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Why Southeast Asia is perfectly placed to embrace large-scale fish farming

A Cambodian woman carries baskets of fish at the Tonle Sap River bank in Phnom Penh Photo: Mak Remissa / EPA-EFE

To feed the global population by 2050, food production will need to increase by 50%, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Most of the land suitable for agriculture is already being cultivated, and there is a huge pressure on water resources for irrigation. Global fish stocks have decreased dramatically and farmed fish is now more common on many dinner tables than wild-caught fish.

A potential solution to this was the topic of discussion at the Offshore Mariculture Asia 2018 conference in Singapore in May. International experts, equipment suppliers and investors gathered to talk about the potential of upscaling Southeast Asian fish farming through offshore operations.

FAO has labelled Asia as a “hub” for the quantity and potential of marine aqualculture. It also stated that in order to meet future demands, the continent must increase its supply of fish.

The market in Southeast Asia is ready for large-scale fish production, the FAO maintains. Turning to the open sea, then, would seem to be an obvious choice for increasing future food production in the region. But although opportunities are great, so are the challenges.

People eat a lot of fish from lake Tonlé Sap and the Mekong River, but there is hardly any marine fish farming in the country

FAO regional fisheries and aquaculture officer Alessandro Lovatelli told Southeast Asia Globe that the region suffers from a lack of experience in this field, which may put off corporations and other big investors.

“You need governments, maybe in collaboration with the private sector, to establish demonstration projects so that [investors] can see that it really works in their own area,” said Lovatelli. “A lot of industries here in Asia that started up as demonstrations 20 to 30 years ago learned by experience and got going.”

One large-scale offshore plan in the making is a $24 million project in Cambodia proposed by the Norwegian firm Vitamar. Owner Bjørn Myrseth hopes that Vitamar can start to produce 3,000 tons of fish within seven to eight years and kickstart offshore aquaculture in the Kingdom.

“At the moment, we are looking for more investors because we see a great potential in Cambodia,” said Myrseth. “People eat a lot of fish from lake Tonlé Sap and the Mekong River, but there is hardly any marine fish farming in the country.”

Fishing in the Mekong is declining, Myrseth pointed out, and as more dams come online, that trend will only increase.

Several speakers at the conference touted Indonesia as a future hotspot for open-sea fish farms in Southeast Asia, with its vast coastlines and relatively stable wind conditions – and absence of extreme weather events. Within the last ten years, the country has developed marine aquaculture as a ‘blue economy’. Indonesia has been working on pilot projects with foreign companies. It has a big local market and good infrastructure.

One of the challenges highlighted at the conference was technology transfer. The successful offshore farming methods of salmon farms in Norway and Chile, for example, can’t be used in Southeast Asia, said long-time aquaculture consultant Niels Svennevig, who lives and works in Vietnam.

Southeast Asia has only a handful of farms producing 1,000 or more tons of fish, he said.

“In the region, most of the production is small scale, with an output of five tons of fish per year,” said Svennevig. “Increasing this kind of farming doesn’t increase the food production sufficiently. You must scale up – even an increase to 300 tons will be a big step in the right direction.”

Lovatelli agrees: “You have to bring in technology that works and then adapt it to local conditions. Here you not only work in a different environment, but you also farm different fish. It’s good to develop technologies that are needed locally – but you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Norwegian Bjørn Myrseth is president of the European Aquaculture Society and owner of Vitamar – the company which plans to kick-start offshore aquaculture in Cambodia. He describes how his project has evolved since its beginning in 2011 and what his visions are for the future

 How has the project progressed since 2011?

Initially the regulators could only grant permission for one year at a time with the permission to be renewed every year. As an investor this would be impossible. It takes more than a year for some fish to grow to market size. We spent a long time convincing the government to change the regulations, which they eventually did in 2015 – now we can have a permit for up to 15 years. Then we applied for the permission at the Cambodian Development Corporation and got it in 2017. The application process should take 28 days, but it took more than two years!

Where are you in the process at the moment?

We are looking for more investors. When we have that in place we will finalise the Environmental Impact Assessment – that may take five to six months to do. Then we are ready to start and also expect to get the final permit from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

How do you see this project unfolding?

We will start the project offshore near Sihanoukville. Initially we will start buying juvenile fish from the government hatchery MARDeC and import some juvenile fish. Later we will build our own hatchery and grow our own juveniles. The plan is to reach a modest production of 3,000 tons in seven to eight years’ time because we need time to train people. There are no trained people in Cambodia we can hire so we have to start from scratch and bring in both equipment and experience.

If you get the final permit and investment when can you harvest the first fish?

It will take about six months to get equipment and people in place to start farming. Then it is another six to nine months before we can harvest the first fish.

What do you see as the greatest challenge in this venture?

The biggest risks are fish diseases. We want to do this in an environmentally friendly way where we have site rotation, fallowing and year class separation – we don’t produce in the cages on the same site every year but change between three sites and let them lie fallow for a period. This will help to reduce the risk of diseases. In addition, we plan to vaccinate the fish against the most common bacterial diseases.

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