ACE reeling in growth opportunities with high-tech fish farming

It has the know-how to create optimal water quality for fish farming; it is also reaching out to high-end restaurants and local farms, and plans to take its technology abroad as well

Singapore

GLOBAL fish production has been on the decline in recent years, as a result of overfishing and deteriorating water quality fuelled by climate change.

This state of affairs means that Singapore, where more than 90 per cent of fish consumed is imported, is on track to experience supply disruptions and price hikes.

Efforts to ramp up food security here have been stalled by algae blooms and bacteria-related issues, and many coastal fish farmers are facing falling yields.

With these concerns having stoked demand for high-tech fish farming solutions, the Singapore-based Aquaculture Centre of Excellence (ACE) has stepped up, aiming to reel in a share of the aquaculture market with its latest tech offerings.

ACE chief executive Leow Ban Tat told The Business Times in an interview: "Farming methods need to evolve to overcome industry-wide issues, and we think our aquaculture system can fill this gap."

In March this year, the ACE began building its closed-containment fish farm, kitting it with filtering and sterilising technology that creates optimal water quality for fish farming. Such filtration systems remove harmful pathogens in the water to achieve "oceanic water quality", said Mr Leow.

He said the oxidation-reduction potential (ORP) level in water is a common measurement of its cleanliness and its ability to break down contaminants. Higher ORP levels indicate better water quality.

"The ORP level of water in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is likely to be around 300 to 350 millivolts (mV), compared with 100 to 150 mV in Johor Strait, which means there are a lot of harmful reactive materials in the water."

More details on the ACE's tech solutions will be unveiled when construction of the fish farm, now in its final stages, is completed, he said.

The 1,344 square-metre floating facility will be located near Pulau Ubin.

Patent applications for the firm's various technologies have been accepted for grants in Australia and Singapore.

ACE general manager Scott Shanks said that, with the ACE's filter technology, the fish will be able to "grow to their fullest potential" without the need to pump them with antibiotics and vaccines.

"Just because a fish is alive doesn't mean it's healthy," he told BT. "The aim of aquaculture today is not only to keep fish alive, but to deliver a safe and high-quality product."

The ACE's chemical and pathogen-free farming conditions will lower the mortality rates among the fish stock, said Mr Leow, who is confident that the ACE's fish farm can produce "more reliable and greater yields" than traditional net-cage farms.

Efficiency and quality aside, sustainability is also a key focus at the ACE, which runs a "green" outfit; energy is harnessed from the solar-panelled roof of the farm.

The roof is fitted with a cooling system for better energy efficiency, said Mr Shanks.

To minimise fouling of the water, the ACE also uses technology to separate solid waste from the discharge water. The waste is stored and emptied on land - where it is used as a fertiliser - every six months, said Mr Leow.

Traditional net cage farms typically produce high levels of nutrient-rich waste, which goes back into the ocean, he noted. Nutrient build-up on the ocean floor contributes to algae blooms, which are a major environmental hazard hitting all ecosystems.

In 2015, 77 fish farms in Singapore were affected by an algae bloom that wiped out some 500 to 600 tonnes of fish. This followed a bloom the year before.

Mr Leow said: "For long-term sustainability, we need to farm fish without getting them sick, and, at the same time, ensure we are not polluting the ocean. These are what we aim to achieve with our technology."

He told BT that the ACE will start farming barramundi at its facility "very soon"; there are plans to include more fish species and expand the farm.

The firm is eyeing high-end restaurants and hotels in Singapore, where demand for high-value, locally-farmed fish such as grouper and barramundi is largely unmet.

Mr Leow said that some chefs have griped that they cannot find good-quality seafood in Singapore; the ACE is also targeting restaurants that want to buy sustainable seafood, that is, produce with a known, traceable source.

To reach out to the mass market, he sees opportunities for joint ventures with local fish farms that supply to the major supermarkets; these farmers can adopt the ACE's tech solutions to boost their production.

Mr Shanks said: "Many local farmers have been stuck doing the same thing for more than 20 years, and it's been getting harder because the water quality has been getting worse."

Over a longer horizon, the ACE is looking to expand into export-driven markets beyond local shores.

"We have received interest in what we're doing from companies around the world... It tells us that there are growth opportunities in Singapore and beyond," he said.