A lack of affordable protein in rural Papua New Guinean diets has led to stunted growth in children and further issues into adulthood, such as diabetes.

Professor Jes Sammut from the School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences at UNSW Sydney says the most useful and practical means to address the protein shortage is through introducing and improving fish farms.

He’s been working with Jacob Wani, from the National Fisheries Authority of PNG, and communities in Papua New Guinea (PNG) for 15 years on these solutions, with many positive societal changes. The program of research is funded by the National Fisheries Authority of PNG and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).  

“The increase in protein in diets is the most obvious, but the increase in self-esteem and pride in farmers is also uplifting,” Prof. Sammut said.

Fish farming in PNG has become a means to drive community change and growth with reduced crime and increased employment.

UNSW Sydney Masters student Joshua Noiney has a strong background in PNG fisheries. As a National Fisheries Authority of PNG employee he implemented technology and training that has transformed fish farming in PNG. In partnership with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) through his Masters, he has identified ways to improve fish hatchery practices to produce higher quality fish fingerlings.

“We’ve been using fish farming as a way to drive change into communities that are known for violence,” Mr Noiney said.

“And we have seen a lot of people now deviate from those paths into one that is helping the community and themselves grow.”

Prof. Sammut’s projects are a UNSW Sydney collaboration across various agencies, NGOs, and governments in both Australian and PNG, as well as local school, prison and community programs managed by Mr Wani.

The multi-disciplinary teams across the two countries work as equals to improve lives and livelihoods through fish farming—which has laid the foundation for the success of the projects so far. These projects have seen the industry grow from around 11,000 fish farms in 2009 to more than 70,000 farms in 2023.  

“If you have a vision to make a change in society, you need society involved. You need industry involved, you need governments involved, you need community involved. Having that involvement along the research pipeline right through to changing how something happens is really important. You need everyone involved from start to finish.”
- Professor Jes Sammut

Challenges & opportunities

Prof. Sammut says more than half the population of children in PNG suffer from stunting due to a lack of protein in their diet.

“Adults suffer from obesity but are still malnourished due to high carb and low protein diets,” he said.

Though there have been improvements since implementing these projects, farming fish is not a simple process. There are still longstanding problems as well as new ones. So each new project builds upon Prof. Sammut’s previous work and collaborations with the National Fisheries Authority of PNG and ANSTO.

Fish farming research in PNG has delivered cheaper fish feed options for small-scale farming. And thousands of farmers have undertaken training in established new fingerling production methods, and certificate aquaculture courses, run by the project partners including the Sisters of Notre Dame.

There are also benefits beyond adding protein to diets. “Other positive impacts resulting from the income and sense of purpose provided by fish farming are believed to include reduction in crime and tribal war, less domestic violence against women, and better education opportunities,” Prof. Sammut said.

The projects have also introduced fish into many prisoners’ diets. And they often take up fish farming as a livelihood on their release.

Some local school teachers are using fish farming to teach science, mathematics, agriculture and economics—activities Prof. Sammut hopes will continue through the partnership with the National Fisheries Authority of PNG.

“The work we have done with the National Fisheries Authority and ANSTO to improve fish farming has led to an increase in protein consumption and better health outcomes. I am particularly heartened to see the peace and hope that fish farming has brought to people."

 - Professor Jes Sammut

Forward focused

Projects now will focus on introducing technologies to boost commercialisation with larger fish farms, while also expanding training networks for fish farming, a shared goal with the National Fisheries Authority of PNG. Prof Sammut says his earlier projects focused on small-scale production of fish farming. And while these projects will continue, new projects will focus on providing scientific support for sustainable cage-based fish farming in reservoirs and more intensive pond-based farming.

“This is farming on a much larger scale,” he said. This involves helping farmers to transition from producing food for their table and their family, to a commercial scale where retail outlets purchase fish from them.

The new project will work with farmers to identify the best size for reservoir-based fish farming while avoiding negative environmental impacts. It will also test new fish feed and farming practices to reduce cost and farm waste—reducing PNG’s dependency on imported fish feeds in the process.

“Access to commercial fish feed is scarce in PNG, and formulated feeds can be more expensive than in neighbouring countries,” Prof Sammut said.

“We addressed and solved this issue for small-scale farming. Now we need to research alternative feeds and feeding practices for larger scale fish farming.”

Elements of new projects will build upon existing community-based programs managed by project partners including the Sisters of Notre Dame, the National Fisheries Authority of PNG, and the PNG Tribal Foundation. This includes supporting women who are victims of sorcery (bewitchment) accusation related violence.

The knowledge gained from these projects can be applied to other collaborative programs across the Pacific nations.

“Together with the National Fisheries Authority, we will be growing knowledge networks and building the skills of more farmers to help disseminate sustainable farming practices across PNG."

 - Professor Jes Sammut

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