Sustainable Agri-Food Systems: Sustainable Aqua Farms in Taiwan

Sustainable Agri-Food Systems: Sustainable Aqua Farms in Taiwan

Published: 2021.05.28
Accepted: 2020.05.26
6
Regional Advisor
Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS)

ABSTRACT

With more plastics in the oceans than fishes in the future, this dire prediction has highlighted the destruction of nature by the marine fishing industry. Yet, human demand for such marine products is insatiable and continues to grow. With the emergence of large developing economies and their rising middle classes, demand is set to explode. Seafood is also an important source of proteins for many consumer markets, especially island economies like Taiwan that have been catching and consuming them for millenniums. Therefore, there is a need to strike a balance and equilibrium between sustainable supply of fishes and seafood and the protection of the environment. Aside from Taiwan, the world is indeed turning to aquafarming in an attempt to conserve and save the fish stocks in the wild from being depleted. Sustainable aqua farming is seen as an antidote to this challenge. Taiwan is a leading model in East Asia in this aspect. Within Taiwan, there are best practices that are examples of ecologically friendly fish farmers. Taiwan has made tremendous progress and achievements for Taiwanese seafood output and supply in the past 25 years. Only some selected achievements will be mentioned here, a reductionist account that serves to highlight these gains. There is an entire ecosystem of aqua farmers, scientists, researchers, retailers, markets, exposition organizers, civil servants, innovators, entrepreneurs, consumers, wholesalers, industrialists/manufacturers and others who are working as stakeholders to protect the fragile natural environment. To export to other economies, global food safety standards must be maintained to ensure that there is no contamination of the fish stocks and also feed the fishes with globally accepted quality norms of the feeds used. There are individual examples of best practices in this aspect, with ecologically-conscious and environmentally-aware fish farmers, Taiwan is in a good place to capture the world’s seafood market and become a shining model for other developing economies keen to protect their natural environments.

Keywords: aquaculture, environment, Taiwan, fisheries

INTRODUCTION

With more plastics in the oceans than fishes in the future, this dire prediction has highlighted the destruction of nature by the marine fishing industry. Yet, human demand for such marine products is insatiable and continues to grow. With the emergence of large developing economies and their rising middle classes, demand is set to explode. Seafood is also an important source of proteins for many consumer markets, especially island economies like Taiwan that have been catching and consuming them for millenniums. Therefore, there is a need to strike a balance and equilibrium between sustainable supply of fishes and seafood and the protection of the environment. Aside from Taiwan, the world is indeed turning to aquafarming in an attempt to conserve and save the fish stocks in the wild from being depleted.

Yeh Shinn-Pyng from the Department of Aquaculture at the National Pingtung University of Science and Technology, has already argued that Taiwan has recognized the need for farmed fishes to sustainably provide proteins for increasing human populations while minimizing the environmental impacts (Yeh, Undated). It was clearly presented as an alternative to marine fish consumption. Damages to the environment came from merciless fishing in the open seas and rivers, resulting in environmental destruction and depletion of fish stocks, which eventually leads to the ruining of biodiversity.  Dynamites used for fishing have also caused immense damages to coral reefs.

Thus, sustainable aqua farming is seen as an antidote to this challenge. Taiwan is a leading model in East Asia in this aspect. Within Taiwan, there are examples of best practices of ecologically friendly fish farmers. A Taiwanese milk fish farmer in south western coastal Taiwan, Huang Guo-liang, spearheaded an ecologically-right organic fish breeding free of chemicals with an emphasis on healthy products and environmental integrity in 2011 after inheriting his family fish farm (Liang and White, 2016). Such individuals become human stories for others to learn from. They also stand as testimony of the undying love and affection that the Taiwanese people have for their natural environments.

