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Fish farmers still expected to meet quota to retain fish farm license despite massive losses

dead fishes

By Terry Xu

In recent days, fish farmers off the coast of Pasir Ris have seen almost all their fish stocks die off. Death of the fish stock in alarming numbers started from 16 February and have persisted since.

The fish farmers have been working furiously for the past few weeks to salvage their fish farms, but the scene at the farms remains one of devastation, with a sea of dead fishes floating in the fishnets.

Many of the fish farmers have given up. Mr Philip Lim, a fish farmer and Chairman of Singapore Marine Aquaculture Cooperative lost $50,000 worth of his fish stock at his farm.

kelong 1979
Launch of commercial kelongs in 1979

The fish farmers were still recovering from the loss they incurred from the plankton bloom and oil spill incident last year. Mr Lim claims that the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) took no action to assist the fish farmers on taking preventive measures.

This was despite receiving a warning from Mr. Lim on 27 January this year. Mr Lim also said that apart from being nonchalant about the situation, AVA is also apathetic towards the plight of independent fish farmers.

Despite the massive losses incurred by fish farmers, they will still be expected to fulfill the quota of 17 tonnes fish product imposed upon by the AVA as a requirement to retain their license for fish farms.

Mr Lim recounted how the AVA still demanded the schedule of fish product fulfillment from the fish farmers, despite knowing that the some of the fish farmers had lost most, if not all, of their fish stocks in the February last year.

"It just took one night to wipe out the whole fish stock... even so, AVA still came to ask us for how much we will produce in April, June." said Mr Lim.

In fact, this was the reason why Mr Lim brought a larger quantity of fishlings this year from overseas to rear, so as to meet the quota given.

The quota for the fish farms has remained unchanged since licensing began in 1979. The many changes in ecology and the environment since then have all influenced the sizes of fish stocks produced by fish farmers.

The percentage of the local demand provided by the fish farms has changed dramatically too. In the past, local fish farms and fishermen provided up to 70% of the fish supply. Today, that has dwindled down to just 5%.

There is also no protection for the local fish farmers. The AVA explained to the fish farmers that the reason behind this is Singapore’s emphasis on free trade.

"This is why industrial fishing companies come in and move out within a few years; it is just not profitable in the eyes of the big companies." said Mr Lim.

After a similar incident last year, Minister of State for Defence and National Development, Dr Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman, spoke in Parliament about the revocation of fish farm licenses.

He said, "When we revoked licences recently, there were a lot of pleas from the fish farmers. We want to try to help the fish farmers. The first thing is to help them develop their systems as well as to be able to produce. Certainly, there are targets that have been set in place because we have very limited spaces. We have limited water and land spaces for farming activities. With the farmers, we have put in place opportunities for them to improve other productivity levels."

"Yes, in a worst case scenario, we will revoke licenses for those who have failed to comply with the regulations we put in place, including those who fail to produce the kind of quantity that is required. The way to go right now is to help them. We want to help the farmers because this is their livelihood. We want to try to be sympathetic even for those who have recently suffered the mass fish deaths."

Mr Maliki also stated, "So as much as we want to try to make them comply, we will take a very calibrated approach to support them. For those who have failed over several years and they have not been taking part in productivity movements, certainly we will look at the worst case scenario of revoking their licenses."

"They don't even bother to give some allowance for us, say one or two years to recover from our losses," said Mr Lim. He stated that this is especially true for fish farmers who are not in the good books of the AVA. "I tried to plea for other farmers last year, but AVA did not care."

"For many of the fish farmers, they are from the pioneer generation and all they know is how to fish. They cannot survive on land and get a job." "We are being abused for many years... we are paid to be a slave, to give them production," said Mr Lim on the AVA's attitude towards fish farmers.

TOC has written to AVA for their response on Monday and will provide the AVA’s reply once we receive them.