MALAYSIANS are the biggest seafood consumer in Southeast Asia with one person consuming an average of 50.4kg of seafood a year! But due to overfishing, our oceans will soon be unable to sustain our growing appetite for seafood. Scientists predict that by 2048 there’ll be no more seafood left if we don’t eat responsibly.
There goes the monthly sushi nights with my brother and the occasional kerang (cockles) bakar sessions with my dad. What a scary thought!
The scenario may be bleak but there are parties who refuse to take this lying down. Like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Malaysia that has been working tirelessly to ensure the sustainability of our seafood through the Aquaculture Improvement Project (AIP). Aquaculture makes up 25 per cent of our country’s total fish production.
Curious about this project, I joined a media trip organised by WWF-Malaysia to visit two of the organisation’s partner aquaculture farms, namely the GST Group in Jerejak Island, Penang and Trapia Malaysia in Temenggor Lake, Perak. The trip was also in conjunction with the Sustainable Seafood Festival being held at 1Utama shopping centre in Petaling Jaya, Selangor which ends today.
The GST Group fish farm in Jerejak Island in Penang.
SUSTAINABLE FISH FARMS
The boat ride from the Jerejak Island jetty to the farm takes less than 15 minutes. The water is calm despite the earlier drizzle when we landed at Penang International Airport. The fish farm we’re visiting today is owned by GST Group, a seafood trading company. The fishes bred here include the emperor snapper, red snapper, seabass and grouper.
As we carefully disembark from the boat and onto the floating platform, we’re greeted by the company’s managing director Allen Goh, operation manager Goh Soo Chin and farm supervisor Leang Wei Chi. After a brief introduction, we’re led to the first cage which contains the emperor snapper. A worker swiftly scoops out one so we can have a closer look at the fish. It’s a simple-looking species yet strikingly beautiful with brown stripes on its body.
“This fish takes about a year to grow. Here at the farm, we only feed the fish with our specially formulated pellets,” explains Allen, pointing to a bucket containing some round brown pellets.
Through the AIP, farms are required to undergo step-by-step improvement in accordance to the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) standards such as proper waste management, no usage of trash fish (usually marine fish having little or no market value as human food) as feed, no forced labour and good water quality.
Our Jerejak visit over, we return to the van for a two-and-a-half-hour van ride to the lovely Belum Rainforest Resort where we stay the night. The plan is to visit another sustainable fish farm first thing the next morning.
The Trapia farm in Temenggor Lake, Perak. Pictures by Rahana Husin/WWF-Malaysia
Our boat ride to the farm owned by Trapia Malaysia takes about half an hour. The chief executive officer, Ang Ting Cheong, fondly known as TC, is already waiting for us at the jetty as our boat glides to a stop for him to alight and guide us to the fish nursery.
The Temenggor Lake is calm, the breeze refreshing. From time to time, TC explains to us about the company, his voice drowned by the boat’s loud engine, making it hard for anyone to hear anything much. Not long after, we arrive at the nursery where fish fries are bred. Two workers wave at us excitedly as we carefully step on the platform to take a closer look before moving on to the adult fish cages.
It’s feeding time and tonnes of tilapias are splashing noisily in the water. A worker is using a machine which sprays the food onto the surface of the cage. We take turns to stand up, for fear of the boat capsizing, to have a closer look at the school of fish.
Trapia, the acronym for Traceable Tilapia, allows its products to be traceable and verifiable by DNA profiling. The company is the first in the world to implement a state-of-the art tamper-proof traceability system that is DNA-verified — the Genopass verification system. The DNA profile of the sampled fish fillet can be traced back through the supply chain to the parent panel, even at the stage of consumption.
This assures consumers that the labelled seafood they buy in hypermarkets such as Giant, Tesco and Mydin has been sourced legally from a sustainably managed source and hasn’t been mixed with uncertified seafood. (Visit www.trapia.com.my for more info)
After spending about an hour at Trapia, we head back to the resort and prepare for our journey home. But before departing, I manage to sit down with WWF-Malaysia’s sustainable seafood manager (Marine Programme), Chitra Devi G, and ask her more about the topic of aquaculture. “We do have many aquaculture farms in Malaysia,” she begins. “But not all are doing it the right way like Trapia and GST. Others just can’t commit due to many factors, such as the high cost of maintenance and the costly use of eco-labels for the farm to be certified sustainable by eco labels ASC and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).” (www.asc-aqua.org and www.msc.org)
Founded by WWF and the Dutch Sustainable Initiative in 2010, ASC is an independent non-profit organisation with global influence, which aims to be the world’s leading certification and labelling programme for responsibly-farmed seafood. The ASC runs an ambitious programme to transform the world’s seafood markets and promote the best environmental and social aquaculture practices. This means increasing the availability of certified responsibly produced seafood to buyers and promoting the use of the ASC logo. So far in Malaysia, only Trapia is ASC certified.
The Marine Stewardship Council, meanwhile, is also an international non-profit organisation established to address the problem of unsustainable fishing and safeguard seafood supplies for the future.
We need to make better consumption choices, know which seafood we need to think twice about eating and seafood that we should totally avoid, says Chitra
Seafood crisis is not a new issue and is not only happening in Malaysia. Globally, everyone’s feeling the pain, says Chitra. One example is the cod crisis in Canada. The northwest Atlantic fishery abruptly collapsed in 1992 following overfishing since the late 1950s, and an earlier partial collapse in the 1970s. For over 400 years the cod fishery had been one of the richest in the world and by 1992 it had been almost completely eliminated. Over 42,000 people in the fishing industry lost their jobs.
“The cods never came back to Canada. If fisheries collapse, the whole supply chain will be affected. Net, boat and port makers will also suffer,” says Chitra.
To raise greater awareness on the situation, several engagements are in the pipelines, shares Chitra. “We have a team focusing on producers and working towards AIP. Another team is raising awareness among retailers and suppliers. Of course, we have to have consumer engagements as well.”
The organisation’s first initiative towards sustainable seafood was the Save Our Seafood campaign in 2010 to raise consumer awareness. “We asked them whether they know about our seafood condition. Most people said seafood is doing fine, stable and improving. Only a few know the real situation,” discloses Chitra.
The festival is also another platform to raise more awareness. But it’s not a walk in the park for the team. Chitra adds:
“The biggest fish sales are still in wet markets where it’s not coordinated or organised. It’s purely price driven. That’s why we’re working along the supply chain and target big retailers such as supermarkets and hypermarkets, and also restaurants. We hope we can get at least one giant brand that can spread across the entire chain.”
So what can consumers do? I ask as we near the end of our chat. “We need to make better consumption choices, know which seafood we need to think twice about eating and seafood that we should totally avoid. There are ASC and MSC-labelled products available in our supermarkets, whether it’s canned, frozen or chilled. Consumers just need to look for it. I understand that imported seafood with eco labels can be quite pricey. But knowing where your seafood comes from and that it’s sustainable will give you that peace of mind,” Chitra concludes, smiling.