An amazingly successful experiment

THE CHINGUDI (prawn) mania may have engulfed Chilika and its catchments only recently, but state government records show the fish trade started in the 1930s and fish from the lake was exported as far as Calcutta during the World War II. The first known attempt at brackish-water culture was made in 1958 in the form of tidal-fed culture of shrimp and mullet at Paradip. The attempt failed due to hydraulic problems and damage caused by crabs to the bunds.

In 1962-63, confined tank culture of mullet and shrimp was attempted at Keshpur in Ganjam district, but this bid also did not do too well, though it was revived as an Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR)-funded project. Culture experiments were taken up again in 1981-82 in Keshpur and Balugaon of Ganjam district and these indicated the area had a potential to produce upto 1,300 kg/ha.

Two years earlier, the Orissa fisheries' department initiated a survey of brackish-water and completed it in 1983. The survey identified about 14,000 ha suitable for prawn culture and confirmed post-larval prawn availability at 970 million per year, sufficient for the area identified.

Meanwhile, the government also promoted fresh water aquaculture through the Economic Rehabilitation of the Rural Poor (ERRP) scheme, intended to benefit the rural poor by providing them with tanks or ponds and inputs. While implementing ERRP in the Palur canal area, which is part of Chilika, the then assistant director of fisheries, M G Rao noted some of the ponds were saline, ruling out freshwater fish. Not wanting to disappoint the intended beneficiaries, Rao took a chance and introduced tiger prawns (Penaeus monodon), found in abundance in the Palur canal, into these ponds and the results were surprisingly good. Fisheries officials were surprised at the prawn crop because it was believed that as salinity would increase in a confined tank, fresh water would have to be pumped in constantly and this would make the whole exercise too costly.

In late 1981, Rao reported his findings to the government and his successor began a trial of the new technology in tanks obtained from other ERRP beneficiaries. The experiment was so successful that the then chief minister, J B Patnaik, ordered 3,000 ponds should be taken up for prawn culture immediately and another 2,000 the following year.

Despite a scarcity of resources, the chief minister's keenness prompted officials to begin tank excavation in Puri and Ganjam districts in February 1983 and the first harvests came in November 1983. The tiger prawns found a ready market internationally and this triggered a rush to start prawn cultures. Ironically, the Palur canal where it all started is now nearly choked by ponds and silt.