SFA to improve fish farming infrastructure in southern waters after Barramundi Group exits

SFA to improve fish farming infrastructure in southern waters after Barramundi Group exits

SINGAPORE – The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) is looking to improve fish farming infrastructure in the southern waters, saying the only farm operating there, the Barramundi Group, has plans to exit.

Before new fish farms take over the sites on Pulau Senang and Pulau Semakau, SFA is exploring the feasibility of having new farms share facilities there, the agency told The Straits Times.

Barramundi Group, which farms Asian sea bass, had open-water sea cages off Pulau Senang and Pulau Semakau, as well as a land-based hatchery and nursery on Semakau.

Its head of strategy and operations Tan Ying Quan said that farming in the southern waters comes with higher-than-usual operating costs due to inadequate infrastructure, making it challenging to be cost-competitive and to achieve long-term profitability.

That was an important reason why the company stopped farming here, and decided to focus its operations in Brunei instead, he said.

Said Mr Tan: “For one thing, transporting goods, such as fish feed and equipment, can be challenging with no dedicated jetty for fish farmers to use. We must get a private-hire crane whenever we need to move large items from mainland Singapore to the islands and back. We also pay hefty yacht club berthing fees to have parking space for our staff transport boats.”

In addition, the hatchery and nursery on Semakau – which can produce two million fingerlings, or juvenile fish, annually – does not have access to grid-supplied electricity or fresh water.

So it has to transport diesel and fresh water weekly to sustain operations, contributing to significantly higher operating costs since it took over the site in 2012.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the group stopped operating the Semakau facility in 2021 to cut costs.

Instead, it relied on its smaller hatchery and nursery on St John’s Island – where its research and development work is currently based – to grow fingerlings.

SFA recently awarded a tender to Singapore-based consultant DHI Water and Environment to study the environmental impact of farming in the waters off Semakau and Senang islands.

Once the study is completed, the agency will re-tender out the sea spaces for farming, while stipulating the allowable level of production for fish and fingerlings.

At the same time, it will determine the acceptable level of nutrient discharges from the farms there, to ensure that impact to the surrounding environment can be minimised.

Professor Dean Jerry, director of the Tropical Futures Institute at James Cook University, said fish and shrimp produce organic waste as a by-product of their metabolism, as they break down protein into nutrients, such as ammonia, which are then released into the surrounding waters.

Regardless of the type of farm – be it open-water sea cages or closed-containment systems – some level of nutrients will still be released into the water, he noted.

Closed-containment systems, which essentially separate the water where fish are kept from the natural environment, are thought to be more beneficial as they result in less pollution in the surrounding waters, as fish food, for example, is not being directly discharged into the sea.

The southern waters have fast currents, which help the nutrients to disperse quickly.

They also have a good mangrove ecosystem, which essentially helps to absorb the nutrients released from the farms, thereby allowing the water to be filtered and improving water quality, Prof Jerry said.

“The proposed environmental studies will provide science-based guidance to help us better understand our aquaculture sites, for the aquaculture industry to operate in a way that is environmentally responsible and supports the long-term resilience of our marine ecosystem,” said an SFA spokesman.

The agency is also gathering data to determine the optimal site allocation for aquaculture farms, and to develop environmental monitoring guidelines.

According to its annual report for 2022/2023, a study was conducted to assess the current state of sediment quality around farming zones. This will help SFA to monitor changes over time and assess whether farming activities were conducted sustainably.

According to the same report, another study was conducted to understand the connectivity of pathogens between farming sites, so the agency can look into biosecurity measures needed to minimise transmission of disease between farms.

In June 2023, the Barramundi Group had to temporarily pause farming after an outbreak of scale drop disease virus (SDDV), which is endemic in Singapore’s waters.

The virus can kill more than 70 per cent of a pen of barramundi at a time, and causes scale loss and fin erosion. It cannot be transmitted to humans.

Mr Tan said that the endemic virus was ultimately the farm’s Achilles heel, especially since there are no effective vaccines available for it.

The firm will continue its research and development work in Singapore, he added.

It is developing fish vaccines through its subsidiary, Uvaxx, and working on a selective breeding programme to rear Asian sea bass, which grows faster and is resistant to SDDV.

The company will continue to scale up its operations in Brunei, with a view to exporting fish to Singapore, said Mr Tan.

In addition to developing a jetty to facilitate goods and staff movement to the Southern Islands, he hopes that the Government and key industry players can jointly develop key farming infrastructure such as a hatchery and nursery, to supply the industry with high-quality and disease-free fingerlings.

This can significantly reduce each farm’s capital and operating costs, protect Singapore’s biosecurity, and improve farm production, he added.

“But, ultimately, we have to decide for ourselves: With the limited resources we have in Singapore, should we continue to diversify the fish species we farm, or focus on growing one particular fish species to increase the chances of success?”

He added that for each species, there is competition for resources to develop specific vaccines, genetics, feed and know-how. “Focusing on developing a single species increases the chances of the local aquaculture industry to achieve economies of scale, while providing a more attractive market for solution and technology providers to participate.”

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