Regional challenges and opportunities for technological innovation in sustainable fish farming were brought to light at IPI’s Sustainable Aquaculture Water Management Roundtable as experts discussed Singapore’s emerging water treatment and monitoring solutions.
In recent years, an increasing share of seafood is being farmed rather than caught. Impressively, producing over half of the world’s supply, the Asia-Pacific region is the world’s largest producer of fish—leading to a large market consistently looking for new technologies to increase efficiency.
In fact, Singapore’s closest neighbours in Southeast Asia have steadily achieved some of the greatest numbers in Asia outside of China—with Indonesia producing roughly 6 million metric tons of fish annually. The region’s leaders intend to maintain the yield by investing in cutting-edge aquaculture technology.
As one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, Singapore has launched various initiatives to alleviate reliance on imports for a stable and affordable water supply. Many of such initiatives focus on optimising the country’s use of water resources. Because of this unique situation, Singapore has since become a global nexus for water and used-water technologies, spurring the nation on to be considered a ‘Water Hub’ of Southeast Asia.
Recently, IPI and Enterprise Singapore jointly organised the “Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Aquaculture Water Management in Southeast Asia” roundtable discussion on May 5, 2022 where industry experts and tech experts discussed cost-effective solutions and business opportunities within the aquaculture industry—for Singapore and the region.
Swimming Against the Current
At the roundtable, the panellists pointed out key obstacles that Southeast Asian nations must address in order to unlock the full potential of the aquaculture industry.
Among a sea of large successful fish farms, Southeast Asia is also home to numerous smallholder farms. One notable challenge they face is a lack of access to funds to invest in technology and infrastructure that can support the transition from traditional methods to sustainable and intensive aquaculture.
Today, smallholder farmers face an increasing risk of disease when fish is farmed at scale as well as the risk of compromising the quality of the farm’s products. While rural areas with much wider land and sea space are available, these areas often lack access to infrastructure like roads and electricity. The right infrastructure can support technological solutions that can maintain water quality and sustain high-intensity aquaculture production.
This lack of access may be tied to another pain point identified by the panellists. According to them, smallholder farmers do not necessarily receive sufficient benefits to shore up capital, owing to the complex structure of seafood value chains —further limiting the farmer’s capacity to afford capital-intensive technology. To make matters more complicated, other costs of production like logistics, feed, and manpower have also reportedly risen. This, in turn, continues to drive up prices for consumers and further inefficiencies in production that can result in massive amounts of food wastage.
"We need to adjust every step of the way before we can help the farmers," shared Mr Djames Lim, CEO of Lim Shrimp. Lim has also indicated the success factor would be to ensure that farmers have the ability to invest in technology to address their challenges.
The Role of Tech
Some of these challenges can be averted with affordable cutting-edge technology capable of uplifting smallholder farmers and growing Southeast Asia’s aquaculture industry.
According to the panellists, there is opportunity for aspiring tech players in Southeast Asia to develop innovative solutions—particularly when it comes to water management and water monitoring. For example, through closed-circuit production and controlled environments, the use of biofiltration, like in a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS), for local fish rearing may allow for more sustainable land-based aquaculture with better disease control and higher levels of production and a smaller footprint.
Panellists also stressed that aspiring aquaculture entrepreneurs and technology providers must work hand-in-hand with biological experts in order to develop technology that can cater to each species’ unique needs. In fact, surveillance and monitoring technology has already opened up opportunities for early disease detection by allowing farmers to track behaviour like swimming patterns and skin lesions. However, to truly maximise the benefits of the technology, the panellists recommend getting a biological expert involved.
“A lot of this technology has been developed for fresh water and cold water,” explained Assoc. Prof Jose Domingos from James Cook University Singapore. “One tendency I see when newcomers want to adapt the service to marine warm water situations, they try to replicate what is in Europe without considering production or biological differences.”
More importantly, according to the panel, tech players should not only be able to adapt to geographical concerns, but also socioeconomic challenges like limited profit margins and capabilities of local farmers. Ultimately, they are confident that costs of technological innovations in aquaculture will decrease over time and maintenance be made more convenient as demand for technology rises.
A Community at Work
The roundtable discussion made it clear that the task to strengthen the aquaculture industry does not just rest on the shoulders of technology providers. Instead, the entire ecosystem needs to come together to ride the wave of opportunities presented by the rise in demand for sustainably farmed seafood to feed the region. Singapore’s aquaculture players can focus on building unique selling points such as consistency of supply and offers of value-added products like processed ready-to-eat or ready-to-cook seafood.
While the government supports the industry’s growth, there remain challenges in finding skilled farm workers. Local institutes of higher learning can fill in this gap by training young Singaporeans with the relevant skills. Fortunately, the country’s youth have already shown interest in traversing this field and employing automation to enhance its potential.
Through collective efforts, Singapore may not only be able to produce food sustainably for the local population, but also contribute to the growth of Southeast Asia’s aquaculture industry.