Tilapia could take off in Vietnam as pangasius problems persist

Published on
March 16, 2015

The well publicized problems concerning the production and export of pangasius from Vietnam are leading producers there to switch their focus to tilapia. Both red tilapia (Orechromis niloticus) and black tilapia (Tilapia mossambicus) are grown in about equal quantities.

However, as with pangasius, lack of funds for investment means that there is a shortage of raw material for the industry to fulfill its export potential.

Nevertheless, according to local media, Vietnam’s tilapia exports to foreign markets have enjoyed strong growth during the past decade, increasing from an export value of USD 1.95 million (EUR 1.79 million) in 2004 to more than USD 32.2 million (EUR 29.63 million) in 2014.

Last year, the total area of ponds and lakes used for farming tilapia in Vietnam grew to 15,992 hectares with production increasing by more than 25 percent to 125,000 metric tons (MT), compared with the previous year. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) has forecast that the area for tilapia aquaculture this year could reach 21,000 hectares with an output of 140,000 MT including 50,000 MT for export.

In 2014, Vietnam exported tilapia to more than 60 countries, according to Voice of Vietnam, the official government radio station. The top 10 importers were: the United States, Spain, Colombia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, the UK, the Czech Republic and Italy.

The U.S. market was key for Vietnamese tilapia, importing 1,745 MT valued at USD 5.24 million (EUR 4.83 million), and accounting for 18.2 percent of its exports, followed by Spain with imports valued at USD 3.7 million (EUR 3.41 million) and Colombia with imports valued at USD 3.03 million (EUR 2.79 million).

However, Vietnam’s tilapia exports have remained relatively low in relation to their potential, according to the Directorate of Fisheries.

Ten years ago, MARD began implementing a project to develop tilapia as a key aquatic export. However, output has not expanded as anticipated and hasn’t kept pace with domestic demand. Moreover, international marketing efforts have stagnated as the industry, fraught with raw material shortages due to lack of investment funds, simply isn’t in any position to make or keep large foreign commitments.

It is now estimated that there are about 10 major producers capable of exporting tilapia, mostly Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC)-certified for responsible farming. While tilapia was originally exported as whole fish to markets such as Turkey or the Middle East, and some ethnic shops in Europe, most Vietnamese tilapia for export is now sold filleted.

One of the biggest producers and exporters of tilapia in Vietnam is Nam Viet (trade name Navico), one of the biggest pangasius processors in Vietnam, with three huge factories, including the biggest ”whitefish” processing plant in the world. It is estimated that the company produces about 5,000 MT of IQF pangasius fillets on a daily basis.

Seafood Connection (Seacon), one of the biggest Dutch seafood importers, which has its own office in Vietnam, is a major buyer of pangasius products from Nam Viet, and is now also importing the Vietnamese company’s tilapia products as well.

At present tilapia is aimed at a different market than pangasius, which is now being sold purely on price with product quality deteriorating as producers struggle to meet buyers’ demands.

It is a niche market, according to one industry observer, and as a consequence, Vietnamese tilapia can be sold at a higher price than pangasius – at about USD 4.10 (EUR 3.77) per kilogram for fish with 10 percent glaze and no chemicals (polyphosphates, etc.) C&F in Europe. Traders say the quality of the fish is superior to product coming out of China, the biggest supplier, with ASC-certification giving it an edge.

It is to be hoped that the Vietnamese tilapia producers learn from the mistakes that have been made, and are still being made, with pangasius, and continue to produce a high quality fish that can be sold at a high price so everyone will benefit, right along the chain from the farmer at one end to the consumer at the other.

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