Fish farm co-op fails to reel in big numbers

Original target did not factor in infrastructure and manpower issues
Jessica Lim Straits Times 24 Oct 11;

THE plan was to boost the monthly yields of eight fish farms to 120 tonnes each by next year, but output has remained stagnant at 60 tonnes a year.

The Singapore Marine Aquaculture Cooperative (Smac) had announced ambitious goals when it was formed in January. It has 18 members, which collectively own the eight fish farms located off Changi and Pasir Ris.

'We miscalculated and didn't take into account the lack of infrastructure and manpower that some members were facing,' said co-op chief executive Alan Chia.

The target, he added, has been revised to a more modest 80 tonnes per year for each farm.

The members of Smac, which is the first co-op among fish farms here, rear mostly popular fish such as seabass, tiger grouper, golden trevally and red snapper.

An old sea ambulance, supposed to be running by March, has also been left languishing at one of the farms.

Smac had bought it in January and hoped to use it to patrol the Pasir Ris area and help farmers during emergencies, and take injured ones to shore quickly.

'We couldn't get a land base up till now. It has been repaired and it runs, but where do we dock?' said Mr Chia, 32, who owns a farm in Pasir Ris.

He added that another problem was the recent global shortage of fingerling, which are baby fish or fish fry, pushing up their prices by about 20 per cent over the past year.

The co-op is casting for opportunities abroad. Last month, it announced it had made an agreement with its counterparts in Indonesia. The plan is to build a US$4 million (S$5.1 million) processing plant there, and work with farmers to export seafood and vegetables to Singapore.

If all goes well, monthly production will hit 2,000 tonnes of seafood and 1,000 tonnes of vegetables.

When asked if this veered away from the co-op's social mission, Mr Chia said profits from the project will be ploughed into trying to increase local fish production.

'With this project, we will be able to increase our financial position and feed into our other projects,' he added, noting that the project will be funded by investors, mostly major importers of vegetables and fruits here.

He added that about 10 per cent of annual profits will also go into building children's homes in Indonesia.

The Registry of Co-operative Societies - under the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports - said it does not intervene in the co-ops' internal affairs, as long as they do not contravene any rules and regulations.

The 85 co-ops here are regulated under the Co-operatives Societies Act. Basic requirements include having a minimum number of members and holding annual general meetings.

Co-ops in Singapore do not pay corporate taxes. Instead, they are required to contribute 5 per cent of the first $500,000 of their surpluses to a Central Co-operative Fund used to develop the co-op movement here.

In addition, 20 per cent of any surplus in excess of $500,000 will go to the Singapore Labour Foundation or the Central Co-operative Fund.

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority's push to increase the local production of fish has also not made much headway. Its goal was to increase production from 4 per cent to 15 per cent of total consumption by 2014.

Local production increased by 5,141 tonnes in 2008 (4.3 per cent of total consumption) to 5,689 tonnes in 2009 (4.6 per cent), only to fall back to 5,229 tonnes last year (4.32 per cent).