Fisherfarms hopes for breakthrough with milkfish from the Philippines

Published on
June 17, 2016

The milkfish is little-known outside of the island nations of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, but in The Philippines, it’s known unofficially as “the national fish.”

Also known as “bandeng” or “bangus,” milkfish has a mild taste and juicy, meaty texture, is relatively abundant in the wild and highly adaptable to aquaculture. All of those qualities make it ubiquitous in the Philippines and nearly universally loved.

Now, a Filipino company called Fisherfarms is attempting to bring the milkfish to international markets and garner it more widespread notoriety. At Seafood Expo Global in Brussels in April, CEO Imelda Madarang said her company has found success selling milkfish in various forms to the ex-pat Filipino community living abroad but would like to break into more conventional markets from the U.S. to Europe.

“We have done the surveys, studies and market research,” she said. “We are ready to push our product mainstream.”

Fisherfarms is a fully integrated milkfish aquaculture and value-added operation. It has 500 to 600 employees working in its aquaculture operations in Pangasinan  in the northern Philippines, and its processing plant in Bulacan and an additional 100 professional and sales staff in its offices in Pasig City, near Manila. It also farms tilapia, pompano and shrimp, but its growth strategy is firmly centered on milkfish.

Fisherfarms has mastered the art of farming milkfish, a reef-fish that takes five to 10 months to reach harvesting size in cages. Madarang said the company decided on milkfish as its path forward due to many factors: its fish-to-feed ratio (“very good”), its resilience to diseases and weather changes, its high-nutrition profile and, most importantly, its taste, she said.

“It’s got a robust flavor, so unique but mild enough that it does well with toppings and marinades,” Madarang said. “We like to say it has ‘All the taste without the guilt.’”

Most importantly, Madarang said her company has also solved the biggest problem that has vexed previous attempts at large-scale production of milkfish: the fish has 208 bones, many of them as thin as a strand of human hair. Instead of looking to a high-tech solution, Fisherfarms found the help it needed right in its backyard – local Filipinos, mostly women, who have mastered the art of de-boning a milkfish.

“It’s a craft for them,” Madarang said. “They’re very fast – they can do 50 pieces in one hour. They know the exact anatomy of milkfish and the really good ones can fillet a milkfish in under one minute.”

Gaining the ability to produce fillets on a global scale is vital to the company, Madarang said, because the market is demanding fillets.

“We are the number-one supplier to the overseas Filipino market, with export to the Australia, Korea, the Middle East, U.S. and all over Europe. They’re buying nostalgia, fish they’re used to eating and miss eating,” Madarang said. “But to break into new markets, we have had to go beyond Filipino preparations. It’s so hard to go mainstream with a new species that we needed to make it as familiar-looking as possible to foreigners not familiar with milkfish. We decided our first entry needed to be a fillet.”

With the help of its research and development department and international consultants, Fisherfarms introduced a line of milkfish fillets featuring flavors such as garlic and herb, Mexican glaze, summer onion and Asian curry.

Under several brands, including Fisherfarms and Las Islas, it now offers an expansive suite of products besides its whole frozen fish: deboned smoked or marinated milkfish, microwavable meals including teriyaki, adobo, barbecue and lemon butter flavors, an assortment of sausages including German-, Italian- and Hungarian-style sausage, breakfast links and frankfurters and fried fish nuggets geared toward kids.

“It’s amazing what we have done with one species. We now have a wide range of products created to suit a variety of tastes,” Madarang said. “We invested a lot to create strong research and development capabilities, and we have also relied on international consultants to help us. We are now very strong in food service because of all the effort we have put into our value added and product customization.”

At Seafood Expo Global, where it introduced many of its new products to a global audience, Madarang said the company began seeing the fruits of its labor.

“In the past, we have had many people approach us to service oriental markets, because they have a customer base that is already demanding milkfish,” she said. “But this is the first time we have had a lot of mainstream people taking note of milkfish. A lot of big guys in Europe have started to get interested in our products.”

Besides the allure of a new species, new international buyers are attracted to the health benefits of the milkfish, Madarang said.

“We are now meeting people who are looking at milkfish for a new market focused around its healthy aspects. Europeans, Koreans, Japanese – countries with aging populations, they are now interested,” Madarang said.

Madarang said she hopes the momentum surrounding milkfish keeps building internationally, for the benefit of both her company and her home country.

“Filipinos are very serviceable, warm and trainable, and so our workforce has always been a strong point. But what often gets overlooked is the fact that The Philippines are naturally endowed with so many islands and such a variety of seafood, and that has not been really developed as a global industry,” she said. “That’s what we want to do. Our goal is to put The Philippines on the radar as reliable source of globally competitive seafood products.”

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