MSI: Fighting to Save a Huge Fish

by Alan Anderson
3 August 2010
MSI researchers and students at the Aquaculture Research and Development Center in Kajjansi, 10 miles south of Kampala on the Entebbe road, are tackling the gargantuan task of raising the endangered Nile perch in ponds. This aggressive and widespread species, since its introduction to Lake Victoria in the 1950s, has become one of Uganda’s most valuable exports and sport fishes. Now it has drawn the attention of the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), which oversees the aquaculture center, because its popularity has led to severe overfishing and predictions of its disappearance in the wild.
These predictions are ironic, because the Nile perch itself, a voracious feeder that typically grows to 100 pounds and has been known to reach 400 pounds, is thought to have eliminated scores or even hundreds of smaller species of fish and drastically changed the entire ecological balance of the huge lake. (Biologist E. O. Wilson has called this accomplishment “the most catastrophic extinction episode of recent history.”)
But raising the perch in ponds is not an easy matter. Accustomed to a diet of live minnows (such as tilapia), shrimp, and other creatures in the wild, it disdains the artificial feeds happily ingested by catfish, salmon, tilapia, and other farmed species. So the aquaculture group, led by principal investigator Justus Rutaisire, is starting from scratch to understand the fundamental facts of Nile perch biology: where it spawns, what type of eggs it lays and how they develop, reproductive habits, what it eats in the wild and when, how it “tastes” and absorbs food, and so on.
The MSI contributes to this effort by supporting two senior scientists and an enthusiastic group of graduate students who previously had no support to earn graduate degrees and advance in their academic careers. Virtually all of them are both enrolled in coursework at Makerere and doing research in Kajjansi – each of them looking at a different aspect of the creature, but collaborating as a team and comparing notes with their colleagues. For example:
  • Mwanja Matthew, a PhD student, is characterizing the genes of the fish;
  • David Kahwa, a PhD student, is studying reproductive biology (and has been to Rhodes University to use advanced instruments and work with a mentor);
  • Dismas Mbabazi, a senior researcher, is advising the students (“MSI has given us a new opportunity to look at this fish, do field surveys, and participate in writing a proposal, which is rewarding”);
  • John Omony Bosco, an MSc student, is studying hormone levels to determine when it breeds;
  • Charles Kato Drago, an MSc student, has been able to go to Israel to learn to extract enzymes from the perch that indicate the state of maturity; and
  • Victor Namulawa, a PhD student, is elucidating the structure and function of the digestive system to determine an appropriate artificial food.
Two more MSI students will join the group this year.
“The university plays an essential role in the Nile perch project,” said Dr. Rutaisire, standing in front of a large new laboratory building being built by a Chinese construction company. Before the lab, in the flat, wet valley, other work crews were building new aquaculture ponds, banks, and roadways. “But the university has no ponds, no hatchery. Our resources out here are being expanded, and we are working with a person from the private sector who wants to raise the fish. So the students are part of a partnership where they participate in teaching, research, and the practical world. I only wish the MSI would last longer, because this work takes time and patience.”

Several years ago, the World Bank financed a major Millennium Science Initiative (MSI) program to help strengthen science and technology capacity in Uganda. Approximately half of this investment, the Bank's largest S&T commitment to date, supports a competitive grants program for a variety of university research projects. The financing supports stipends and fees for graduate students, faculty salary supplements, research equipment, and infrastructure. Another major portion is dedicated to transferring technical knowledge to the private sector through academic-business linkages and educational activities for farmers, health workers, and small-business people. The MSI program resembles RISE in providing full support for MSc and PhD students, which is extremely difficult to secure in Africa. The August 2010 blog post series illustrates some of the activities supported by the MSI.