Singapore fish farms claim compensation limbo in wake of Johor oil spill

Justin Ong Channel NewsAsia 31 Mar 17;

SINGAPORE: Fish farms affected by a major oil spill in January said they have yet to receive compensation, even as their businesses continue to reel from the damage caused by two container vessels colliding off the Johor straits.

About 300 tonnes of oil were spilled into the surrounding waters, affecting 12 fish farms near Pulau Ubin. A sales suspension imposed on the farms by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) was only fully lifted two months later.

But for Mr Peter Ong, the move has done little to alleviate the dire situation at his Sin Bee Fish Farm, where he estimates his losses due to the oil spill to be around S$1 million.

“My fish are still dying day by day,” he said in Mandarin. “When AVA came to help clean up, about 60 to 70 per cent of my farm could not be cleaned.”

AVA, however, said clean-up operations were completed to "internationally acceptable standards", with the expert guidance of international oil spill consultants.

Mr Ong also told Channel NewsAsia that AVA had promised that the shipping companies’ insurers would reimburse the farmers before Chinese New Year. "But there’s been nothing from them," he said. "Now, they don’t even pick up my calls.”

He said he could not afford to take legal action against the shipping firms, a point echoed by Philip Lim, who owns three fish farms.

“For small, old farmers like us, it’s costly,” said Mr Lim. “We don’t know the procedures in the first place. We don’t know the rules and regulations. We are not educated.

“How could we meet these people?” he lamented, referring to the shipping companies and their insurers.

Mr Dirk Eichelberger, the director of affected fish farm Singapore Aquaculture Technologies, said going through AVA was more effective, after earlier attempts to reach the shipping companies directly “led to nothing”.

“There is no clear ruling on who is at fault, so we ran into a wall,” he said, adding that he eventually sought legal action but was unsuccessful.

“At the moment, even AVA who is trying to help can't tell what additional input is required to settle the claims. The insurers take their sweet time - no communication, no feedback. This is all frustrating.”

"PROCESS WILL TAKE TIME": AVA

In response to queries, AVA said in a statement that the farmers, as private entities, could directly submit claims for damages to the shipping firms' insurers.

"However, AVA has been helping affected fish farmers consolidate their claims, and is working closely with the insurers to expedite the claims process," it added.

“AVA helped the farmers to submit the consolidated claims to the insurers in early February 2017. The insurers informed us that the claims process will take time as they have to consult their principals based in the UK on all matters pertaining to oil spill claims.

"We will continue to liaise with the farmers and the insurers to expedite the claims process."

The authority added that it has assigned an account manager to every food farm, including coastal fish farms.

"Our AMs (account managers) proactively reach out to the farmers to enquire if they need any assistance on farm related issues. The farmers can also contact their AMs if they require assistance."

“THE SITUATION IS NOT GOOD”

Meanwhile, Mr Timothy Ng, whose 2 Jays fish farm was nearest to the oil spill, said he will continue to meet directly with the shipping companies’ insurers.

“Some of my fish are still affected,” he said. “But we are trying to work out some method to give the insurers the information they need.

“I don’t see a need for legal action at the moment - until we have no way of discussion and it leads to a dead end.”

Mr Ng, who is also president of the Fish Farmers Association of Singapore, urged other fish farmers to give local authorities “reasonable time to act”.

But the likes of Mr Eichelberger and Mr Lim - who both said they are still cleaning up their farms - disagreed.

“There might be ways for the Government to apply pressure, yes,” said Mr Eichelberger. “And no one is asking for something unjustified. A first payment should have been made already, before Chinese New Year.”

Said Mr Lim: “If AVA is sincere, they should help us farmers with a token sum first, rather than make us wait for compensation.

“They can claim compensation easily as a Government body. But not us. We are just farmers.”

Mr Ong said he needs about S$300,000 to rebuild his farm, failing which he may shut down his eight-year-old business altogether.

“The situation is not good,” said Mr Lim. “There is not much confidence in continuing what we do, after the plankton bloom and now this.”

Earlier, when asked to place a figure on his losses, he simply laughed and said: “I cannot estimate that. My three farms, the effort put into them, the value behind them … I cannot estimate that.”

- CNA/cy

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