Supercharging offshore mariculture

Supercharging offshore mariculture USSEC’s Lukas Lukas Manomaitis is optimistic for the future of offshore aquaculture in Asia

Southeast Asia’s aquaculture sector has a long way to go to catch up with other parts of the world, but has the potential to reinvent itself in only a few years if all the pieces fall into place, according to the US Soybean Export Council’s Bangkok-based Lukas Manomaitis.

He’s a man with a boundless enthusiasm for the fish business, and particularly for the potential that Southeast Asia’s aquaculture sector has to develop and grow, not least with a shift offshore – away from the low-energy, near-shore aquaculture model that currently exists across much of the region.

“Here the marine fish industry is so far behind Norway and Chile that there is no choice but to develop, and this could happen in two to five years,” he predicted.

“We’re encouraging the move offshore,” he said. “At present near-shore aquaculture has low productivity, and it has high mortality and disease levels. The potential is here to both increase and intensify aquaculture. There are sub-tropical and tropical conditions, and very long coastlines that provide the right conditions for high-energy aquaculture,” he said.

As a US soy product marketing organisation, USSEC is working with the entire production chain from the broodstock stage onwards, and working closely with feed suppliers to help develop better products with soy products, such as soybean protein concentrates (SPC) that are suitable for marine species.

“Marine fish feeds tend to require higher protein and fat which traditionally has come from marine animal ingredients,” he said. “As aquaculture in general moves toward less marine animal ingredients (such as fishmeal) in feeds, and towards vegetable ingredients, care will need to be taken to use the correct forms of vegetable ingredients (such as SPC) as marine fish tend to be more sensitive than freshwater species to vegetable products.”

Starting with a vision of offshore aquaculture cages placed around Southeast Asia in a process that could take place in as little as couple of years, he is optimistic, but stresses that all the links in the chain have to come together to make this work. Not least of these is that regional governments need to streamline zoning and licensing, while the market also needs to be a prime concern.

“We have been running marine fish market workshops, looking at what happens when you jump into industrial scale, large volume production – and it has to be done properly,” he said, commenting that there are plenty of examples of markets being flooded by over production.

“That way everyone suffers,” he said, adding as an example that a there was an attempt to demonstrate offshore cage production approaches off the Thai coast that did not result in a good outcome, working with the wrong species and with the cages sited in a less than optimal location – and there other examples of venture that have failed for a combination of reasons.

The Turkish model

Lukas Manomaitis cites the Turkish experience as an example of how the shift can be made, when the Turkish government decided in 2006 that aquaculture would have to be moved offshore, and the industry did just that, and a crucial factor in this was government involvement in the process.

For the same to happen in Asia, all of the factors need to come together, from the market for the farmed fish to the hatcheries supplying fingerlings and he is adamant that to develop the industry on a realistic basis, hatcheries with minimum capacity to produce 20 million fingerlings each annually are going to be needed, while national governments will have to alter their policies towards larger entities prepared to invest in offshore production.

“Right now, governments in Southeast Asia are generally pro-small-scale. But what we saw in Turkey was that as the cages moved offshore there were fewer jobs as farmers, but employment increased overall as there were more jobs related to the aquaculture sector. The fact is that not everyone can be a farmer,” he said.

One result of widespread fish farming across the region is that there is little of the NIMBY syndrome directed towards aquaculture, as ponds and cages are a familiar sight.

“There are even ponds inside the Bangkok city limits. People are used to seeing ponds and cages.”

He commented that the rapid changeover in Turkey was made possible as conflicts were defused and measures taken to ensure security.

“We like to think of Norway as the gold standard for aquaculture – everyone would like to be like Norway. But for Southeast Asia we feel that Turkey is the practical standard. This is what can be achieved when everything comes together.”

“In Asia we have wealthy potential investors who are looking to put resources into this, and they are looking for joint ventures – not so much for the financing but more to bring in the right skills and experience. Southeast Asia is currently a long way behind in marine fish aquaculture, so there’s a big jump ahead and there is huge potential.”

