MADAN BELIZE, Haiti -- The young man plunged into the warm lake waters, clinging tightly to a plastic barrel while struggling to reattach it to the partially submerged cage trapping thousands of fish.
Each time, Luckner Meillus thought he had attached the barrel, critical to keeping the oversize pen afloat, ferocious waves fought back, endangering the valuable contents.
“Somehow, I will fix it,” Meillus, 27, says with a conviction that belies his unsuccessful attempts to harness the 24-by-24 foot cage in the brackish waters of Lake Azuei. If he loses the contents, he loses his income for the coming months and his best stab at economic stability.
“These cages have brought so many great changes already — houses, schooling for the children,” Meillus said of the cages, part of a drive toward building a solid fishing economy in Haiti.
Meillus has invested his earnings in several goats, which is equivalent to money in the bank. “If we didn’t have those cages, I wouldn’t be here in this village,” he said.
For the fishermen in this obscure village off the main eastern highway linking Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the five floating cages containing almost 100,000 tilapia, are more than just a fish-raising enterprise. They are a means to living a more secure life in a country where aid hasn’t always been hands-on and tailored to the local reality.
For years, Haiti’s overfished lakes and oceans have provided very little bounty for the country’s fishermen. Now, they are learning once again how to reap the waters and are doing so with tilapia — the environmentally adaptable, fast-growing species that is rapidly giving birth to a multi-billion dollar global industry.
The tilapia cages vary in size and numbers in the seven lakeside villages where they have been installed by the Caribbean Harvest Foundation, a small non-governmental organization.
Founder Valentin Abe realized Haiti’s huge potential for raising fish in a controlled environment in 1997 on a visit to Haiti as an Auburn University expert in aquaculture, the breeding, rearing and harvesting of plants and animals in water. He found the waters around Haiti almost completely empty of fish.
“For Haiti to have fish consumption that’s close to the world’s average, you need to produce about 120 million pounds of fish a year,” said Abe, who has pioneered fish-harvesting work in Haiti. “The entire country produces less than 30 million pounds of fish.”
In Madan Belize, which takes its name from a vodou priestess, different households in the close-knit community take responsibility for the cages.
Each cage can hold up to 20,000 fish, which, at two months old, are trucked 16 miles from the foundation’s hatchery on the outskirts of a Port-au-Prince suburb to the village. Over the next four months, villagers row out to the cages to feed the fish three times a day.
Fish weighing between 12 and 16 ounces are then processed for local supermarkets and hotels while undersized ones are either eaten or sold by villagers at street markets.
The foundation fetches $2.40 a pound for the tilapia. After production costs and other expenses, 80 cents is shared between families and the community.
Villagers call Abe, 50, “the Professor.” But “caseworker” perhaps is more suited for the hands-on donor. On a sweltering June day, after arriving in the barren village, he is barely out of his truck before he is bombarded with updates.
A fisherman complains his canoe is still inoperable
Another, Xavier Prophete, reports that two of his eight kids had to be rushed to the doctor.
Tilapia farming has paid for the village’s only latrine and two large drums to collect rain water. It also has supported scholarships for students and the recent construction of a schoolhouse. The wooden structure is sparse, but it allows children to start school earlier. Now, kids as young as 3 are attending classes, receiving two meals a day.
Prophete is grateful that proceeds from the fish farms have allowed him to pay for two of his older kids’ high school exams.
“A few years ago, if you had come here, you would see about 90 to 95 percent of the kids running naked, completely malnourished,” said Abe, standing on the lake’s shores as giggling children ran up and down.
This fall, as Abe expands the hatchery’s operation with a new processing plant, Madan Belize villagers also will benefit from 69 new homes on land purchased by Abe’s foundation.
Food for the Poor, a Coconut Creek-based charity, is partnering with the foundation to build 130 homes for its farmers. Villagers will have two-room, concrete homes instead of the mudflats with thatched roofs.
Three months before Haiti’s tragic Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, Abe’s fish-farming operation caught the attention of an unlikely champion, former President Bill Clinton.
Pulling up to the farm with a busload of potential investors, Clinton was immediately impressed.
“It is the least expensive, highest-guaranteed return project I have seen in any country in which I’ve worked, anywhere in the world,” Clinton said on the spot.
Time Magazine named Abe, an Ivory Coast native, one of the Top 100 Most Influential People In The World in 2010 , but it would take another year before things started looking up for the foundation. A year later, Caribbean telecom giant, Digicel would name Abe Entrepreneur of the Year in Haiti.
The Clinton Foundation would raise $500,000 to subsidize the farm start-up kits.
And New Jersey-based energy company NRG, a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, would donate a $100,000 solar energy system.
The system is expected to be up by the end of this month, said Abe, who has spent the last year raising $300,000 more to install panels to help reduce the cost of expensive fuel needed to keep the fish farm’s generators operating 24 hours a day.
Abe’s burgeoning success is bringing other aquaculture ventures to Haiti. Operation Blessing International, a Virginia Beach-based Christian charity, recently built a fish farm not far from Abe’s, and others are exploring the possibility.
Abe welcomes the competition. There’s more than enough to go around, he says. And he knows the fisherman in the small villages don’t have the financial resources to do marine-based farming on a large scale.
“From the beginning, when we started this project, the goal was not just to help a few farmers,” Abe said. “What we wanted to do was lead the way so that people could see aquaculture could be profitable in Haiti.”
Even while he’s pushing for marine-based farming, he knows the perils. While it has been one of “the quickest ways to make money, it is also the quickest way to pollute the environment” – drawing opposition from environmentalists around the hemisphere.
“This can be a problem, but it can be avoided if we stay within the limits of the environmental requirements,” he said.
For now, the dream of transforming fish farming into a true development tool is inspiring hope in Madan Belize and other villages.
At one time, there were “more fish in the lake and I had more change in my pocket. But more misery,” said Prophete, the fisherman. “Today there is less fish, less change in my pocket, but also less misery. The professor, he helps us a lot.”