Indar Ramnarine

Trinidad and Tobago Icons Vol 3

The world’s fisheries are in crisis. Oceans and seas are being overfished, and it is predicted that, by 2048, virtually all fisheries will be depleted if appropriate and timely action is not taken to reverse this trend. The FAO’s State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2012 report indicates that 58% of global fish stocks are fully exploited and 30% over-exploited or depleted, with just 12% still under-exploited. Harvesting of marine fish has decreased from 80.2 million tonnes in 2006 to 78.9 million tonnes in 2011. This is largely due to overfishing but increasing marine pollution and habitat degradation are also important factors. Studies conducted locally by the Fisheries Division of the Ministry of Food Production have indicated that many of our fish stocks are either fully exploited or over-exploited. Examples are kingfish, carite, flying fish, shrimp, croaker, salmon, yellowedge and sweetlip groupers, blue and white marlin, yellowfin, bigeye and albacore tuna, and swordfish.

One of Trinidad and Tobago’s leading scientists, Prof. Indar Ramnarine, has focused his life’s work on stemming extinction in the oceans, by meeting the demand for seafood through fish farming and promotion of sustainable fishing methods. He has been involved aquaculture and fisheries research and studied fish and shellfish diversity (both freshwater and marine) for almost three decades.

In an effort to increase the supply of freshwater fish, Prof. Ramnarine has designed hatcheries and fish farms, and done voluntary work in aquaculture in Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname, Bangladesh, Nepal, Cambodia and Thailand. His current work entails the development of urban aquaculture, using the tilapia, a well-known fish in Trinidad and Tobago, which is now the third most popular species reared on farms around the world. He is also heavily engaged in educating farmers on how to cultivate and set up local fishfarms for intensive culture.

Indar Ramnarine was born in Carapichaima, Trinidad, where he grew up in a close knit family of five sisters and one brother, and surrounded by many friends in the village. Living close to the sea and spending a lot of time at his family’s beach house in Mayaro may have encouraged his love for fish so much that, by the age of 10, he had started his own business rearing ornamental species for sale. Although enterprising, he laments he did not make much money since he often gave away many fishes to his friends and neighbours, who all promised to pay but never did!

His interest did not stop there. When his mother bought live cascadura, commonly called cascadoo, and blue crab at the Chaguanas market, he would beg her for one so that he could try to revive it. Little did he know then that, years later, he would be rearing and conserving species on a large scale and become one of the first persons to study the cascadura, a freshwater native of South America known as the Hassar in Guyana, and to develop methods for its commercial culture. Today, Prof. Ramnarine is considered a world authority on this fish. It is a prized delicacy in Trinidad and Tobago, with its own folklore legend that those who eat it are not just destined to return to the twin islands but to end their days there. The species is now under threat of depletion locally due to over-fishing.

Ramnarine attended Carapichaima ASJA primary school and his performance in the Common Entrance Examination secured him a place at Presentation College in Chaguanas. At high school, he loved the sciences and at first, wanted to pursue a career in chemical engineering. He later considered studying medicine, as his parents had hoped to have a doctor in the family, but limited resources and opportunities at that time did not allow for this. When he decided to study agriculture at The University of the West Indies (UWI) in St. Augustine, his parents were less than thrilled because it was not the sort of career that had envisioned for their son.  But Ramnarine recalls also having an interest in agriculture as a young boy. He had spent much of his early years helping his grandfather plant and reap sugar cane and other small crops, and helping other relatives in their rice paddies.

While pursuing his BSc, he became seriously fascinated by fisheries and aquaculture, and Prof. Julian Kenny of the Department of Zoology, who later became his mentor, encouraged him to further his studies in the field. After graduating at the top of his class, he went on to do an MSc in Fisheries Biology and Management at the University of Wales, Bangor, where he also graduated at the top of his class. He returned to his beloved homeland in 1985 and promptly registered again at UWI for a Ph.D under Prof. Kenny. He worked on developing the technology for the culture of the cascadura for his doctoral research. His research was seminal. When he completed his Ph.D in 1992, he was able to get an impressive eight publications in refereed journals from this study. He also made his mother proud, she now had “a doctor” in the family! In 2001, he completed an MBA from Heriot-Watt University/Edinburgh Business School, specialising in Human Resource Management.

