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.