Coastal fish farmers struggle to stay afloat in choppy waters

Recent oil spill, harmful algae blooms leave them uncertain about future of trade
Carolyn Khew Straits Times 16 Jan 17;

Over the past five years, Singapore's fish farmers have seen an oil spill and two harmful algae blooms killing off their fish.

It has been one unfortunate event after another, and fish farmers told The Straits Times that they are uncertain about the future of coastal fish farming here.

"There's this sense of nervousness about how much fish we should farm. Fish farming, being what it is, requires a long time to reap returns," said a 50-year-old fish farmer who declined to be named.

His farm, located near Pulau Ubin, was affected by the algae bloom in 2015 and he lost about $200,000 worth of fish.

Another blow came two weeks ago when he had to cancel orders worth about $10,000 - or 25 per cent of a month's revenue - after an oil spill occurred off Pasir Gudang Port in Johor.

Mr Frank Tan, managing director of Marine Life Aquaculture

117 Number of Singapore coastal fish farms in the East and West Johor Strait, and the southern waters.

His farm was among 12 told by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) to stop sales while it conducts food safety tests.

He said: "If your harvest is wiped out, the work you've put in for nine to 12 months goes into the water."

In urbanised Singapore, fish farms have managed to thrive. There are 117 Singapore coastal fish farms in the East and West Johor Strait, and the southern waters, where most rear their fish in net cages in the sea. There are another six fish farms on land.

The farms mostly produce fish for Singapore's consumption. In 2015, they produced 5,300 tonnes of fish, accounting for about 10 per cent of fish eaten here, said an AVA spokesman.

Mr Ng (right) started his fish farm off Pulau Ubin in 2004. He was forced to suspend sales after this year's oil spill and was also hit by algae blooms in past years.

In 2011, the Government began a push to increase this percentage to 15 per cent to boost food security. A $63 million fund was launched by the AVA to help farmers boost their yields and raise productivity, and the AVA has disbursed more than $1.5 million under its funding schemes so far.

But events in the past few years have put a dent in that ambition.

A total of 77 farms were affected by the algae bloom that took place between February and March 2015, wiping out an estimated 500 to 600 tonnes of fish. This followed another bloom in 2014.

And the problem is unlikely to be decisively resolved.

Algae blooms flower during times of dry weather and an excess of nutrients. Some algae types kill fish by cutting off their supply of oxygen or by damaging their gills - as was the case in 2015.

Dr Sandric Leong, a senior research fellow with the Tropical Marine Science Institute at the National University of Singapore, said climate change has resulted in warmer sea water temperatures and changes in its salinity due to less rainfall, adding: "As harmful algal blooms are a complex issue, there is no single solution to this."

Fish farmer Tan Choon Teck, who has run his farm near Pulau Ubin for about 30 years, said such events seldom happened in the past, and even if they did, they were never of such severity.

He was also affected by the oil spill on Jan 3 and was forced to suspend sales. "Business is definitely affected. In the lead-up to Chinese New Year, I always prepare fish, prawns and lobsters for sale. This is the time when demand is high and we can sell our produce at a premium," said the 54-year-old.

The AVA spokesman said that after the oil spill, fish farms have reported fish mortalities that totalled about 650kg as of last Friday. "Most of the farms in the same area did not report any fish mortality. There is minimal impact to supply," she said.

Experts say farmers need to adopt new ways of farming if they want their trade to be sustainable. Lining net cages with canvas bags, for instance, could help to minimise losses.

Another way is to simply move inland. But aquaculture specialist Matthew Tan from Nanyang Technological University said: "Fish farmers are reluctant to move away from the traditional way of farming as the cost is much less than for land-based farms. They need to change their mindset."

Mr Frank Tan, 42, is among those doing so. His farm in the East Johor Strait started out as a fully coastal farm rearing fish like red snapper and seabass. But he has since moved half of his fish rearing inland, and plastic pipes are used to line the exterior of his net cages to prevent oil spills from getting to his fish.

"We decided to move inland in 2015. The double blow we experienced was devastating," he said, referring to the algae blooms in 2014 and 2015.

Hobby turns into tough business venture
Carolyn Khew The Straits Times 16 Jan 17;

After spending over 30 years at the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (Iras), Mr Timothy Ng and his wife decided to set up a fish farm off Pulau Ubin in 2004.

Then deputy commissioner of Iras, he was nearing retirement and was charmed by the idea of having a floating kelong. But he did not expect what was to come.

He was affected by the algae bloom in 2015, and the oil spill this year has caused him to suspend his sales.

"I started this more as a hobby and thought it would be good if I could make money, but I didn't expect it to be this tough," said Mr Ng, 68, who is president of the Fish Farmers Association of Singapore.

His farm rears fish like groupers and red snappers, which he sells to middlemen. They, in turn, sell them to restaurants and wet markets.

This year's oil spill caused him to lose about 60kg of fish, and left the water in net cages covered with black oil about 2.5cm thick.

"The oil was so thick that the bubbles didn't even break the surface," said Mr Ng, referring to the bubbles of his cage aeration system.

In 2015, the algae blooms wiped out his total stock - or 10,000kg - of fish.

Since then, Mr Ng said, he has known of at least two farmers who have sold their businesses and others trying to do the same, or who have scaled down their production because they could not cope with the losses.

Mr Timothy Hromatka, 44, who started his fish farm off Pulau Ubin six years ago, got a new business partner to put money into his farm here after the algae blooms in 2015. He is now running a fish farm in Bali, Indonesia.

"I don't have any more money to put into the farm... The algae blooms in 2015 really shut us down. Not just in terms of monetary loss but also a loss of heart and confidence. In Bali, the waters are deeper and there have been no harmful algae blooms so far," he added.

To minimise his losses, Mr Ng said he is moving to rearing prawns, which can be sold at twice the price of seabass.

On how sustainable coastal fish farming will be, he said: "It all depends on how deep your pockets are... I've pumped in at least a million so far and I haven't made profits yet."

Carolyn Khew

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