How this little-known fish makes it big in the Asian market

Published on
October 20, 2015

Fish farming in Vietnam is usually associated with pangasius and other freshwater species such as tilapia, and marine species such as cobia and pompano, which are also being reared and exported to different countries.

However, a species seldom heard of outside Asia, or Asian communities, is also being farmed in ponds in the Mekong Delta. This is the snakehead (Channidae spp), which lives in fresh and brackish water and is found in rivers, lakes and ponds.

Since the fish are darkish brown in color, the species is also known as “mudfish,” however the meat doesn’t taste at all of mud; it is white or slightly pink in color when cooked and is slightly sweetish with a good flavor.

Popular in Vietnam, where the species is also wild, snakehead is one of the most important food fish in Thailand and Malaysia. It is also very popular in India and the Philippines.

Both wild and farmed snakeheads are sold live in Asia, and will stay alive for days in a basket of wet straw. Although popular with Asian consumers, not surprisingly the name prevents the species from being marketed on a large scale in Europe, according to importers.

However IQF skinless, boneless snakehead fillets are sometimes sold under other names such as “white grouper” in the United States.

Frozen snakehead from Vietnam is sold in different forms: whole skin on/off in 10 kilo packs; whole gutted in 1 kilo vacuum packs; fillets skin on/off IWP (Individually Wrapped Pack – wrapped in a thin foil layer); steaks and sashimi IWP.

Snakeheads come in many different sizes. They can grow to 40 inches (101.6 cm) in length and to 6.6 pounds (3 kilos) in weight. A fish 15.75 inches (40 cm) long and weighing 1 pound 10 ounces ( 737 gm) will yield about 11.25 ounces (319 gm) of skin-on fillet (43 percent) and 10.13 ounces (287 gm) of skinless fillet (39 percent).

In some cases snakehead is sold “factory cleaned,” which will give a boneless fillet with a yield of about 50 percent. (Extracting the bones will leave a gap in the fillet from the top. This is often filled with an “artificial protein” and then frozen so that it becomes a plain bone free fillet. Alternatively the fillets are simply laid out during the freezing process and frozen together.)

Snakehead became an important Vietnamese export earning “hundreds of millions of dollars” in 2012-13, according to an industry insider, and farmers in Vietnam rushed to grow this valuable crop.

However, in 2014, intensive farming took its toll and snakehead ponds were abandoned as prices plunged. According to Vietnam News (VNS) in April last year, hundreds of households in southern Tra Vinh Province suffered serious losses after the price of snakehead fell and kept on falling. The problem was exacerbated by a rash that left many fish with ulcerated skin.

More than one million fish died. Nguyen Van Ut, chairman of the People’s Committee in Tra Cu District, where fish farms dominate, said nearly 2,000 households in the district had raised snakeheads in about 200 hectares of water.

As supplies started flooding the market, the price of snakehead fell from VND 42,000 (USD 1.88, EUR 1.66) to VND 26,000 (USD 1.67, EUR 1.47) per kilo. However, production costs were reported to be VND 30,000 (USD 1.35, EUR 1.19) per kilo.

Farmers in the province were reported to have suffered individual losses of between VND 80 million and VND 500 million (USD 3,590 and 22,440, EUR 3,163 and 19.771).

Tran Van Dong, deputy director of the district’s Sub-Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said the authority had warned farmers of possible diseases and losses after farmers in the districts of Tra Cu, Tieu Can and Cau Ke removed their crops to dig fish ponds in 2013.

The provincial authority had asked agricultural officers to guide farmers on switching to other crops such as “green shrimps” (probably the giant freshwater prawn Macrobraccium rosenbergii), or tilapia.

The price of snakehead has since recovered and in July 2015 ranged from VND 45,000 (USD 2.02, EUR 1.78) to VND 60,000 (USD 2.69, EUR 2.37) per kilo on leaving the farm. This was 2-3 times the farm gate price for pangasius at VND 25,000 (USD 1.22, EUR 1.07).

It will be interesting to see if snakehead can continue to earn this price and, perhaps under another name, follow on the success of other fish farmed in Vietnam.

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