Richard Pretto Directs Fisheries and Aquaculture Programs in the Republic of Panama


‘War Eagle’ from Panama

AU Fisheries Alum Heads Up Country’s Aquatic Resources

By Jamie Creamer

From his office in Panama City, Richard Pretto answers his phone.

“Hello—and WAR EAGLE,” Pretto booms. OK, so he was expecting the 9 a.m. call to be from Auburn. Still, it isn’t every day that you get to share a “War-Eagle moment” with a high-ranking official in Panama City. And for the record, that’s not Panama City, Fla.; it’s Panama City, the Republic of Panama.

              Pretto, who spent the mid-1970s in Auburn earning his doctorate degree in fisheries and aquaculture, heads the Authority for the Aquatic Resources of Panama, a governmental agency created just last year.

              The agency has responsibility for and authority over all things water-related in the maritime country, from fisheries and aquaculture to coastal marine activities and aquatic environment preservation.

              Pretto heads it all-not bad, for a fellow who, with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and a master’s in entomology from Mexico’s Monterey Institute of Technology, sort of stumbled into the world of aquaculture nearly 40 years ago.

              It began in the early 1970s, when Pretto was director of the National Institute of Agriculture and looking for inexpensive sources of protein that would complement the Panamanian diet. While in Costa Rica for an entomology short course, he was introduced to a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization–sponsored project on tilapia production.

              “I said, ‘We could do this in Panama,’ so I came back, dug a hole, filled it with water and put in a few male and female tilapia,” Pretto says.

              The fish were prolific, and soon Pretto had a pond teeming with tilapia. A year later, the tilapia project got the attention of then-military strongman and de facto Panamanian leader Gen. Omar Torrijos who visited the school, accompanied by the U.S. Agency for International Development director for Panama.

              “At the end of the visit, Gen. Torrijos said, ‘I have been all over the country looking for a solution to the lack of protein in the Panamanian diet, and today I have found an answer here,’” Pretto recalls. “He said, ‘I will not rest until there is a pond in every community.’”

              The USAID, having witnessed the success of the tilapia project, determined that Panama was a country ripe for aquacultural development, and it enlisted the help of AU.

              In 1972 R. Oneal Smitherman, an AU fisheries professor who was on the founding staff of Auburn’s International Center for Aquaculture, went to Panama to design and build the country’s first fish hatchery and fish laboratory. He also was asked to look for Panamanians who could come to Auburn to study aquaculture and then return to their homeland to put what they learned into practice.

              When leftists took control in Panama, and Pretto and his aquaculture project fell out of favor, Smitherman approached Pretto about coming to Auburn.“I didn’t know anything about aquaculture, but I had nothing else to do now that I was fired, so I said sure,” Pretto says.

              Pretto arrived in Auburn in 1973. and with Smitherman as his  major professor,

became a top-notch student—at one point being recognized as Auburn’s star international student in ceremonies at the United Nations.

              When Pretto returned to Panama from Auburn, he was named Panama’s director of aquaculture. “I went to the hills and started to build ponds,” he says. And these weren’t ponds just for tilapia but for the culture of trout and other freshwater fish. We were digging holes again, but these were productive holes,” Pretto says.

              Under Pretto’s leadership and guidance, aquaculture has grown from a few tilapia to a viable sector of the economy. Now, as general administrator of the all-encompassing Authority for the Aquatic Resources of Panama, Pretto says the sky’s the limit. “In less than five years, this will be the number one institution in the country in terms of job generation and exportation,” Pretto says. “And Auburn has been what has made the difference.”


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