Uphill battle for fish farmers

Latest mass fish deaths highlight challenges they face as S’pore aims to boost locally farmed stock
By Grace Chua, 23rd February 2014;

Even while Singapore tries to boost the supply of locally farmed fish, the latest mass death incident to hit farmers has highlighted the challenges they face.

It was around Chinese New Year last month when fish farmers off Pasir Ris began to notice something amiss: Their fish were surfacing and gasping. This showed oxygen was lacking in the water.

In a desperate bid to save their stocks, the fishermen harvested what they could, aerated the water and moved high-value fish into mussel nets that would filter plankton and waste from the water.

But it was not enough.

Over the following week, thousands of fish died at 34 fish farms off Pasir Ris and five more farms off Lim Chu Kang. The lethal combination of dry weather and neap tides, when high tides are at their lowest, was pinpointed as the cause of the lack of oxygen in the water.

This was the third such mass deaths in five years.

In 2009, farms in the East Johor Strait were hit by a plankton bloom. Plankton compete with fish for oxygen. And last year, dry and low-oxygen conditions off Lim Chu Kang killed fish there.

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) began a push in 2011 to make local supplies account for 15 per cent of total fish consumed here. The figure is currently 7 per cent. Farms here must also produce 17 tonnes of fish for every half hectare of farm space to keep their licences. This year, the fish deaths will be taken into account by the AVA, which issues the licences, and farmers will be given help to restock farms and buy equipment.

However, the latest figures show that in 2012, just 46 out of 120 fish farms met the 17-tonne target, and 42 did not. The rest were new or had changed hands recently.

Farmers also say they will continue to face seasonal algae blooms, lack of facilities and high costs.

Natural conditions around Singapore are not exactly conducive to fish farming.

The Causeway restricts water circulation in the Johor Strait, and neap tides reduce current flow. While currents are stronger off Pulau Tekong and around the Southern Islands – the two other areas where farms are allowed – the deeper, faster waters there require a deeper double anchor, making it more expensive, said fish farmer Noven Chew, 37.

National University of Singapore emeritus professor Lam Toong Jin, an aquaculture expert, said intensive feeding, organic runoff from land and high temperatures also contribute to algal blooms and low-oxygen conditions.

The choice of fish adds to the challenges. Species such as the grouper are sensitive to low-oxygen conditions, but high labour and feed costs mean farmers like Ms Chew choose to raise these high-value fish to better compete with fish from overseas. Farmers who raise hardier fish like Red Snapper (Lutjanus sp.), Milkfish (Chanos chanos) and Grey Mullet (Mugil cephalus) had better luck in the latest mass deaths.

Other pollution sources could arise in the longer term. In an essay on the rise of the Iskandar Malaysia economic zone, researchers from Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies noted the potential for increased pollution and oil spills and the impact of land reclamation.

A spokesman said AVA will work with farms that have yet to reach the minimum production target, and that they have two years to do so. AVA has also disbursed the second $10 million tranche of its Food Fund to 40 farmers to help with equipment costs. Most of these farmers run small half-hectare farms.

In the long run, help may come from technology. Two farms here have worked out ways to farm marine fish on land. SIF Agrotechnology Asia’s land-based hatchery treats recirculated saltwater, and OnHand Agrarian has harvested Pearl Grouper (Epinephelus fuscogutttatus x lanceolatus), Tiger Grouper (Epinephelus fuscoguttatus), lobsters (F. Palinuridae), mussels (Perna viridis) and sea urchins from a pilot farm, cultivating a complete ecosystem in the same tank.

Such tank-based farming may mean higher infrastructure costs, but lets farmers control water quality, said RSIS senior fellow in food security Paul Teng.

For food security’s sake, some form of government help will probably be needed to maintain farm production in small, high-cost Singapore, Professor Teng added. “It’s just like military security. You don’t expect returns, you need to secure your borders.”

Source: The Sunday Times (Mirror)

Uphill battle for fish farmers

Fish deaths a double whammy
By Melissa Lin, 16th February 2014;

Business at Ms Noven Chew’s two coastal fish farms was already bad.

Since last year, the 37-year-old has been facing stiff competition from Malaysian farmers who sold their fish here at prices cheaper than she can afford to sell her produce.

During Chinese New Year came an even bigger blow which is set to sink her business. Almost 7,000 fish – nearly her entire stock – died within a span of one week.

The five tonnes of dead fish included Sea Bass (Barramundi) (Lates calcarifer), Tiger Grouper (Epinephelus fuscoguttatus) and Mouse Grouper (Humpback Grouper) (Cromileptes altivelis), which can fetch between $80 and $100 per kg, she said.

The losses cost her $15,000. And if the fish had grown to their maximum size, their worth could have as much as doubled, she estimated.

Others were also not spared the sudden mass deaths – 39 farms in the East and West Johor Strait lost around 160 tonnes of fish.

That is around 3 per cent of what local farms produced in 2012, according to Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) figures.

Last Thursday, AVA attributed the deaths to low levels of dissolved oxygen and a plankton bloom due to hot weather and high tides being at their lowest levels.

Signs that something was amiss began showing a few days before the start of Chinese New Year late last month, said Ms Chew.

Neighbouring fish farmers told her that their Coral Trout (Plectropomus sp.) – which she does not rear – were dying. A check in the waters around her farms found that fish were avoiding the area.

As a safety precaution, she moved a few hundred of her giant groupers into mussel nets. Mussels (Perna viridis) eat plankton and act as a filter, she said.

They survived, but she did not have enough mussel nets to save her other fish.

Ms Chew’s losses could have been worse if she had not diversified her business following a plankton bloom in December 2009, when 25 tonnes of fish worth $70,000 died in her farms.

After that setback, she and her business partner, Singapore Marine Aquaculture Cooperative chairman Phillip Lim, decided to rear lobsters (F. Palinuridae). Their farms now have more than 10,000 of the crustaceans, which were unaffected by the recent deaths.

“We didn’t want to rear so many fish because the price of local fish was dropping,” Ms Chew added.

Sea bass from Malaysia can be bought for the retail price of as low as $5 a kilogram, but for local fish farmers, it costs $8 just to rear the same amount of fish, she said.

The Institute of Technical Education graduate had previously worked as a retail assistant, a wonton noodle seller and a chicken rice seller.

The divorcee went into the fish farming business in 2008, thinking it would allow her more time with her daughter, now 12.

A year later, she sold her four-room flat in Sembawang for $350,000, and invested the entire sum into her business. Now she lives on one of her farms – each of which sits on 0.5ha of sea area off the coast of Changi – while her daughter lives with her former mother-in-law.

Ms Chew owns the farms but pays an annual licence fee of $850 for each of them. She declined to reveal how much she earns from farming.

Last Thursday, Minister of State for National Development Mohamad Maliki Osman said farmers affected by the recent mass deaths do not have to worry about missing mandated productivity targets. Each year, fish farms must produce 17 tonnes of fish for every 0.5ha of space to keep their licences.

But this is cold comfort to Ms Chew, who does not have any savings and may have to head to the mainland to find a way to support herself and her daughter.

“I’ll have to find a part-time job outside. I want to support the national food security efforts, but how can I do so if I can’t even support my own family?”

Source: The Sunday Times (Mirror)