The beginnings of GIFT

In the mid-1980s, ICLARM developed an aquaculture programme based on the recognition that more productive and profitable aquaculture in developing countries would depend on development of better breeds of farmed aquatic organisms and better farm environments. Tilapias were chosen as test species because of their importance in warm water aquaculture and their usefulness in investigating the application of genetics in aquaculture. The proposed programme, which employed both in situ and ex situ conservation of genetic resources, would proceed in three phases: documentation of genetic resources (wild and farmed); evaluation of their culture performance; and the use of germplasm in breeding programmes. This programme became the foundation for the GIFT project, which was started in 1988 with the objective of developing more productive stocks of tilapia by selection for high growth rate and other economically important traits (eg disease resistance and maturation rate), and providing the improved strains to national and regional testing programmes and thence to fish farmers (Pullin et al, 1991).

The GIFT project involved a collaboration between ICLARM, Institute of Aquaculture Research of Norway (AKVAFORSK), and three Philippine institutions: the Freshwater Aquaculture Centre of Central Luzon State University, the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines, and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. The Philippines was chosen as the site for GIFT because of farmers' need for more productive fish, a well developed national seed supply system, and availability of technical support. AKVAFORSK would contribute practical experience in fish breeding programmes.

Initial steps in the GIFT project included the documentation of tilapia genetic resources in Asia and Africa, establishment of a collection of promising strains of Nile tilapia from Africa and from existing Asian cultured stocks, and evaluation of the wild Nile tilapia germplasm from Africa, along with existing cultured stocks in the Philippines in a wide range of farming systems and agroclimatic conditions.

In 1988, the GIFT team travelled to Africa to collect breeders and fingerlings of Nile tilapia in Egypt, Ghana, Kenya and Senegal. This was done in collaboration with national research institutions in each of the four countries (Gupta et al, 2000) as well as the University of Hamburg; the Musée Royale de l'Afrique Centrale in Tervuren, Belgium; the Ghana Institute of Aquatic Biology; the Suez Canal University in Egypt; and Baobob Farms in Mombasa, Kenya. The eight tilapia strains eventually used for the GIFT study included four African wild strains and four domesticated strains from the Philippines. Three of the African strains (Egypt, Kenya and Senegal) were found to perform as well as or better than domesticated strains used by Philippine fish farmers. Combining germplasm from the African strains with the farmed Philippines strains formed the basis for creation of a gene pool for selective breeding, with positive results (Pullin et al, 1991; Eknath et al, 1991, 1993).

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