Chennai: India is waking up to yet another business opportunity - aquariums. The global trade in the ornamental fish that people like to see floating around glass tanks in homes, offices, hotels and public places is estimated at Rs 5,000 crore, of which India has a minuscule Rs 2 crore. This is despite the country's tropical climate, varied freshwater sources, and 7,000-km coastline.
But all this may change soon. Because of the initiatives to take advantage of the global demand for tropical fish and the growing interest in aquariums among consumers in India. Today, one can see aquariums inside and outside offices, hospitals and airports; aquariums have become the in thing for plush interiors.
Aquariums are becoming popular inside homes too, with fish being considered agreeable pets. ''Unlike dogs and cats, these are not messy, nor costly, to maintain. Moreover, you don't get emotionally attached to them. If one of them dies, you just throw it out and replace it,'' says a hobbyist. And except for changing the tank water, there is no major labour involved.
''Watching them soothes my frazzled nerves. It is the only way of having silent pets,'' says S Sumathi, a 45-year-old housewife. The import of aerators and other tank accessories in recent times has made the hobby even more popular, adds Rabi Venkatesan, a Chennai-based fish farm owner.
On the commercial front, the ornamental / tropical fish trade is a growing business with Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai and Kochi turning out to be the major hubs. Industry players indicate Goa is also set to join the big league. By rough estimates, there are 150 fulltime and 1,500 part-time breeders. And the tribe is growing.
The domestic trade is a mix of medium and small farmers. In Chennai, many farmers grow fish in their backyards and sell the stock to Southern India Aquarists (SIA), a major exporter. The company has a couple of retail outlets in Chennai.
The state government undertaking Tamil Nadu Fisheries Development Corporation (TNFDC) joined the field in 2000. It has two retail outlets in Chennai and plans to open more in Coimbatore and Madurai. It rears popular varieties like goldfish, angelfish, mollies and fighters in its farm near Coimbatore. For the fiscal 2001-02, TNFDC earned Rs 14.18 lakh by selling ornamental fishes and tank accessories. The company is yet to commence exports.
''At the retail end, the home segment is logging good growth, but corporate spending is slowing down,'' says Ramesh Raman of Aquatic Angels. His outfit is involved in the business of designing and maintaining aquariums.
Raman says any farm site should have a good fresh water source. ''The capital outlay for a decent farm with all equipment is Rs 10 lakh.'' As far as the variety to be reared is concerned, he pitches for goldfish, which has the biggest market in India.
There are exotic varieties like Discus, once reared by Venkatesan, fetching between Rs 700 and Rs 7,000 a pair. According to industry estimates, India's domestic annual turnover is Rs 15 crore, but the global market is much bigger.
Says K Jose Cyriac, chairman, Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA): ''The global trade in ornamental fish is estimated to be Rs 5,000 crore. While Singapore and other South East Asian countries account for 80 per cent of the global trade, India figures in the fringes with Rs 2 crore exports.''
The main markets are the US, the UK, Belgium, Italy, Japan, China, Australia and South Africa. With its tropical climate, India can become a key player. Many Indian species like catfish, dwarf and giant gourami, and barbs are popular abroad and fetch good prices.
Apart from freshwater fish, marine ornamental fish are also found in abundance in coastal regions. Most of species found in Indian waters are acceptable as pets, with their beauty and ability to live in confinement and to consume different varieties of food, and peaceful nature. The major suppliers of marine varieties are the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean, Kenya and Mauritius.
About the problems in exporting tropical fishes, Cyriac says one issue is air connectivity to the markets from the breeding point. According to the trade, the other major issue is the licensing of brood stock imports. ''Liberal imports will give greater fillip to the industry,'' says Venkatesan. Most of the foreign fish varieties are brought in from Sri Lanka clandestinely.
MPEDA is planning to set up ornamental fish parks in Kochi and Chennai, collaborating with Kerala and Tamil Nadu governments and the Singapore government's Agri-Veterinary Authority, and a private party. ''The park will be around 10 acres with each unit getting half an acre. The outlay for each park will be around Rs 15 crore,'' says Cyriac.
While the land near Kochi International Airport has been identified, MPEDA is awaiting the Tamil Nadu government's decision in this regard for the Chennai park. The parks will rear mainly guppy and angelfish. ''These two fishes are the largest selling varieties in the world and the bread and butter of the trade,'' Cyriac sums up.