Potential

He said that Indonesia has more than 17,000 islands that could provide sheltered sea space for cages located away from the mainland coasts, while Vietnam has potential and Malaysia already has a government programme encouraging offshore aquaculture investment. The Philippines is also a good target, as an island archipelago, but its constitution prohibits complete overseas ownership of a vertically-integrated operation which could present difficulties.  But even so there are local investors interested in the marine fish export sector.

There are already several good species that could be candidates for offshore cage production.  “We should be looking at barramundi, pompano and cobia as species to farm offshore – and grouper,” he said, commenting that this is a well-known fish in Southeast Asia, although accepted more as live fish than as fillets or other products, but there is a significant potential.

“There are several groupers already, and I believe that what would be ideal is a grouper hybrid that is more pelagic. Most groupers like to sit on the bottom of a cage, wait for their food to come past and gobble it up. So a more lively pelagic grouper hybrid that spends time higher in the water column would open a high-value fillet or value-added market. It’s a popular fish that everyone knows in Asia as well as the US. So grouper could become Southeast Asia’s salmon.”

He made the point that Southeast Asia already has a highly developed processing industry that is currently exporting products around the world, and which is looking for even more raw material.  Indonesia in particular is a good example: “The Indonesian processors have told us that they have capacity to handle 3.80 million tonnes a year, but their current throughput is 1.90 million tonnes. So they would be delighted to see a source of quality farmed fish from offshore aquaculture. This is a seafood-loving region with a growing middle class, so there is a strong internal market for seafood, plus they are already exporting around the world.”

Lukas Manomaitis commented that it’s optimistic to expect that change can take place in Southeast Asia with the same rapidity as in Turkey, where it took one year.

“It will be more likely be more gradual. It could be two to five years – but ultimately it will have to happen to continue to supply both the domestic and export industries. With the right information available, the early adopters could be the ones to supercharge the industry in this region. But for that to happen, governments need to step up and ensure security for operators. They need secure space to invest that takes account of multiple maritime area users, plus they need to provide concessions that are long enough to be viable,” he said, adding that the Australian model is ideal, bringing together different agencies under one umbrella and with the work of assessing and surveying areas already done.

“If you want to farm oysters in Australia, you’re shown a map of available areas to choose from. Once you’ve paid your money, you can be farming oysters two weeks later,” he said, making the aside that in other parts of the world this could become a process taking years as different bodies and agencies all have a say in the matter.

“So I would like to see the process streamlined to make a one-stop-shop for licensing a reality,” he said.

“With a relatively new industry there is an opportunity to set the right rules from the outset and to do it correctly,” he said. “The nearshore areas are already overcrowded and many of Southeast Asia’s capture fisheries are in a critical state so aquaculture is the future. Seeing the industry develop in this way makes sense – and USSEC is keen to bring together people to make this possible. But if government isn’t involved, it’s not going to work.”

USSEC has worked in the marine fish aquaculture space in an intensive fashion in Southeast Asia at least since 2009.

“We have had a programme that has worked with multiple parts of the marine fish aquaculture production chain throughout the years, with the expectation that a larger, feed-based marine fish aquaculture industry will require greater amounts of feed - an ideal target for high quality, certified sustainable US soy products,” he said, commenting that as USSEC has made significant progress since 2009, they are looking to supercharge the effort and create a paradigm change in the Southeast Asian marine fish aquaculture industry.

“Bringing an internationally recognised event like the Offshore Mariculture Conference to Asia should help to highlight the potentials for high-energy cage culture production for marine fish in Southeast Asia both to the regional players and to international ones. This type of focused and intensive event will allow key stakeholders to meet and discuss how to make the much-needed change happen in marine fish aquaculture in the region.

He hopes that aside from educating early adopters and government agents, that OMC will also create a space to allow faster adoption of an industrial approach to marine fish farming in the region.

“The potentials exist for local, international and joint-venture type approaches to further develop this industry,” he said.

“The key issue will be to ensure that it will develop in a sustainable and rational way so it can be a long term industry to provide seafood and employment in the region. USSEC felt that there was a great mutual benefit to our interests and that of the regional aquaculture industry – this is why USSEC has been the driving force to bring OMC to Asia and to be a major contributor to the event.”

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