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No fish story

SINGAPORE — Affected modern gastronomy aside, the concept of feeding the world has changed drastically.

SINGAPORE — Affected modern gastronomy aside, the concept of feeding the world has changed drastically.

It has grown from a romantic, albeit naive, notion into a mortifying epiphany of sorts. A little like when you realise that the extinction of sharks, thanks to our reckless indifference, has opened the doors to the global domination of the rabidly propagative (and highly predatory) giant Humboldt squid. (And while I’m all for a little grilled squid from time to time; I want my goby, grouper and four-finger threadfin, as well.)

The fear of collapsing ecosystems notwithstanding, the more immediately alarming truth to haunt my recurrent gastro hallucinations is that in a rapidly populated earth — 7 billion and counting — a sustained majority of the civilised market has developed a somewhat ravenous penchant for seafood.

According to the United Nations’ The State Of World Fisheries And Aquaculture 2012 report, fish affords about 3 billion of us with almost 20 per cent of our intake of animal protein, and 4.3 billion people with about 15 per cent of such protein.

All in all, we are looking at about 148 million tonnes of fish (in 2010, that had a total value of US$217.5 billion), of which about 128 million tonnes were used as food for people, with preliminary data for 2011 indicating an increased production of 154 million tonnes, of which 131 million tonnes were destined as food.

And before we start excusing ourselves from the equation, let us recognise that Singapore is one of the biggest seafood consumers in Asia-Pacific, devouring an average of 100,000 tonnes of seafood each year, based on studies by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Now, there’s nothing wrong with fishing per se; it is fishing with the need to sustain not life but a lifestyle that has muddied the waters.

MAKING IT COUNT

Like overfishing, particularly from over-exploited and poorly managed fisheries, by-catch (the netting of unwanted marine creatures while fishing for a specific species) remains a key dispute, especially when the option to eradicate such industries is far from a realistic resolution.

As part of a global push to promote real alternatives, experts have placed their faith in sustainable farming. This has its own set of environmental risks, but, thankfully, there are aquaculture industries committed to ensuring optimal environmental, social and economic sustainability leading by example.

Salmon, though, represents the most efficient use of marine raw materials for food production. In fact, when it comes to feed-to-meat conversion, the fish is twice as efficient as pig or poultry. Add that to the quality proffered by leading producers like Norway and it would be easy to fathom the constant growth in consumption. To wit, according to the Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC), seafood from Norway’s model farms is an increasingly popular choice among Singaporeans. Import of Norwegian salmon alone has been increasing at an average of 17 per cent a year since 2005, which equates to 6,343 tonnes in 2012 (up from 2005’s haul of just 2,685 tonnes).

The trend does reflect a viable answer to our population’s growing appetite. But are the advantages lost in the influx? Compared to last year’s estimates, Singapore imported just three tonnes of halibut compared to 793 tonnes of trout and around 7,353 tonnes of salmon.

CLOSE TO HOME

Still, progress made in eating local as part of efforts to reduce our carbon footprint has been encouraging. Major supermarkets are keeping up efforts, partnering with local fish farmers’ cooperatives, as well as acquiring fish from nearby Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

In September 2011, for example, Cold Storage became the first supermarket to roll out a sustainable seafood initiative. “(It) was also the first supermarket to start a ‘no shark’s fins’ policy in all the Cold Storage and Market Place stores in Singapore,” said a spokesperson for the company, who added that, as a member of the WWF Singapore Sustainable Seafood Group, Cold Storage is committed to improve how it sources sustainable seafood and promote responsible consumption in Singapore.

In addition, the company is working closely with NGOs like Friend Of The Sea, now a main international certification project for products originating from both sustainable fisheries and aquaculture.

Meanwhile, all fish supplied to FairPrice Finest and FairPrice Xtra stores are tagged with QR codes, which customers can scan for instructions on how to best prepare the fish. These QR-coded fish are sold under the brand The Fish Farmer, which is owned by the Metropolitan Fishery Group (MFG), and includes Singapore farmed grey mullet, milk fish and black tilapia, as well as farmed California bass, seven-star sea perch and spottail bass from Taiwan.

MFG also has a new local farm rearing red and silver snapper and rabbit fish, which a FairPrice spokesperson confirmed will be ready next year. Another local farm, Rong Yau Fisheries, supplies the supermarket chain with golden pomfret, live seabass and pearl grouper.

Others like Barramundi Asia proffer a select range. Established in 2007, it is the first EU certified fish farm in South East Asia, and the first in Singapore to grow barramundi in large cages in sea water at Pulau Samakau, just south of the main island.

“The price is half of what the Australian air-flown product is; therefore we can price it accordingly on our menus,” shared executive chef Peter Rollinson of The Halia At Singapore Botanic Gardens. The Australian native also highlighted the fact that the fish arrive at the restaurant the day they are harvested. “They can’t get any fresher than that. And texture and taste is on par with the Australian product.”

The fish was also a recent highlight in the Singapore Farm Fresh edition of Project Food Prints by The Halia Group, in the third installation of a six-part dinner series aimed at encouraging transparency from farm to fork. Rollinson affirmed that the said barramundi will also remain on the menu, joining other sustainable ingredients, such as prawns from Spencer Gulf in South Australia.

URBAN ENTERPRISE

It may have begun as a backyard experiment of sorts, but two-and-a-half-year-old OnHand Agrarian has quickly grown into a uniquely viable local enterprise, harvesting an organic ecology of some of our favourite seafood. The company uses what has been dubbed an “integrated multi-trophic recirculating aquaculture system”, or IMTRAS, for tropical marine species. The aim is to harvest seafood more efficiently, humanely, cleanly and profitably. “We will make seafood so cheap, only the rich will go fishing,” runs the tag by director and founder Shannon Lim on its Facebook page.

But the wonderful irony of this system is its ability to turn an understanding of natural waste into a winning business model. At a talk last year, Lim shared how it worked: “The weird thing about farming fish is that the more s**t something eats, the more valuable it becomes. So fish that don’t eat any s**t are worth about S$20 a kilogramme, and then you have the crustaceans that eat the fish’s (droppings) that are worth about S$40 a kilogramme. Eventually, you end up with urchins that eat a lot of s**t that are worth S$80 a kilogramme.”

This is not a new concept. But the main difference between an IMTRAS farm and every other farm is that for the price of producing one type of fish, Lim has proven that OnHand Agrarian can safely produce a platter, from quality organic grouper to crab, lobster and prawn.

Now that’s smart fishing in troubled waters.

For some cool fish recipes, visit http://tyd.sg/todayfood

DID YOU KNOW?

75 per cent of the fish sold at FairPrice are harvested, comprising 10 per cent locally produced fish. Only the remaining 25 per cent are wild catch, largely from the coastlines of South-east Asia.

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