A Different Kind of Salt Fish

Snapper cement truck.jpg

I recently toured SNAPPER (St. Kitts and Nevis Aquaculture Pilot Project and Environmental Research), a whimsical (yes, whimsical) research facility that is built almost entirely from recyclable materials. Just about everything has been donated. As a matter of fact, while I was there, a cement-truck driver pulled up to dump waste cement normally bound for the landfill onto a driveway. Nothing goes to waste. Some call it a junkyard, I prefer to refer to it as an eclectic environment.

It was refreshing to meet someone like Dr. Barrington Brown, aka The Fish Man, who is using his admirable pedigree to work on a solution to a problem. Well, actually two. When I arrived, he and a couple of others were standing in the ocean, staring at a stubborn broken pipe that threatened to wreak havoc on his operations. The other, more global problem he's worried about is the disappearance of fresh-water sources. Some countries like St. Kitts don't have running rivers, others have expensive water supplies, too many are dealing with water pollution, and still others suffer from drought conditions. Some may suffer from all of the above, and that's a problem if you rely on fish for food.

 

Luckily, the ocean is aways being replenished somewhere and dispersed; it's being filtered. Dr. Brown has taken advantage of this oceanic advantage by trying a fete no one else has attempted. He's raising fresh-water fish in onshore, salt-water ponds. It's taken over 20 years of trial and error, but he's pulled it off! In 2006, he had his first commercial sale of salt-water-raised tilapia, and he continues to fine-tune the process. Most online aquaponic-related websites still talk about this endeavor in complete disbelief or awe, and several countries including Taiwan, Japan, Norway, Israel, China, and Australia have sent representatives out to come see for themselves.

Sure it's a great aspiration, but why would this man, originally from Jamaica, with a PhD from the University of West Indies, and who gives all kinds of lectures on various subjects - the majority of them unrelated to fish - move by the landfill in his adopted-homeland to live amongst fish, chickens, and island dogs (that need to be neutered, which Ross VIDA will do for free)? His answer was a shrug and an offhanded, why not? People thought it couldn't be done; he wanted a challenge. Well, he got one.

He began with Jamaica Red Snapper and tilapia but decided to focus on tilapia. Some of you might be thinking - eew, I hate tilapia, it tastes like mud. Well, you haven't tried SNAPPER's tilapia. I haven't either since I don't eat fish/meat, but thanks to Dr. Brown's methods of using vegetarian food pellets and ocean water devoid of toxins, his fish reportedly taste much cleaner. You also get the benefit that the tilapia don't come chock full of antibiotics. If you read up on where you get most of your tilapia, you'll understand why it tastes like mud (or worse), so you might be more open minded about trying this unsullied version.

Outside of the main project, SNAPPER also benefits several St. Kitts programs. One would be the People Employment Program (PEP). SNAPPER can't expand without more qualified people, and the concept can't extend to other countries without trained personnel to disburse to those countries. Although this has been a hard sell, Mr. Lianthonio Williams is a PEP success story and has been with the program for 4 years. He's now supervisor of SNAPPER and was the friendly and patient person who gave me the tour.

Two more partnerships would be Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine which is involved by providing wet labs to its students, teaching them about breeding, and taking fish for toxicology tests, and St. Kitts Turtle Monitoring Network, a rescue that brings turtles in for rehabilitation (among other things). 

 

You can even take some fish home with you - either to keep in a pond, to eat, or to sell. While I was there, two men came in wanting a few fish for their pond, kind of the way some keep koi or goldfish. They wanted a certain amount of females & males. What I learned was: 1) You can take these fish from salt water to fresh as long as you go thru the explained acclimation process, and 2) You find out the sex by squeezing the fish. If it's a male, his little wee wee will pop out (and sometimes water squirts out like a water gun). 

The tour will tell you all about why the water's green (and why that's good), why they're operating on land and don't use in-sea cages (it's really all about control), and how grape leaves impact wind and why wind is important to the ponds. I suppose it's not for everyone, but I found it interesting. 

You can also try the fish at their restaurant, Fish 'R' Us.  They're one of the last remaining restaurants that do pan-fry fish (the kind with the tail & head left on). Of course you can have it anyway you want, or order something else. While you're waiting or imbibing, take in the complicated design of this place. Even though the roof is piecemeal'd together by recyclables, it doesn't leak, and I love that he made fish shapes from all the scraps.

 

When you're done with that, you can sit in and enjoy the rare salt-water hot tub. I was dubious, but he said people come for physical therapy or to just hang by the ocean.


 


 

He also sells salt made right there - 10 pounds for EC$10. My chance to fulfill my dream of having a salt lick.

SNAPPER is open from 9am until last customer (but you probably want to be gone by dusk).  Apparently many tour operators have this place on their itinerary, but you can drive yourself too (it's located in Conaree, not far from the landfill). All Dr. Brown asks is that you make a donation, and if you happen to have school/office supplies (like paper, ink cartridges, notepads, etc.) that you can donate - he'd be grateful. 


For those of you interested in the subject, here are more resources. Remember, this place is experimental, so methods and things learned have changed over the years. Some of the information in the articles or videos is "old news."

 

2013 St. Kitts & Nevis Visitor Magazine - Snapping Up A New Kind of Fish
SNAPPER - A 2010 YouTube video interview of Dr. Brown conducted by Culture Beat
The Fish Site - Boost to St Kitts Aquaculture Industry
WinnFM  - Rearing fresh water fish in salt water?
Aquaculture - Growing Tilapia in Atlantic Seawater
ACP Fish 2 - Elaboration of an aquaculture development strategy for st. kitts and nevis – Aquaculture situation appraisal