Fish production in Singapore still not up to the mark

Operating costs, lack of jetty and difficulty getting good fry among reasons
Jessica Lim Straits Times 31 Oct 11;

SINGAPORE'S fish production continues to inch up slowly, despite a push to increase it in a bid to help shield the Republic from global price fluctuations.

Farmers told The Straits Times the gradual progress is due mainly to the lack of a jetty, high operating costs and the fact that fry is mostly imported from abroad.

According to figures from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), 7 per cent of fish eaten here is produced locally, up from 4.5 per cent in 2009.

The aim is to raise it to 15 per cent eventually. To help achieve this, the AVA set targets for the country's 95 coastal fish farms in March.

Singapore imports 90 per cent of its food, so producing more fish at home would help protect it from disruptions in global food supply and escalating prices.

But fish farmers say operating here can be an uncertain business.

Mr Foo Heow Liang, 60, sold his farm off Pulau Ubin two years ago. After a decade in the industry, he realised he would 'never be able to make money'.

'There was a manpower problem. No one here wants to work on a farm. Sometimes there are plankton blooms that can wipe out an entire harvest,' he said.

Farmer Maureen Ng said obtaining quality fry can be a problem. Last month, Mrs Ng - who owns a 40-netcage farm in Changi with her husband - bought 5,000 fry from Malaysia. A third of them died within a week.

'The fry pass through so many hands before we get them,' she said. 'In Singapore, we import most of the fry and we cannot control quality or supply. We are happy if half make it to selling size.' But she does not blame the authorities, saying some things are beyond their control.

The high cost of hiring foreign workers also pushes up costs, she said. And transporting fish to land is a pain due to the lack of a jetty in Changi. Seabass from her farm is sold to middlemen at $8.50 per kg. Malaysia's seabass go for $4.50.

In the meantime, about 40 farmers have formed the Fish Farmers Association of Singapore. Formally registered in May, it aims to buy fry and fish feed in bulk to bring down costs.

Other farmers are doing well. Metropolitan Fishery Group chief executive Malcolm Ong invested $500,000 in 2007 to start a farm with two other people. His big break came in 2008 when NTUC FairPrice started buying fish from him. The company broke even in 2009. Its output is now 500 tonnes a year, up from 20 tonnes in 2008. It is set to open two new farms over the next two years.

Despite his success, the 48-year-old calls farming a 'vicious circle'.

'It's about scale,' he said. 'If you're very small, you cannot be cost-effective and cannot compete. When you start out, the cost is higher than the price of fish. The more you sell, the more you lose.'

Each of Singapore's 95 coastal fish farms must yield a minimum of 17 tonnes per half-hectare of space a year, or risk being stripped of its licence, under the targets set by the AVA in March.

Twenty-three of them produce more than this. Ten farms generate between 8.5 tonnes and 17 tonnes, and 36 are farming less than 8.5 tonnes. The rest are new or have undergone a recent change of ownership.

The AVA believes poor harvests are due to farmers lacking the necessary capital or skills, or misusing their space, for example, using part of their farms for entertainment purposes.

It continues to work with individual farms on their production plans, said a spokesman. A jetty and mooring site is being built in Pasir Ris.

In 2009, the AVA launched a $10 million fund to help diversify Singapore's food supply and develop farms' capabilities. So far, about $6 million has been awarded to 15 projects, seven of them fish farms. Another $10 million has since been added to the fund.

The AVA is looking at new ways to help fish farmers here boost their productivity. These include research on developing better-quality fry and technologies to increase yield.