How sustainable aquaculture will win over China’s middle class

Published on
September 11, 2015

Several new ventures farming environmental-themed grouper in Asia have highlighted a shift to higher value aquaculture in Asia to cater to rising local incomes. But it also highlights the increased use of sustainability as a marketing tactic for fish producers in the region.

Organic takes on premium tropical fish show the imperative for sustainability in the marketing of one of the highest prices fishes in the Asian market. Aquaculture firm Arafura Prima Indopasifik will open a restaurant in Jakarta later this month to showcase its grouper.

The humpback grouper which takes up to two years to reach maturity will wholesale at USD 60 (EUR 53.02)/kg (FOB Jakarta) which compares to prices in Asia for premium lobster. Arafura is targeting upscale Chinese restaurants in major Indonesian cities and then to China and Chinese populations in Southeast Asia, explained company director Jimmy Ah, who has applied for organic certification for his products.

Exhibiting at Seafood Expo Asia in Hong Kong, Ah said his company is distinct from many grouper farms in Taiwan – a hotbed of grouper farming – which openly use hormones to grow grouper faster. “We use no hormones and no antibiotics … our fish feeds are produced locally from local small fish and we mix this with prawns.”

Arafuras’ feed mix for its grouper ensures a fish high in marbling and fatty in texture to appeal to Chinese consumer demands. While the firm now has 200 metric tons (MT) of mature fish ready it also struggles with high mortality rates. “The fish are very sensitive. If the water is unclean they die overnight … and sometimes it’s not clear why they die.”

An awareness of looming fish shortages in southeast Asia led Ah to grouper production. “There has been a drastic reduction in the number of fish in the sea the past year; that’s why the Indonesian government cracked down on illegal fishing.” As well as the high-profile capture and destruction of foreign fishing vessels the Jakarta government is also encouraging expansion of aquaculture, says Ah.

Having tried various types of grouper, the firm has now settled on three varieties, including the premium humpback variety, and aims to sell in fillet and whole fish formats. Hitting the 1,000 MT mark is his ultimate goal, but in the meantime he’s concentrating on securing organic certification and opening his restaurant – named “the Hook” – later this month to showcase various dishes and cooking methods for his fish.

It helps that Ah’s family had been pearl producers: “this means water has to be very clean.” But Arafuras isn’t the only firm in the region pushing a green-tinted grouper. Based in Taiwan, Hydean Biotechnology Co. produces 250 MT of mostly giant grouper per year for sale in China, Hong Kong and Singapore through internet shopping, restaurants and retailers.

Hydean feeds its fish plants grown with manure collected from the fish tanks – the recycling scheme is termed “aquaponics, a symbiosis of aquaculture and hydroponics.” The Asian grouper market is expanding, explained John Tsai, marketing manager at the company, also exhibiting at the Hong Kong show. “More and more people are entering the grouper production.” Hydean sells boneless steaks as well as whole fish and filets which are designed for Chinese hotpot. It’s a premium product: “French grouper steak” sells for USD 70 (EUR 61.81) per kilo.

“We hope to reduce the resource use so we use less through our ecosystem, it’s not a traditional fish farm. Normal grouper in the sea faces industrial pollution but we are growing grouper in indoor farms and we ensure it’s fresh and non-polluted.”

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