hand. This is done by laborers who often cannot afford protective gear such as proper work boots and durable gloves. The excessive and rough handling causes fishes immense stress as they are still alive at this point. Further, the handling increases occurrences of injuries to the fishes and the workers, increasing chances of pathogen and disease transmission.

Captain Fresh utilized a FAIVRE machine, capable of removing fishes from water and sorting their bodies by size, thus drastically reduced the harvesting time. The use of such technology can help avoid the manual handling of fishes and reduce the extent of their suffering.

For this trial run, Captain Fresh utilized a machine provided by FAIVRE, a French manufacturing company. This machine, capable of removing fishes from water and sorting their bodies by size, demonstrated higher efficiency by reducing the harvesting time to nearly one-fifth of the conventional approach. For instance, when handling fishes collectively weighing over two tons, the traditional harvesting method would have taken approximately 2.5 to 3.5 hours. With the machine, the process was completed in less than 45 minutes. This significant time reduction contributed to minimizing post-harvest stress experienced by fishes, limiting handling of fishes, and reducing potential injuries to fishes. Using new technology in the field can reduce fish suffering; however, many other compounding aspects, such as the methods used to cause death in harvested fishes, remained unresolved.

Our Learnings and Plans

The successful trial to establish linkages between ARA farmers and corporate procurement channels represents an encouraging development. This trial run validated the feasibility of such linkages and underscored the significance of effective planning and coordination among diverse stakeholders. We also believe that the trial showcased the potential for transformative impact in introducing better technology and enhancing welfare outcomes for fishes.

Moving forward, we will continue to investigate the role of market linkages in scaling the ARA and conduct more trial runs across other field sites to deepen our understanding of potential roadblocks.

We aim for any future strategy to consider limitations such as farm locations and access by road, quality control, market price fluctuations, delays in payment disbursement, climate, and disease outbreaks.

We hope to continue expanding our corporate connections to incentivize many more farms to take up higher-welfare practices.

Want to help us reduce the suffering of fishes, or share your thoughts on our work? Check out our careers page, or contact us.

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