Sustainability concern factors not only in production, but also the whole value chain to decrease the negative impacts from all forms of economic activities. There is no exception to aquatics, extracting and retailing seafood products, given “sustainable” is not mere rhetoric but signifies accountability in the entire value chain, starting from the time that a fish is taken out of the aquatic farm or maritime area with the whole procedure carried out in a manner where aquatic farm and the natural ecosystem of the water bodies or aquatic farms can sustain its vitality. Seafood consumption expanded quickly from the end of the 1990s and early 21st century in Taiwan and the concept of sustainability, which used to be a remote term in the seafood sector where most industry players were unable to recognize its significance and the impact of overfishing or depleting stocks of marine life, needs to change with time as well (Ish and Osterblom, 2019).

In those days, environmental organization in favour of sustainable seafood were greeted with doubts and non-acceptance with the infamous 1997 cover of Seafood Business magazine noting that the seafood firms should not “crawl under the covers with greenies” (Ish and Osterblom, 2019). Since then, Taiwanese consumers have greater awareness of consumption habits, lifestyles, food safety, prevalence of product choices, as well as ecologically-correct consumption that does not add to the depletion of fish stocks, marine warming, and pollution.  (Ish and Osterblom, 2019). This has led the industry to make changes as well.

Taiwan has many different aquatic species, and milk fish is one of them. For sustainable aqua farms in Taiwan or marine fishery industry across the wide spectrum of species, the whole value chain of milk fish industry in Taiwan is changing their modus operandi. They are interacting with marine conservation groups to tackle the issue of depleted fisheries, fishing land, aquatic farms and maintenance of their productivity, especially the healthy and thriving replenish-able locations to meet their responsibilities to their clientele. There is also the issue of maintaining brand loyalty and corporate social responsibility (CSR) as well as prevention of depleted supply (Ish and Osterblom, 2019). All of these factors are absolutely essential for the Taiwanese aquatic farms and natural fishing grounds to continue thriving, given that there isn’t much use if fishing grounds are depleted and aquatic farms destroy the local community environment.

Even modest improvements can have a disproportionate impact on the environment and help fishing ground conservation and keep high standards of aquatic farm accountability to the local environment. Taiwanese companies have participated in teamwork with global industry leaders like Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS) initiative and work with the Marine Stewardship Council’s iconic blue product label currently proliferated to almost 100 locations amidst growing demand for sustainably sourced goods (Ish and Osterblom, 2019). For example, Taiwanese company FCF Co. Ltd. is a certified Marine Stewardship Council Operator. The proliferation of “sustainable” label may have to reach a critical mass when consumers become bothered by its absence in a value chain where seafood firms, aquatic farm managers, environmental organizations will expect sustainably produced seafood as a default (Ish and Osterblom, 2019).

SeaBOS changed the old practice of global seafood firms’ conventional unilateral relationship with environmental non-profit organization (NPOs) to a science-based multilateral multi-partner cooperation initiative with the chief executive officers (CEOs) of the 10 biggest seafood firms to bring about leapfrog reformation in the direction of sustainable seafood production with the aim of a healthy ocean in mind (Ish and Osterblom, 2019). One of the important works of participating member companies is for them to recruit other counterparts to join the cause and also join a multi-stakeholder approach with interest groups, the scientific/research/academic community to bring about sustainable activities by collaborating with small fisheries and local communities that depend on these stocks for their livelihoods (Ish and Osterblom, 2019). Taiwan does trade with the SeaBOS’ keystone actors and are invariably influenced by their commitment to sustainability standards. 

It takes two hands to clap. Consumers must keep up their pressure on the entire value chain by consuming transparently ethically-produced seafood to support the cause. They need to make a conscious choice between ethically sourced seafood over the low-priced discounted or subsidized seafood from unknown origins so information technology (IT) can be deployed to guard the promise of accountability to sustainability through data collection, ocean management monitoring and artificial intelligence (A.I.) algorithms to fish optimally the most fish of the desired size, avoiding negative impact on the environment and even watch a fish progression from the sea or farm to the retail out with a QR code scan on the smartphone (Ish and Osterblom, 2019).

