Fish for life

When local marine fish farming company Aquagrow Corporation Sdn Bhd was setting up in 2008, it received only one Malaysian applicant to join the company.

In Malaysia, fish farming is still perceived as a small-scale rural activity, says its CEO Mohd Razali Mohamed.

“What many don’t realise is that aquaculture (fish farming) is now a RM380bil global industry with some 160 million tonnes of fish being traded all over the world each year. Fish production is already the biggest food production sector in the world - bigger even than chicken, beef, dairy or pork. And the pay is fantastic and is on par with other industries,” he says.

Crucially, aquaculture is becoming increasingly high tech, requiring extensive research and development to spur its growth, and experts in related specialisations from marine biologists to feed specialists, geneticists and food technologists.

Seeing the potential in the field, Mohd Razali decided to turn his “side project” - a fish farm in Adelaide, Australia - into a fulltime career.

Mohd Razali decided to walk away from his high tech career in Geographical Information System and Remote Sensing to pursue aquaculture fulltime.

“I entered the aquaculture industry at 36 years old. Initially, it was just for diversification of business portfolio. After five years, I gave up everything else and concentrated on fish farming, having seen how big the industry is.”

Along with his business partners, Mohd Razali decided to test the waters here.

“We had a bit of a culture shock! Compared to when we were in Australia, we got so much support from the government here and there were even funds available through various grants.”

Through BiotechCorp, Aquagrow received the BioNexus Status, which gave them various incentives and guarantees to develop their aquaculture enterprise.

“With BioNexus, we got help at all stages of our development, even with petty issues,” says Mohd Razali, describing BiotechCorp as a “nurturing” agency.

After studying the market, they decided to focus on Tiger Grouper, Giant Grouper, Barramundi and Red Snapper.

They started with a farm in Langkawi and another in Tok Bali, Kelantan. To reap optimum “catch”, they invested in research and development (R&D) at their facilities and hatcheries, says Mohd Razali.

“The biggest problem in fish farming is the high mortality (about 50% for Barramundi and Snapper, and 70% for Grouper) due to viruses, diseases, parasites and bacteria. We apply aquaculture biotechnology in fish farming at all three stages of our operations - from hatchery, nursery to grow-out - to reduce the mortality and to increase profitability.”

Through aquaculture technology, they are working to develop a long term Broodstock Enhancement Programme using a DNA-marker assisted family selection method to reverse the declining quality of their broodstock and a commercial scale Copepod production for first feeding in all their hatcheries.

Another initiative is to develop high-density poly ethylene (HDPE) materials to make sea cages to allow them to keep their brood in deeper and higher quality waters.

According to Mohd Razali, the more common wooden cages restrict the fish farmers only to shallow, near shore and sheltered areas which have lower quality sea water. “HDPE cages are also designed to withstand monsoons,” he adds.

Previously, they would have to import HDPE cages which are usually too expensive. “We are designing our own cages with assistance from a Danish aquaculture engineering company. We ordered the fabrication equipment from Europe and will start to fabricate the HDPE cages in Tok Bali soon, at a lower cost than the fully imported models.”

It helps that they are given exemption for import duty as a BioNexus company, says Mohd Razali.

Having a BioNexus status has also made it easier for them to hire the foreign specialists they need.

“Being in the BioNexus programme gives us the freedom to hire any foreign expert we need, which in our case is in almost all departments as we are lacking talents in this field in Malaysia at the moment,” he says.

All of Aquagrow’s farm managers now are Europeans as there are not many Malaysians who have the experience in large scale commercial fish farming, says Mohd Razali.

“But we make sure that we also hire young Malaysian graduates to become their assistants, with the view to have mostly Malaysian managers in the near future.”

Aquagrow also tries to tap into the local community for manpower.

“Both farms are located in very rural areas and we usually give employment preference to locals. We want the farms to have direct positive impacts on the local economies and employment of Langkawi and Tok Bali.” Their first harvest is expected this December.

While all their focus has been on R&D, Mohd Razali is confident of their sales and marketing with their Australian connections.

“Our Barramundi and Snapper will be airflown to Sydney and Melbourne on a weekly basis. When the production increases, we will export to Switzerland and France.

“Our live grouper will be exported to Hong Kong and China. There are many ‘well boats’ from Hong Kong that ply the South China Seas and Malacca Straits to purchase live Grouper directly from farms, to bring back to Hong Kong and China.”

He says it was the global aspect of aquaculture that attracted him to the field.

“And virtually there is no limit to the size of the fish. The bigger the fish, the more profit you make.”

Ultimately, it is an area with a demand. “Everyone needs fish!” quips Mohd Razali.

Aquaculture is also Malaysia’s answer to the sustainability of its fishes.

According to experts, Malaysia has lost 92% of its fishery resources due to overfishing.

Mohd Razali points out this is because Malaysians are one of the world’s largest consumers of seafood at 52kg per capita, which is more than double that of US and Europe’s 20kg.

“That means that with a population of more than 27 million, we consume more than 1.4 million tonnes of fish per year while we produce 1.5 million tonnes,” he says.

In 10 years, we will need another 260,000 tonnes to feed ourselves and in 2048, the predicted doomsday for global fisheries, we will need to double our current production.

“Our wild catch has already reached the maximum yield, so unless we act now, we will run out of fish sooner. Where is the fish going to come from in the future? The answer is aquaculture, of course!”

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