Turning Fishermen into Fish Farmers

Solutions for Haiti

by Jennifer Bender Ferré

This is a story that begins with a couple of oyster farmers in Duxbury, Mass. with some altruistic ideals about how to impact global food production in a small way. These farmers, Skip Bennett and Shore Gregory, also happen to be owner and executive vice president of Island Creek Oysters, a company that sells over 100,000 oysters a week to chefs across the country.

But this is not a story about those oysters or the chefs who buy them. It’s about aquaculture, and raising tilapia in Haiti, and how fish farms there are fueling economic growth and helping fulfill the nutritional needs of some of the poorest Haitians.

While Skip and Shore were growing oysters for their for-profit company, they were also growing the company’s nonprofit offspring called the Island Creek Oysters Foundation (ICOF). It was founded on a belief that sustainable aquaculture is a viable solution to the world’s food production problems.

With this mission in mind, Skip and Shore set out to find a project to support. In 2011, ICOF found its perfect match when the Clinton Foundation connected them with Caribbean Harvest Foundation. A Haiti based organization, Caribbean Harvest supplies Haitian fishermen with the tools to make more money for themselves and their communities, through their own hard work.

“It has been great to have our eyes opened to Haiti,” said Shore. “And in a place where everybody talks about the $9 billion that was raised after the earthquake, [which] is just sitting there waiting for someone to take action. This project works in terms of impact and change.”

Port-au-Prince, Haiti, has five million people. The biggest road is two lanes wide. What Skip and Shore saw in Caribbean Harvest, was an opportunity to contribute to a mission closely aligned with their own. They could give financially, and also offer technical support because of their own skill set with aquaculture.

“Haiti is a place that is just broken and continues to be broken in the most fundamental sense. Forget healthcare, and there is zero infrastructure,” remarked Shore. It turns out that Haitians import over 80 percent of the seafood they eat, even though, considering Haiti’s geography, one would think they could catch a lot of fish domestically. In reality, there just isn’t anything left to catch.

Caribbean Harvest’s founder, Dr. Valentin Abe, is bringing the fish back, and creating some of the infrastructure to generate revenue. Valentin, originally from the Ivory Coast, is a savant in the field of finfish aquaculture, and was asked by the Haitian government to visit Haiti and determine the viability of aquaculture there. He saw a good opportunity to help.

Time magazine named Dr. Valentin Abe one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010. “He powers his operation with solar energy, and he involves fish farmers, whose incomes he’s multiplied two to three times or more,” according to an article on time.com.

Caribbean Harvest spawns Israeli and Egyptian strains of tilapia, an adaptable fish that tolerates a variety of environmental conditions and water types. The fish spawning takes place in a simple yet efficient hatchery built by Valentin, which provides fish farmers with cages, feed, and fingerlings (young fish).

The farmers’ job is to feed the tilapia for four months, three times a day. At that point, they are big enough to be sold back to Valentin, who ultimately sells them in the Haitian markets. Part of the income that the farmers generate goes back to them and their families, and part of it buys the farmers their next batch of fingerlings. And so the cycle of growing fish and economies continues.

This is a culture and a way of life—not a job. This isn’t just a project, but a program to reinvent the fishing industry in Haiti. It provides an amazing opportunity for once fishermen, now fish farmers, to be able to support themselves in a sustainable way.