Tapping automation to make aquaculture more productive

Audrey Tan Straits Times 13 Oct 17;

Local fish farm Barramundi Asia looks nothing like the traditional kelongs that dot Singapore's northern coast.

Here, farming is not done in nets supported by a wooden structure in the middle of the sea. Instead, the white-fleshed fish are reared in more than 30 floating sea pens at a location south of Singapore, near Pulau Semakau.

The farm - reminiscent of large salmon farms in Norway, which has a developed aquaculture industry - does not just look different. As one of the few fish farms in Singapore that is embracing technology, Barramundi Asia operates differently too.

There are 125 fish farms in Singapore, but a few players produce the bulk that is sold here. Last year, for example, five fish farms contributed about 30 per cent of Singapore's local fish supply.

They were: Barramundi Asia, Marine Life Aquaculture, Metropolitan Fishery Group, Rong Yao Fishery and Singapore Aquaculture Technologies. All of them have adopted various technologies to make fish farming more productive.

Barramundi Asia, for example, has automated many parts of its operations, from feeding to net cleaning, which makes operations easier and more efficient, as The Straits Times recently experienced during a day at the farm.

The 18 workers at the farm do not need to get their hands dirty when it is their turn to feed the fish. Instead, a device sprays fish feed into each pen at a rate of about 50kg per minute, distributing it evenly across the pen, which can stretch up to 26m in diameter.

CHALLENGES

Climate change can cause elevated water temperatures and increased ocean acidification, which decreases water quality and causes stress on our fish. This, in turn, leaves them susceptible to diseases.

The farm is considering automating this process further, by investing in a system of sensors, cameras and control panels that would allow a person sitting in a control room to monitor how much feed is being dispensed, and whether the fish are eating it.

Farm manager Emmanuel de Braux, 32, says technology can help the farm overcome two main challenges faced by fish farms in Singapore: ensuring water quality and the health of the fish. "Climate change can cause elevated water temperatures and increased ocean acidification, which decreases water quality and causes stress on our fish. This, in turn, leaves them susceptible to diseases," he said.

The farm vaccinates its fish, rather than feed them with antibiotics to knock out pathogens. This has the added benefit of ensuring that people eating the fish do not also end up absorbing the antibiotics.

The farm now produces about 600 tonnes of fish every year. More than half of this haul goes to feed the Singapore market, while the rest goes to places such as Hong Kong, Australia and the United States. But with the use of more technology, the farm hopes to increase its output by 10 times within the next five years.

Technology in farming: Difficult for all to apply
Advanced systems may be too costly for small operators, even with govt subsidies
Audrey Tan Straits Times 12 Oct 17;

The recent spate of natural disasters around the world is symptomatic of climate change.

Singapore may not be directly hit by the likes of tropical cyclones that have raked other parts of the world, but scientists worry that the country could be affected in other ways.

Of primary concern to land-scarce Singapore is food.

As climate scientist Benjamin Grandey from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology notes: "Agriculture is sensitive to weather conditions. Climate change may impact food supplies... Due to trade, we live in a very connected world."

Now, the authorities here are looking at how local farms can adopt technology to deal with climate change, and boost productivity. For instance, bids for new farmland in a tender released in August will be evaluated, among other things, on a farmer's ability to harness innovation to improve and sustain production.

But not all farms - especially those with niche markets - will find it easy to adopt technology.

Technology in Singapore farms

At Singapore's only American bullfrog farm, in Lim Chu Kang, water constantly spurts out of pipes into dozens of concrete tanks on the 1.2ha farm. This constant circulation of water, which comes from a well and reservoir on the farm's premises, keeps the water fresh.

But Jurong Frog Farm's lease ends in 2021, and there is no guarantee that any future site - if the farm is successful in its bid for new land-would have such a water source.

Farm director Chelsea Wan, 33, says technology in the form of a recirculating aquaculture system - a system used in many fish farms which involves one stock of water that is continuously treated and re-used - could help.

But this system requires further customisation for a frog farm, and could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Initial sums show the investment would be far too costly for a farm with a niche market like hers, said Ms Wan.

"Even with government subsidies at implementation, the running cost of such a system might force us to eventually pass on costs to customers, who may simply turn to other farms in the region, which have plenty of land and water."

Ms Wan is now looking into alternative solutions, such as establishing contracts with farms in countries that have more abundant natural resources for a supply of baby frogs, and collaborating with researchers to see if more value can be harnessed from other parts of the frog, such as its fats.

The farm supplies live frogs and frog meat to restaurants, supermarkets and wet markets, as well as hashima - a delicacy made from the oviducts of a frog.

Besides economic considerations such as those faced by Jurong Frog Farm, the move to go high-tech will have its own teething problems.

While local production of fish has been growing steadily from 2012 to 2015, output fell from 5,272 tonnes in 2015 to 4,851 tonnes last year. "This may be due to temporary production disruptions as some of our larger coastal fish farmers were changing their production management systems or re-constructing net cages to improve overall production in the longer term," said a spokesman for the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority.

The hope, as she noted, is that new technology, such as the use of sensors and robotics to automate tasks like net cleaning, can increase the productivity of fish farming systems by three times or more.

Fish and vegetable farming are developed industries worldwide. Local farms have started adopting best practices from other agricultural nations, such as Norway.

Fish farms here are starting to move towards closed containment systems to keep algae blooms from killing fish. Some vegetable farms have also moved indoors to better control the effects of weather.

Dr Koh Poh Koon, Senior Minister of State for National Development, who is in charge of farming issues, said in a Facebook post last month: "We cannot control the weather. But we can control how we want to manage the risks. I urge all our farmers to work together with government agencies to transform our farming sector into a more resilient and productive one. Your long-term viability and our food security are intertwined."

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