GENESIS

Taiwan’s food heritage is a combination of Min Nan, Teochew and Hokkien (also spelt Fukien or Fujian in Wades Giles or Hanyu Pinyin systems) dialect cultural traditions, spoken by seafaring marine-trading coastal dialect peoples, and is further infused into a cosmopolitan mix of Japanese culinary influences, who are also seafaring people. Therefore, seafood is an essential part of their diets. Fish and other forms of seafood are firmly integrated into the Taiwanese diet since time immemorial. Milkfish, for example, has been eaten by the Taiwanese people for hundreds of years and are integrated firmly into Taiwanese cuisines like porridge (listed by American broadcaster CNN as one of its ‘top five most recommended Taiwanese snacks’), canned form, floss type and continued innovative dishes (Yeh, Undated).

For the uninitiated, Taiwan is well-known for its snacks and small eats, both in terms of variety and volume. Taiwan is also popular for its trendy foodie culture and is recognized as one of the best food locations in the world. According to some foodies in Taiwan, the philosophy in the island is “eat often and eat well” and eating and dining can happen in any part of the day in the 20 food streets of Taipei while food evaluation and reviews are taken seriously (Wong, 2015). Eating well also means having healthy sources of proteins and other vitamins and minerals in one’s diet.

This important source of protein is becoming increasingly important to the Taiwanese and demand for seafood products are insatiable, which leads to the need for revolutionary changes in aqua farming. In the 1960s, Taiwan adopted new technologies of fry breeding and fish production as the authorities reclaimed lowland, salty land and reclaimed land along the coastal area and turned lands unsuitable for agriculture into aquaculture ponds in the 1970s and there were also Taiwanese measures that maximized the use of paddy fields, reservoirs, irrigation ponds and lakes for aquaculture during this period (Moreover, the successful Taiwanese authorities built upon a large number of irrigation ponds in locations like Taoyuan since the 1850s onwards so the experiences gained, continuity infrastructure as well as maximum use of land resources reinforced measures to develop aquaculture ponds.

Taiwanese aquafarming is divided into overland, inland (brackish waters and freshwater ponds) and marine categories as it expanded between 1970 and 1998 from 42,447 ha to 63,189 ha (118% expansion) in surface area, brackish aquafarm culture expanded from 16,738 ha in 1970 to 30,625 ha in 1992, freshwater aquafarm culture increased from 6,665 ha to 21,758 ha, marine culture expanded from 12,174 ha in 1970 to 18,832 ha in 1984 (Yeh, Undated). In this golden age of Taiwanese development in aquafarm culture between 1970 and 1998, output increased from 66,590 tons valued at NT 1.29 billion dollars (US$0.046 billion) to 255,220 tons worth NT 27.39 billion dollars (US$0.97 billion) (Yeh, Undated).

Some important policy measures have led to such developments. In the 1960s, innovative technologies of fry breeding and fish production were adopted by the Taiwanese authorities who also converted coastal lowland, salty land and reclaimed land that were unusable for agriculture into aquaculture ponds in the 1970s (including shallow sea aquaculture, blackish water ponds, fresh water ponds) (Liu, 2012). Rice paddy fields, reservoirs, irrigation ponds and lakes were also adapted for aquaculture by the authorities with sizable numbers of irrigation ponds in areas like Taoyuan (Liu, 2012) which benefitted from successive Taiwanese authorities continuation of such policies, accumulating precious policy and execution experience along the way. 

In 1998, Taiwan produced 58,350 tons of milk fish, along with tilapia, clam, oyster, eel and freshwater prawn (in that order) with eel generating the biggest value-addition at approximately NT 6.03 billion dollars (US$0.21 billion) followed by oyster, freshwater prawn, milk fish, grass prawn and abalone (in the order of value generated) (Yeh, Undated). Oysters are widely eaten in Taiwan and integrated into its iconic snacks. Oyster omelette is a combination of eggs (terrestrial farms) and oysters (a seafood) with sweet potato starch for the Q taste (a viscous starchy taste), making up a major Taiwanese culinary delight.

