Development of Singapore’s Ornamental Fish Industry

Development of Singapore’s Ornamental Fish Industry

Published: 2022.04.15
Accepted: 2022.04.14
150
Associate/Lecturer
Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS)

ABSTRACT

From the 1970 to the 1990s, Singapore's ornamental fish industry organically expanded and some fish farms like Qian Hu perfected the method of oxygenating delivery bags of fishes for overseas customers. The authorities also carried out water quality regulatory interventions, tightened regulations and emphasized clean and disease-free potable water over local freshwater aquaculture. To manage the issue of limited water supply for ornamental fish producers and aquaculture, the industry switched to the utilization of closed-water systems in Singapore from 1989 onwards on both farms and breeder enthusiasts' residences. Singapore's ornamental fish trade attained top-ranking status as the top international exporter of ornamental fish in the 1990s to 2003. By the 2010s, advanced Research and Development (R&D) activities began to strengthen in Singapore. In 2016, for example, Temasek Polytechnic inaugurated a Centre for Aquaculture and Veterinary Science to train budding Singaporean aquaculturalists. Qian Hu is a good example of a high-tech farm, investing in R&D (Research and Development) and hiring a research chief to diversify fishes bred at the farm and overcome land area limitations. With 125 fish farms in Singapore, more farms are turning to technologies advancements to automate their farming activities and ramp up productivity.

Keywords: Singapore, fish, guppies, ornamental, Qian Hu

INTRODUCTION

By 2014, Singapore was nicknamed the 'ornamental fish capital of the world' with exports coming up to US$69.32 million (about 20% of global supply, according to Evers, Pinnegar and Taylor, 2018, p. 1) and it also became the trading hub of Asia with more than 30% of its fish exports originated from other countries (Dey, 2016, p. 53). Singapore remained the globe's Number One ornamental fish exporter with 1,000 fish species to more than 80 countries and a yearly revenue of US$43 million in 2016 (Yue, 2019, p. 127) or 14.1% market share of the global industry (Brandon Gaille, 2018). In 2014, Japan was in the second place with US$41.34 and this ranking is quite consistent and stable because Singapore and Japan actually serve different consumer groups (Dey, 2016, p. 53).

While Singapore naturally captures markets for tropical fishes due to its ideal climate conditions for breeding such fishes, Japan dominates its global shares of the Koi carp market and is internationally renowned for such fishes (Dey, 2016). In 2014, the third place went to Czech Republic (US$32.0 million), followed by Thailand (US$23.31 million), Malaysia (US$22.62 million), Indonesia (US$21.54 million), Israel (US$19.04 million), Brazil (US$18.52 million), Sri Lanka (US$13.1 million), and Columbia (US$12.3 million) (Dey, 2016, p. 53). While Dey's study did not list China's ranking, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations listed China's ornamental fish industry as having an estimated US$13.1 million in 2014 with the data compiled from data issued by China Seafood Imports Statistics Yearbook (FAO UN, 2017), making it on par with the ninth-ranking Sri Lanka in that year.

In 2019, the World Bank (WB) data indicated that Japan overtook Singapore in the number one ranking for live ornamental fish exports with US$43.91 million (WB data for volume in weight not available) in trade value while Singapore stood at US$34.56 million (272, 529 kg of fish), followed by Spain (US$31.89 million, 5,141,330 kg), Indonesia (US$30.27 million, 1,305,250 kg), Thailand (US$23.58 million, 447,395 kg), Czech Republic (US$20.59 million, 47,521 kg), Malaysia (US$17.41 million, 218,623 kg), Sri Lanka (US$16.27 million and 548,760 kg), Netherlands (US$15.75 million and 879,734 kg) and European Union (EU) (US$13.98 million and 864,230 kg). Therefore, the rankings are relatively consistent with minor changes in the top five exporters since 2014 (WB WITS, 2017).  

THE 1970S TO 1990S: THE TRANSITIONAL CHANGES

Ornamental freshwater fish breeding is a cottage industry that probably grew from hobbyist farmers, side businesses on food farms and British colonial-era breeding to counter tropical diseases proliferated by the mosquito vector. From the 1970 to the 1990s, Singapore's ornamental fish industry organically expanded to a size that attracted the investment potential scrutiny of the authorities, especially the Primary Production Department (PPD), an umbrella organization of agricultural co-operatives, fisheries, rural development and veterinary divisions of Singapore's Ministry of National Development (MND) formed in 1959 (Tan, 2018, pp. 11-12).

