At last, Malaysia embraces aquaculture

A steady climate and extensive coastline help make Southeast Asia the world’s most productive region for aquaculture. China, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam have taken full advantage of their environs, as well as government support and large investments, and now hold the reins to a substantial portion of the global seafood supply.

For nearly 30 years, markets like Japan, the United States and Europe have feasted on shrimp and whitefish raised in several Southeast Asian nations, with one notable exception. Despite its 4,675 kilometers (2,904 miles) of coastline and promising freshwater opportunities, Malaysia has lagged well behind its neighbors. It is, more or less, untapped territory.

A small yet fragmented aquaculture industry long had Malaysia rudderless, leaving the nation’s seafood production dependent upon wild fisheries that were being depleted, according to C.Y. Tan, president of Kenyir Aquaculture Sdn Bhd. His company is slowly ramping up production of tilapia in Kenyir Lake, one of Asia’s largest manmade reservoirs that Tan says is “pristine.”

Thanks to a careful approach to aquaculture development on behalf of Malaysia’s Department of Fisheries, Tan’s company and its U.S. minority partner, Rocky Mount, N.C.-based Seafood Solutions, are excited about the prospects of cage-raised tilapia in the 38,000-hectare lake that was built in the 1980s by flooding a mountainous area. It has taken time, but the rewards should be worth the wait.

“Malaysia’s Fisheries Department has painstakingly identified suitable areas for development for fish and shrimps,” said Tan, adding that Kenyir Lake fits the bill. “Tilapia has been identified as one of the major [species] for commercial growth.”

A thriving aquaculture industry, he added, will also improve struggling fishermen’s livelihoods and help to eradicate poverty in rural areas. Aquaculture holds much promise for the people and the economy of Malaysia, which, as Howard Lapides describes it, has one advantage: a clean slate.

Lapides, Seafood Solutions’ managing executive director, has visited the country several times in the past few years and has met with government officials he describes as eager to welcome the economic opportunities that aquaculture presents — yet desiring deliberate, disciplined progress marked by none of the problems that have plagued the industry in other countries.

“Malaysia can follow the best experiences in Thailand. They can take the technology in Taiwan and learn from the mistakes made in China, Vietnam and Indonesia,” said Lapides. “You get all that experience, competitive labor rates and a willing labor base of people who want to learn. Nobody here is saying ‘can’t.’ Everyone’s saying, ‘show me how.’”

When Lapides first visited Taiwan in the late 1980s, he saw black tiger shrimp production take off, and he foresees similar success for Malaysia, especially concerning the production of Pacific white shrimp (Penaeus vannamei) and tilapia. All the elements for success are there.

“I saw all these multi-billion-dollar aquaculture industries throughout Southeast Asia, but Malaysia was sleeping,” said Lapides.

It’s now awakening. Black tilapia production by Kenyir Aquaculture will reach only 300 metric tons this year with just 200 cages in operation, but it is expected to vault to 7,600 metric tons next year with 700 cages and nearly 20,000 metric tons in 2012 with nearly 1,000 cages.

Most of the product will be destined for the United States, where tilapia consumption in 2009 increased yet again to 1.2 pounds per capita, making it the fifth-most popular seafood species among American consumers. (The attractive red tilapia is more popular with Asian consumers, who often buy their fish live.)

The vertically integrated Kenyir Lake venture expects to create a premium frozen tilapia fillet that will be produced with no antibiotics or other chemicals, the use of which Tan calls “the easy way out.”

“It is one way to kill an industry,” said Tan. “Moreso, because the environment is so pristine, we are actually looking into the organic farming approach. One day in the near future we will be able to cultivate organic tilapia as well as vannamei. Hygiene requirements are a critical consideration. We should be able to meet the stringent standards of the U.S., Japan and EU.”

Responsible aquaculture requires many precautions, which Malaysia is taking. Collaboration between government, industry and the U.S.-based Aquaculture Certification Council may propel Malaysia into prominence. It won’t be an overnight sensation, but that’s purely by design.

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