As an interesting comparative note, the same dish is eaten in another island economy, Singapore, which has a slightly different take on this dish in terms of cooking techniques. While the Taiwanese prefer to slap on sweet sauce and prefer to cook it to a thick viscous starchy texture, Singaporeans tend to prefer a less starchy approach and more egg-ish texture. Both are equally delicious and outstanding as dishes from island economies. Oyster Omelette with eggs was voted top snack to symbolize Taiwan in a poll of 1,000 Taiwanese by Global Views Monthly in the first half of the early 2000s (Wong, 2015).

Taiwanese cage breeders rear rapid-growth cobia, greater yellowtail, grouper, sea bream, snappers in fish cages that are proximate to the coastal areas (Yeh, Undated). Land-based recirculating water production system for eels is part of a scientific research in 1993 carried out by the Fisheries Research Institute of the Council of Agriculture (previously the Taiwan Fisheries Research Institute) (Yeh, Undated). The milk fish has become Taiwan’s most commodified fish as a versatile fish that can be consumed fresh or processed with every single fish part utilized for consumption and an important revenue generator for Taiwan and the Philippines, with Taiwan supplying a yearly output of 50,000 tons worth NT 4.1 billion dollars (US$0.14 billion) (Taiwan News Staff Reporter, 2019). In 2018, Taiwan's output for aqua farms was more than 283,000 metric tons of fish, crustaceans, molluscs, and other aquatic animals (Textor, 2020). According to the report by Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), Taiwan produced 87.8 thousand tons of marine and coastal aquacultural production of finfish between 2003 to 2018, 283.2 thousand tonnes (live weight) of total aquacultural aquatic animals (out of which bivalves consisted of 75.8 thousand tonnes (live weight) (FAO, 2020, pp. 35-36).

All these developments represented the golden age and fast development of aquaculture farming in Taiwan. This puts Taiwan at the forefront of this form of technology in East Asia since the early 21st century, with great potential for others to learn from. Some Taiwanese fish farmer like Huang Guo-liang argues that his micro-sized fishing practices are done with basic and fundamental precautions with the potential for scaling up if his compatriots can unite to improve seafood output quality without only focusing on volume (Liang and White, 2016). To advocate Taiwan as the Asia-Pacific fish seed supply hub and to send high quality fish seed to the region, the Fish Breeding Association (FBA) of the Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan) was established in May 1996 to optimize local marketing, external consumer market survey, augment farmer interactions, and to develop breeding methodologies (Yeh, Undated). Highly profitable as a Taiwanese export product, the growth potential of cultivated seafood products may just be at the beginning stages (a tipping point).

Taiwan has made tremendous progress and achievements for Taiwanese seafood output and supply in the past 25 years. Only some selected achievements will be mentioned here, a reductionist account here that serves to highlight these gains. Taiwan is the inaugural economy that has developed into global standards the hatchery, breeding techniques of nutritious, value-added and tasty king groupers. To this day, these remains at the cutting-edge of global fish production and even expanded to six species like the Malabar grouper, orange-spotted grouper, brown-marbled grouper, potato grouper, leopard coral grouper and giant grouper (Taiwan Today, 2009). There are also nameless individuals behind Taiwan’s world-class achievements. Liao I-Chiu’s globally cutting-edge research made Taiwan as the leading economy in grass shrimp farming and he also led to the Taiwanese development of artificial reproduction techniques of grass shrimp, mullet and milkfish (Chang, 2011). Liao’s efforts and Taiwan’s natural advantage facilitates their aqua farmers to produce 150 marine species more than any other farming economy globally (Chang, 2011). These are but a few examples of Taiwanese achievements in aquaculture.