A good example of successful farmers that made the transition from traditional food farming to ornamental fish farming is the Yap family’s fish farm. Kenny Yap’s fish farm (later renamed Qian Hu) is often considered the most successful outfit in Singapore due to the following reasons. Kenny’s family managed to scale up their profits 350% from 2015 to 2016 excelling in value-added-ness; his farm breeds the two most well-known and value-added fishes of arowana and luohan; the pioneer to go into lifestyle branding capturing the hobbyist market by manufacturing aquarium equipment; first public listing in the industry on the Singapore stock exchange SGX in 2000; pioneer in R&D activities starting with filtration and hydra technologies dispending one million Singapore dollars annually (Tay, 2017). According to the BBC, Qian Hu Corporation, is believed to account for 5% of Singapore’s total global sales on their own (Brandon Gaille, 2018).

Current-generation entrepreneur Kenny Yap’s father and uncles started off as pig farmers but pig farms were categorized as a polluting industry by the Singaporean authorities in the 1980s, thus the Yap family farm was renamed Yap Brothers Fish Farm to rear guppies instead (already popular with fish hobbyists) (Leyl, 2014). The humble guppy was brought to Singapore by the British colonial authorities to their Singapore colony to devour mosquito larvae (Leyl, 2014). Located in the tropics, Singapore was vulnerable to mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever that were deadly to the victims.

After a prolonged period of rainfall in 1989 which resulted in water swelling from the river and washing away the Yap family farm’s guppies, they changed the name of the company to Qian Hu (meaning “a Thousand Lakes") for better luck and geomancy fortunes (Leyl, 2014). Technically, at the same time, Qian Hu also perfected its method of oxygenating delivery bags of fishes for overseas customers. One of the secrets to success in Qian Hu fish farm lies in the well-packed plastic bags to hold the fish, overcoming the tough long-distance airplane trip (Leyl, 2014).

As oxygenated plastic bags have become commonplace by contemporary standards, Qian Hu continues to innovate in this area to keep ahead of the pack. In accordance with the sustainability, recycling and reuse waste management programme, Qian Hu actively sources materials that are environmentally-friendly/low carbon footprint alternative to styrofoam packaging for fish logistics while their Thai operations reuse plastic bags by utilizing used bags from fish sourcing centres to reduce single-use plastics and their Malaysian operations recycles carton boxes and paper bags (Qianhu, 2018, p. 48). In terms of the in-house plastic manufacturing process overseen by subsidiary Qian Hu Tat Leng Plastic Pte Ltd, the company uses only high and low density polyethylene bags and collects all cut-out plastic wastage from the manufacturing process for third-party before adding this processed recycled plastic resin back to the manufacturing mix to reduce wastage, consequently in FY 2018, 145 tonnes of plastic wastage was recycled, up from 141 tonnes in FY 2017 (Qianhu, 2018, p. 48).

Divinity and packing technologies defined the first-level success of the industry at this point of time. The breeders’ upgrading of capabilities took place against a maturing framework imposed by the authorities on the industry, rationalizing the regulatory environment in which they worked in. Offering 500 different species of ornamental fish at any point of time, Singapore, like its competitors, deliver the fish to their destinations by plane within less than 36 hours to present high stress imposed on the fishes in their tight containers (Brandon Gaille, 2018).

Singapore has 125 ornamental fish farms in operation, mostly in the rural Sungei Tengah and Lim Chu Kang areas in northwestern Singapore and their five most saleable species were guppies, mollies, platys, goldfish, and koi (Brandon Gaille, 2018). In Singapore, above 90% of freshwater ornamental fish are bred in farm captivity while only 25 marine breeds are saltwater ornamental fish (along with approximately 3,000 tons of coral traded yearly (Brandon Gaille, 2018). All in all, the whole Singaporean ornamental fish industry with its retail sales, products, salaries and materials has an estimated net worth of about US$15 billion, according to the Singapore Aquarium Fish Exporters Association (Brandon Gaille, 2018).

During Singapore’s various stage of economic development, the authorities carried out water quality regulatory interventions, tightened regulations and emphasized clean and disease-free potable water over local freshwater aquaculture (given that the country had to import its water from neighbouring countries) (Tan, 2018, p. 89). To manage the issue of limited water supply for ornamental fish producers and aquaculture, the industry switched to the development and utilization of closed-water systems in Singapore from 1989 onwards on both farms and breeder enthusiasts' residences (Tan, 2018, p. 81). To facilitate this trend, the authorities formulated guidelines, regulations, parameters and factors to govern the use of this space in order to rationalize the growth of indoor space usage, given that water supply is limited and water bodies may be a source of vectors for water-borne diseases (Tan, 2018, p. 81).

