A tastier tilapia

New saltwater-tolerant breed could boost food sustainability here
Chang Ai-Lien Straits Times 15 Apr 12;

Tilapia grow fast and are relatively cheap to produce, but like other freshwater fish, they are often shunned by consumers who complain they have a muddy taste.

To cross that hurdle, Singapore's largest fish farm has started producing saltwater-tolerant tilapia, a move that could boost food sustainability here and help Singapore meet its target of raising local fish production.

Next year, Mr Malcolm Ong, chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Fishery Group, plans to harvest 100,000kg of the fish at his farm in the waters off Lim Chu Kang.

This is on top of the 600,000kg of mullet and milkfish his facility currently sells to wholesalers and supermarkets here each year.

'We are constantly asked by suppliers to increase the variety of our fish, so this was a great opportunity,' he said.

He began his tilapia-farming experiment last year, after the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) introduced him to local researchers who supplied him with days-old, 1cm-long marine tilapia fry.

In nine months, the fish each grew to a plump 500g and were ready for harvest.

So far, more than 400kg have been snapped up by wholesalers.

Fish production here is on the rise, with farmers saying that demand for local fish is high because it is seen as fresher then the produce brought in by fishing boats.

In 2010, people here ate 47.5 million kg of fish.

Singapore's 119 coastal fish farms produce about 7 per cent of the fish consumed locally - up from 4.5 per cent in 2009, said an AVA spokesman.

It wants to raise the figure to 15 per cent in a few years' time.

To this end, AVA has a $20 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, including the Metropolitan Fishery Group.

This allowed Mr Ong to install an automated water monitoring system that sounds the alarm if oxygen levels fall on his farm - a common occurrence.

Staff are then able to switch on pumps and aerators so that fish do not become stressed and die, he said.

This also helped to prevent losses with the recent tilapia harvest.

Because they grow fast, are not picky eaters and are relatively easy to farm, tilapia - known as 'the aquatic chicken' - have become one of the world's most important fish in aquaculture.

Some customers have however bypassed them because of the earthy taste that freshwater fish can have.

But the tilapia from Mr Ong's farm, when sampled by Sunday Times staff, was clean-tasting, with firm, white flesh.

Wholesaler Ang Tian Sze, who bought up the first batch, agreed that the fish had been a success because they were fresh without any hint of a muddy taste.