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Nikkei Asia Prizes

Taiwan's 'Father of Prawn Farming' built an Asian industry

I Chiu Liao wins Nikkei Asia Prize for making a lavish seafood affordable

Professor I Chiu Liao is known as the "father of aquaculture in Asia." (Photo by Toshiyuki Kumagai)

TAIPEI -- I Chiu Liao might never have earned the moniker Taiwan gave him, "Father of Prawn Farming," had he not marked a poster of Chiang Kai-shek with a big "X."

Liao was indignant with Chiang, the "president" of Taiwan who never bothered with the democratic process. After being caught, Liao said, "I thought I would be sent to Green Island," a small island off Taiwan's east coast that served as a penal colony for political prisoners. Known as "Prison Island," it "reeducated" intellectuals and pro-democracy activists who protested the autocratic Chiang and his Kuomintang Chinese nationalists.

Before this "setback," as Liao calls it, the man who is now chair professor at National Taiwan Ocean University coveted a career in politics.

His family had strong political connections, but instead of using them to launch a career Liao would call on them to avoid being sent to the island prison.

With his door into politics closed, Liao returned to Japan -- a land with which he says he shares "a fatal bond" -- to study fisheries science as a graduate student at the University of Tokyo.

There, Liao studied under professor Yasuo Oshima, Japan's leading expert on aquaculture who would become Liao's lifelong mentor.

Oshima told Liao to research what kuruma prawns, or Japanese tiger prawns, could eat.

A demanding, uncompromising teacher, Oshima stressed the importance of thoroughly studying not only the animal itself but also its living environment, Liao said.

He earned his doctorate with an acclaimed research paper that described an artificial shrimp fodder composed of shellfish, algae and other ingredients.

Liao then spent several months at a facility led by Motosaku Fujinaga, who laid the scientific and technological foundations of prawn farming.

As he studied with young Japanese who displayed a missionary zeal to contribute to Japan's postwar reconstruction, Liao developed a strong desire to help enrich the daily diets of Taiwanese.

In 1968, Liao became the first person to successfully culture Penaeus mondon, or giant tiger prawns. That same year, he returned to Taiwan, landing a job at an experimental public fisheries station in the southern city of Tainan.

He immediately set out to create a viable prawn farm.

He chose to experiment with the giant tiger prawn, which grows fast, and several months later developed a complete aquaculture technology based on artificial seeding.

If prawns were to be made affordable to ordinary Taiwanese, it was vital to nurture a prawn farming industry. Liao compiled a handbook for giant tiger prawn farming and began providing copies free to fisheries businesses and would-be prawn farmers.

This led to a proliferation of prawn farms along Taiwan's west coast and to the rapid development of a prawn-farming industry.

In 1987, Taiwan produced 100,000 tons of prawns, a tenfold increase from a decade earlier. Prawns became a huge export product, and Japan was among the eager buyers.

"I have been driven by a sense of mission," Liao said. "I'm not interested in making money." This explains why Liao never patented his prawn farming techniques and methods.

Liao's "fatal bond" with Japan goes back to 1936, when he was born in Tokyo, where his father was studying. He was named after Ikkyu, an eccentric, 15th century Japanese Zen master known for his wit.

The young Liao would not remain in Japan for long. By 1936, World War II was beginning to cast a dark shadow over life in the Japanese capital, and four years later his family moved back to Taiwan.

The family lived with relatives in the central city of Taichung. Liao's lifelong passion for fisheries research began with a big pond in the yard of the mansion where Liao lived during his early childhood. He spent hours a day at the pond, observing and catching various freshwater fish and shrimp.

"In particular, I looked forward to the annual draining of the pond for cleanup work," he said. "I was enthralled to see the environment and ecology of animals in the pond that I usually could not see."

To pursue his passion for underwater life, he enrolled in the biology department at National Taiwan University. Later in life, he returned to the island's most prestigious academic institution to pass along his expertise, sharing knowledge with students from Southeast Asia and other areas.

Again, his activities greatly contributed to the development of prawn farming, this time in Southeast Asia, where former students as well as Taiwanese farmers are culturing tons of prawns for export and domestic consumption.

In addition to prawns, Liao has helped establish systems to culture striped mullet and other fish.

As industrial prawn farming has grown in size, it has lent itself to unscrupulous and careless practices that have created a plague of problems. There have been outbreaks of contagious prawn diseases, and pollution has spread.

Liao is now concerned about the industry's future. "In the fisheries sector, quick and easy methods like genetic engineering are gaining popularity," he said, "while little attention is being paid to their potential environmental impact."

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