THE 2000S: MATURITY OF INDUSTRY.

Singapore's ornamental fish trade attained top-ranking status as the top international exporter of ornamental fish in the 1990s to 2003 (Tan, 2018, p. 12).  From 1996 to 2000, Singapore made up 24% to 26% in the international export trade and made up 4% of the international import trade making it number one in those years and the other competitors made up 7% (Indonesia), 6% for Malaysia/Czech Republic and Japan (at 5%) (Ling and Lim, 2005). In 2007, Singapore’s ornamental fish industry’s export value was nearly US$69 million and made up over 20% of the global marketplace (the gap between Singapore and the second-ranked competitor then was more than US$34 million and by 2009, the gap remained at US$13 million) and, in 2012, Singapore exported US$62 million of ornamental fish to more than 80 different country destinations (Brandon Gaille, 2018).

With rising prominence, Singapore also started to institutionalize the ornamental fish business to prepare the industry for rational scientific development. Established in 2003, the Ornamental Fish Business Cluster (OFBC) brings about closer industry integration between the private and public sectors to build Singapore into an ornamental fish export hub (Animal & Veterinary Service NParks, 2019). Such associations that pull together public and private sector resources reflect the growing sophistication and diversity of the ornamental fish industry in Singapore. This is visible in a 2005 report titled "The Status of the Ornamental Fish Industry in Singapore" authored by Ling KH and Lim LY from the Aquaculture Services Centre which indicated: "Over time, well-developed distribution systems for ornamental fish, comprising farmers, wholesalers and exporters, have been established in Singapore…Farmers specialize in breeding popular species. New varieties of fish within a species are continually developed and reared to market size at their farms. The fish are either sold directly to exporters or to wholesalers" (Daud, 2017). By this time, the stakeholders in the industry had already grown to an ecology of functional groups like regulation authorities, scientific technicians, breeders, farmers and enthusiasts, with some of them assuming multiple identities, for example, some farmers were also enthusiasts while regulatory personnel may also be scientists or hobbyists (Tan, 2018, p. 82).

THE 2010S: MOVING UP THE VALUE CHAIN.

By the 2010s, advanced R&D activities began to strengthen and solidify in Singapore. In 2016, for example, Temasek Polytechnic inaugurated a Centre for Aquaculture and Veterinary Science to train budding Singaporean aquaculturalists (breeders of fish and marine life) to commercialize their products rather than having them catch wild species (Daud, 2017). These were attempts to upgrade the technological capabilities of the industry. Simultaneous with the accent on R&D, fish breeders also explored other avenues to move up the value chain, for example, reaching out into downstream services in running farms. The case study of Qian Hu is instructive here.

Qian Hu has already entered into higher value-added businesses. For example, customers can visit the fish spa ponds featuring large swarms of small Garra rufa doctor fish with ticklish nibbles that can consume human dead skins and calluses on human digits to enjoy soft skin for an affordable fee while washing one’s feet or soak in the pond with provided towels (Leyl, 2014). Qian Hu has also gone into manufacturing business, distributing fish tank accessories, shaping plastic raw materials based on the principle articulated by Kenny Yap: "For every dollar spent on fish, someone would usually spend one to five dollars in aquarium accessories and fish feeds…For such a small niche industry, I have a chance to be world's number one” (Leyl, 2014).

Overall, amongst all Singaporean farms, the five most in-demand fish species amongst Singapore fish exports are: guppies (well-liked as they are small, easy to keep and have attractive colors), mollies (simple to rear, colorful and well-liked by beginner hobbyists), platys (beginner fishes, colorful and not hostile to other fishes in the tank), goldfish (lucky symbols in Asia), kois (tough, disease-resistant, long-lived up to more than half a century) (Daud, 2017). In Qian Hu’s special tanks, there are hundreds of gold and orange koi (Asian carp) well-loved by hobbyists who have garden ponds (Leyl, 2014).

THE 2020S: TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCEMENTS AND ETHICAL CONCERNS.

Qian Hu is a good example of a high-tech farm, investing in R&D and hiring a research chief to diversify fishes bred at the farm, overcome land area limitations, install densely-populated advanced tanks stacked in rows of four with water refilled hourly through a pipe network and a powerful filtration system with high filtration efficiency that enables more fish to be packed into a smaller area (Leyl, 2014). In spite of Singapore’s limited land space, the country continues to thrive in breeding tropical fishes due to its ideal climate, temperature and rainfall for keeping such fishes and also create innovative ways of making up for the restrictive land spaces (Daud, 2017).