Today, Professor Ramnarine is not only well known for his work in aquaculture but also for fish biology and fisheries management. He has studied many local species in addition to cascadura, including tilapia, prawns, shrimp, crabs, oysters and river conch, developing or improving techniques for cultivating and breeding them. His focus has been on the spawning, nutritional requirements, and hatchery development and production of these important local species with the potential for aquaculture. He has developed methods for induced spawning in cascadura and river conch, which is also at risk of depletion locally, determining the nutritional requirements of both species and also the production technology for commercial culture. Internationally, he has worked on the hatchery and production technology for the Malaysian prawn and has improved methods for the intensive culture of the tilapia. Together with Dr. James Rakocy of the University of the Virgin Islands, he has introduced ‘aquaponics’ to Trinidad and Tobago and has run several training courses. Aquaponics is the integration of intensive fish culture with the hydroponic method of vegetable production, in a closed, recirculating system.

His research on fisheries has focused on the development of sustainable fishing methods and he worked closely with the Fisheries Division of the then Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Marine Resources (MALMR). With the involvement of post-graduate students, they determined the optimal mesh size for Trinidad and Tobago’s fish pot fishery, as well as the optimal mesh size for the local carite and mullet gillnet fishery. They also evaluated the fish nursery function of the Caroni Swamp.

In more recent years, Ramnarine undertook behavioural and evolutionary studies using the guppy as a model. He became interested in this fish when he met Dr. Anne Magurran, a post-doctoral student at The University of Wales. During their collaboration, he realized that the common ‘drain fishes’ (also known as ‘seven colours’), which he collected as a boy, were excellent model specimens to study evolution, biology and behavior of fishes. His work yielded numerous scientific papers with collaborative links with researchers from Scotland, Canada, England, Wales, Australia, the USA and Europe.

Ramnarine has conducted surveys in both islands of Trinidad and Tobago to look at the diversity of fish and decapod crustaceans and he co-supervised two graduate students who studied the diversity of these groups.  He developed a key for the identification of the freshwater fish of Trinidad and Tobago and conducted a study on the aquatic biodiversity of the Caroni Swamp with emphasis on the fish and shellfish diversity. He is currently part of a research team led by Prof. A. Magurran of St. Andrews University,  which was awarded a European Research Council Grant for a project entitled, “Biological diversity in an inconstant world: temporal turnover in modified ecosystems”. This 5 year project, which began in September 2010, involves research in freshwater ecosystems in Mexico, the Amazon, Scotland and Trinidad and Tobago.

As an expert in urban aquaculture using the tilapia, Prof. Ramnarine has been involved in research on the development of aquaponics, screening local plants and fish species for backyard systems. He is also working with a post-graduate student on the development of a by-catch model for the shrimp trawl fishery in the Gulf of Paria, This study will result in an appropriate plan for the management of the trawl fishery, which is the most valuable fishery in the country. He has played a key role in the development of local fisheries; he served on the Fisheries Monitoring and Advisory Committee of the MALMR as Deputy Chairman, as well as on the National Wetlands Committee. He was also instrumental in leading a UWI team that developed a Policy for the Management of Marine Fisheries of Trinidad and Tobago.

His research has yielded one book, one monograph, three book chapter, 60 publications in refereed journals, 16 refereed conference proceedings, 13 refereed abstracts, 18 workshop papers and 10 technical reports. He has successfully supervised eight Ph.D. and 12 M.Phil students pursuing higher degrees in fisheries science and management, aquaculture, fish and shellfish diversity, and behavioural ecology of the guppy.  He was promoted to Professor of Fisheries and Aquaculture in 2008 and, in 2012, he was appointed Dean of the new Faculty of Science and Technology at UWI, St. Augustine

Although not having a lot of free time, Ramnarine enjoys the opportunities he gets to be outdoors – walking, hiking, mountain biking and swimming. His other passion is breeding and showing bull mastiffs, and he owns five of these powerful and intelligent dogs.

In the shadow of growing global concerns, Prof. Indar Ramnarine remains ever more dedicated to scientific research and development (R&D), and to boosting education and training in science and technology, including in fisheries and aquaculture. He is committed to helping to build capacity in the sector and within a region of small island states still heavily dependent on their fisheries for socio-economic activity. Hopefully, the efforts of scientists like him will ensure that our fish populations do not disappear in time – and their legends along with them.