LOBBY ASSOCIATIONS

A number of associations and lobby groups were formed to promote the seafood industry. The Taiwan Offshore Aquaculture Association was founded in August 1999 to take care of brand identification, marketing and data dissemination and, in June 1999, with the umbrella of Fisheries Administration of the Council of Agriculture, the Ornamental Production and Marketing Group and Management Committee at Pingtung was formed (Yeh, Undated). Some history and cultural buffs have even pulled their resources together to set up institutions that celebrate the iconic fishes in Taiwan. This is the greatest tribute that Taiwanese people make to their food sources. The iconic Taiwanese milkfish is curated in an Anping Taiwan specialized museum and is widely celebrated in a milkfish cultural festival in the southern Taiwanese region of Kaohsiung (Wong, 2015). In terms of non-edible ornamental fish industry, Taiwan is also churning out African cichlids, Cichlasma hybrids, goldfishes, kois, aquatic plants and marine ornamental fishes (Yeh, Undated).

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

Since the late 1990s, Taiwanese stakeholders have held a very important view of environmentalism and ecological responsibility. The Taiwanese seafood scientists have been hard at work in innovating unique products like deep sea water skin cleansers, skin moisturizers and masks that are environmentally friendly and usable by consumers, international expo organizers/manufacturers/wholesalers/retailers are displaying such aquatic organism health-care products for consumer awareness, the Taiwanese authorities’ Council of Agriculture (COA) is the backer and co-organizer of international expositions for such events while liaising with reporters for publicity (Arab, 2020). Civil servants, top researchers of Fisheries Research Institute utilize cutting-edge technologies to upgrade fishing practices, produce new and innovative aquaculture products, re-used unfertilized eggs leftover from aquaculture season to produce caviar, produce algae ice cream (all of which belong to the Institute’s Seafood Technology Division’s attempt to minimize the loss during aquaculture season to save the environment) (Arab, 2020). The same institute is working with the authorities to maintain wild stocks in a sustainable aquaculture industry by coming up with the technology of artificial propagation of groupers (now the most significant aquaculture species) in 1982 and coming up with hybrid tilapias species (red tilapia, monosex male tilapia and seawater tilapia) for aquaculture (Arab, 2020). There is therefore an entire ecosystem of aqua farmers, scientists, researchers, retailers, markets, exposition organizers, civil servants, innovators, entrepreneurs, consumers, wholesalers, industrialists/manufacturers and others that are working as stakeholders to protect the fragile natural environment.

The last thing they want is to have fish farms contributing to pollution, especially to potable freshwater resources. This would defeat the purpose of avoiding marine pollution through commercial fish catches. Thus, the authorities and all industry stakeholders came up with early guidelines to ensure terrestrial fish farming is ecologically correct. In this aspect, freshwater resources are conserved and protected with the Taiwanese Water Resources Bureau’s water resources policy’s principles of: (a) Both the development and the conservation of water resources must receive equal emphasis; (b) developments of water resources must assure the preservation of the ecological system; (c) Water users must be required to pay fees and those who use excess amounts of water should pay extra (Yeh, Undated).

CONCLUDING REMARKS: THE EXTERNAL WING

In-season milk fish is tasty and full of nutrients, proteins, DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid is a building block for the human brain), calcium, and vitamins and so the Taiwanese government is marketing milkfish and its processed products to Australia and halal consumer markets in the global Muslim community (Taiwan News Staff Reporter, 2019). This is highly significant, bearing in mind there are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world who are potentially consumers of halal seafood (Diamant, 2019)! Besides marketing its products overseas, Taiwan is also investing in other economies for decades. In the earlier Taiwanese Go South policy, its aquaculture industry funded projects in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam with their highly affordable manpower and grounds (Yeh, Undated).

To export to other economies, global food safety standards must be maintained to ensure that there is no contamination of the fish stocks and also feed the fishes with globally accepted quality norms of the feeds used. There are individual examples of best practices in this aspect, for example, Taiwanese fish farmer, Huang Guo-liang, put in place sustainable aqua farming strategies growing purslane grass for keeping up nutrient doses in the peripheries of the fish farm and only gives his fishes all-natural feeds, securing high international benchmarks and certifications for food safety for global exportation (Liang and White, 2016). With such ecologically-conscious and environmentally-aware fish farmers, Taiwan is in a good place to capture the world’s seafood market and become a shining model for other developing economies that are keen to protect their natural environments.

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