One way of doing so is to move the farms indoors. After the appropriate permissions procedure from the authorities (Animal & Veterinary Service) and building/land owners’ permits, the Singaporean authorities have made it possible for fish farms to shift their ornamental fish breeding activities indoors into industrial space units, including farming, import/export and retail/e-commerce activities (Animal & Veterinary Service NParks, 2019). The approval for the physical use of indoor space will come from URA (Urban Renewal Authority) (Animal & Veterinary Service NParks, 2019).

In the case of Qian Hu, city state Singapore’s space constraints have not bothered its fish farms as well. Qian Hu’s high-tech tanks, specially-designed filtration systems and pipes meant that the Singapore farm does not face land space limitations even when compared to its bigger Chinese, Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian fish farms; moreover, the Singapore Headquarters has even installed the same tanks and systems to increase productivity and space density use on its overseas farms too (Leyl, 2014).

Not only does Singapore overcome its land space issues but also mitigates manpower deployment by using automation and machines. With 125 fish farms in Singapore, more farms are turning to technologies advancements to automate their farming activities and ramp up its productivity with many traditional fish farms converting to the use of advanced technologies and manpower-saving automation such as automatic fish feeders doing away with manual feeding starting from the 21st century (Daud, 2017).

Singapore is also ethically conscious, in particular, ensuring its farms are tracked and monitored by the authorities if they breed endangered fishes. Some fishes like the Dragon Fish (Scleropages formosus or Asian Arowana) are categorized as an endangered species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES Appendix I) so they require adherence to the Dragon Fish Farm Registration Scheme for rearing Dragon Fish in Singapore and are required to keep documentation of farm breeding and sales statistics (Animal & Veterinary Service NParks, 2019).

Farms registered under the Dragon Fish Registration Scheme must apply for CITES registration before the farm can export captive-bred fish for commercial purposes and obtain CITES export permits via LicenceOne prior to export of the fishes (Animal & Veterinary Service NParks, 2019). Kenny Yap’s Qian Hu Farm deals in dragon fishes and indicative of the value of these fishes, the costliest fish Qian Hu ever retailed was a dragon fish worth US$50,000 (Leyl, 2014).

The customer base for the Singapore-based ornamental fish farms have also expanded and diversified. Singapore ornamental fish products are sold to home aquarium hobby shops all over the world for collectors, hobbyists, and others who buy fishes like Japanese kois for fengshui (geomancy) reasons and as "good luck charms" as well as corporate clients like hotels who show off such fishes in tanks (e.g. at the lobby of the Las Vegas Mirage Hotel) (Daud, 2017). Given such global customer base, the Singapore government is likely to continue to support the industry in various ways.

POLICY SUMMARY

From the 1970 to the 1990s, the Primary Production Department (PPD), an umbrella organization of agricultural co-operatives, fisheries, rural development and veterinary divisions of Singapore's Ministry of National Development (MND) formed in 1959 had already started working with the ornamental fish industry (Tan, 2018, pp. 11-12). Their policies helped transition of traditional food farmers to ornamental fish breeding.

As the industry matured, the authorities carried out water quality regulatory interventions, tightened regulations and emphasized clean and disease-free potable water over local freshwater aquaculture to manage the issue of limited water supply for ornamental fish producers and aquaculture, the industry switched to the development and utilization of closed-water systems in Singapore from 1989 onwards on both farms and breeder enthusiasts' residences (Tan, 2018, p. 81). The authorities formulated guidelines, regulations, parameters and factors to govern the use of this space in order to rationalize the growth of indoor space usage to prevent water-borne diseases (Tan, 2018, p. 81).

In 2016, educational institutions under the Ministry of Education (MOE) like Temasek Polytechnic inaugurated a Centre for Aquaculture and Veterinary Science to train budding Singaporean aquaculturalists (breeders of fish and marine life) to commercialize their products (Daud, 2017) and upgrade the technological capabilities of the industry. The approval for the physical use of indoor space from the URA (Urban Renewal Authority) was helpful in assisting ornamental fish farmers in overcoming the limitations of space (Animal & Veterinary Service NParks, 2019).

With greater ethical awareness of endangered species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES Appendix I), the authorities created Dragon Fish Farm Registration Scheme for rearing Dragon Fish in Singapore and farms are required to keep documentation of farm breeding and sales statistics and must apply for CITES registration before the farm can export captive-bred fish for commercial purposes (Animal & Veterinary Service NParks, 2019). Given previous successes in policy facilitation by the authorities, the officials and industry practitioners are likely to continue to work in strong harmony to meet any future challenges.

REFERENCES

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