Keeping Singapore’s ornamental fish industry afloat amid sea of change

Loke Kok Fai Channel NewsAsia 5 Jul 17;

SINGAPORE: In the far northwest of Singapore, narrow wooden walkways carve out paths along mesh-ringed outdoor pens. Each has homed hundreds, possibly thousands of generations of guppies, goldfish or neon tetras, before they are packed and shipped off to pet stores across 80 countries.

This has been the traditional practice of Singapore's ornamental fish farmers when it comes to breeding their stock – partly to save costs from the use of rainwater, and partly from beliefs handed down across generations.

“Most of these farmers have this perception that sunlight is needed to farm ornamental fish - to give that brilliance, to give those spectacular colours,” said Chief Operating Officer of the Apollo Aquarium Singapore Lim Meng Huat.

Part of the Apollo Aquaculture Group, the company has farmed and sold ornamental fish since 1969. It is also one of the larger hands in Singapore’s dominance of the sector worldwide.

According to figures from the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database (UN Comtrade), Singapore’s ornamental fish exports were valued at almost US$69 million in 2007, accounting for over a fifth of the worldwide market then.

But recent years have seen the industry enter troubled waters, with export values falling to as low as US$43 million in 2016 – or a 14.1 per cent market share.

Local players say neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have eaten into Singapore's dominance. Compared to Singapore, these countries have cheaper, more available labour and wider swathes of land to farm on.

They also have rapidly-improving international connections, that have undermined Singapore’s strategic role in linking buyers from the west with suppliers in Asia, according to the Singapore Aquarium Fish Exporters Association (SAFEA).

“With the advancement of tourism in our neighbouring countries, they now have direct connections to Europe and the US. And thus they can actually bypass Singapore and buy straight from these countries," said chairman of the association William Chew.

He explained that the industry usually ships fish out on passenger aircraft, in order to meet delivery times of between 24 to 36 hours.

“It’s critical that fishes spend as little time as possible in the boxes. Because they do feel stressed - just like human beings when we’re packed in a tight vicinity,” he added.

But challenges also dog the industry from within Singapore's borders. Most of Singapore's 65 ornamental fish farms lie in Lim Chu Kang and Sungei Tengah on the northwestern end of the island.

Many are on land leases from the government that expire in 2021, with new tenders offered partly based on farmers meeting production levels and innovation targets set.

But with the industry largely comprised of rapidly-greying, first generation farmers with no succession plans, stakeholders say few are willing to dip into retirement savings for investments in new technology and methods - especially where results are uncertain compared to time-tested methods. This includes moving fish farming indoors, said Apollo’s Mr Lim.

"It's a new dimension. (Farmers) are not too sure if they can achieve the same growth rate, if the fish would be as robust, as compared to the pond system,” he said, adding that countries such as Germany and the Czech Republic have begun to do so.

This is also despite recent calls by the Singapore Government to do so to help mitigate disease risk, as global import regulations for ornamental fish continue to tighten.

SWIMMING AGAINST THE TIDE

Taking the plunge to experiment paid off in new opportunities for the Apollo Aquaculture Group. With S$300,000 from government enterprise development agency SPRING Singapore, the company developed its own recirculating aquaculture system that allows water to be filtered and reused in tanks - cutting down waste water disposed during water changes by up to 70 per cent.

This has not only led to significant cost savings and allowed ornamental fish to be grown and kept in smaller spaces, but also led to new developments that make indoor commercial food-fish farming a possibility.

The Group is currently piloting the system with saltwater groupers and coral trout, rearing them in indoor pools which can be stacked high and sold to restaurants across the island. Part of the costs have also been offset by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority’s Agriculture Productivity Fund.

Other efforts include those by ornamental fish giant Qian Hu Corporation, which ran its own research and development programme to invent its Hydra system. The technology uses electricity to neutralise the harmful effects of ammonia and nitrite in fish waste, in devices ranging in size from commercial ponds to home aquariums.

But these tend to be extended, possibly decade-long investments that not every player can commit to, according to the company’s Managing Director Kenny Yap. Adaptations of the technology have also seen use in the company’s edible fish farm in Hainan, China, enabling the fish to be grown without antibiotics and resulting in higher yields than the competition.

“If you’re too small, don’t invest in R&D. Just adopt and copy. You can copy from very many companies, because these kind of technologies are quite easily available,” said Mr Yap.

“If you’re so small and you’re struggling with the ornamental fish industry, you only have two choices – upgrade the whole system pertaining to ornamental fish breeding or rearing, or move totally into different things, be it edible fish or some other industry. You cannot spread your resources too thinly.”

“If you are sizeable and want to add in new businesses, and are confident in terms of using new technology, new systems, you can differentiate your business and look into areas like edible fish. (But) You can't do it overnight. The company must have this kind of DNA inside the company, that always looks for new things to do or new ways of doing things. If you always want to remain status quo, it's very difficult under these kinds of circumstances for you to continue to be able to earn a respectable profit from this trade," said Mr Yap.

But such efforts appear to be more exception than norm. Stakeholders say innovation has been driven mostly from within the industry, rather than local universities and research institutes. These institutes have scaled down efforts since the industry's heydays in the 1980s and 1990s.

FISHING FOR NEW TALENT

But Mr Yap noted that recent interests in beefing up Singapore's food security through fish farming has also spurred renewed interest in aquaculture from the polytechnics.

Both Republic and Temasek polytechnics have started offering aquaculture courses in recent years, equipping students with skills that could help revolutionise both food fish and ornamental fish industries, in areas such as nutrition and the detection of disease-causing pathogens.

"Students are more aware as to what sort of behavioural patterns change when fish get sick, or even in coming up with simple-to-use kits that can actually allow the farms or the students to detect what kind of pathogens are making them sick. So with such kits, they'd be able to reduce the mortality and perhaps enhance the quality of the fish that is being packed and exported from the farms," said Dr Diana Chan, Head of Temasek Polytechnic’s year-old Centre for Aquaculture & Veterinary Science.

The polytechnic also hosted the inaugural AquaRealm exhibition and conference in June. The event brought academics, the ornamental fish industry and students together to understand the needs of the industry, and the possible application of their skills in the real world.

At the event, Senior Minister of State for National Development Koh Poh Koon said such applications of technology and skills appeal to Singapore’s highly educated, technologically-savvy younger generation, and help generate more interesting and higher-skilled, higher paying jobs within the sector.

Fresh talent could also come from Singapore’s community of aquarium hobbyists, who breed pet fish in their HDB homes, said SAFEA’s Mr Chew.

“We are trying to see how we can bring these people into the market, into mainstream breeding business models. Because these people will be familiar with breeding fish in the indoor setting. And then these people will be more open to the ideas of breeding in an indoor facility,” he said.

In agreement was Apollo’s Mr Chew, who suggested the establishment of a platform to facilitate interaction between hobbyists and commercial farms.

“We may be able to forge a synergy between them, and the exchange of ideas could potentially lead to collaborative efforts in developing new colour varieties for the market which is definitely a boost for the trade,” said Mr Chew.

“We can even incorporate selective breeding programmes for economically-important ornamental fish species using genomic tools.”

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