Chinese fish farmer struggles with certifications
2014-12-01 17:15:38    hits:

A Chinese fish producer applying for grants under the Hong Kong government’s new “Sustainable Fishing Development Fund” is upbeat about sales opportunities for its perch and grouper but has found it difficult to secure sustainability or organic certification.
Farming jade perch and grouper for Hong Kong just across the border in the mainland Chinese city of Dongguan, Santai Eco Fishery is waiting on support under the Fund, according to company CEO Terence Wu. Seeking sustainability certifications, Santai approached the Aquaculture Stewardship Council and Marine Stewardship Council for their accreditations in early 2013, Wu said.
“However, we were informed that Jade Perch was not on the list of species that they were certifying. As a result, we approached another well recognized international accreditation organization, (the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s) Best Aquaculture Practices.” As for organic certification: “we went through the certification process but toward the end had to abandon it for lack of organic feed suppliers in China.”
In the meantime, however, Santai has secured sashimi grade certification (from the Chinese Manufacturers Association of Hong Kong) — which has been a boon for sales, said Wu. Crucially, while there are lots of fish farms in Hong Kong only Santai has secured certification to be used for sashimi in Hong Kong’s restaurants.
Santai was set up by Hong Kong businessman William Choi who saw fish farming as a lucrative alternative to his investments in the garment manufacturing sector, which is facing the challenge of higher wages in mainland China. Formally going into operation in 2013, Santai operates a water circulatory and treatment system that recycles 90 percent of the water.
Hong Kong is keener on marine fish, hence Santai is farming giant and tiger grouper for the city. “The mainland is more receptive to freshwater fish,” said Wu, hence the company is aiming to eventually tap that market with jade perch, a species it originally saw growing in Australia. Santai production tanks are currently at 70-30 percent in favor of perch but it ultimately aims to spilt production 50/50 between grouper and perch.
Santai’s customers include Hong Kong retailing giants Park n Shop and Wellcome as well as the Luk Kwok Hotel and the restaurants at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, one of Hong Kong’s most prestigious social institutions. Santai sells live perch fish at HKD 58 (USD 7.48, EUR 5.99) per fish weighing 350g and HKD 78 (USD 10.06, EUR 8.06) per fish of 450g weight. The wholesale price of live fish to restaurants “varies according to different promotion strategies and market segments,” Wu said.
Farming grouper has proven difficult given a longer growing time, Wu acknowledged, but he expects more players to get into the cultivation of grouper to tap demand for the fish in China and Hong Kong. But, he said, there are a lot of lower-quality producers who are not using the high-end circulatory system Santai has perfected at its Dongguan fish farm. In the long run Santai will consider selling the system to other firms. “We will consider options as they arise,” said Wu.
Wu said Santai’s commitment to quality means there’s not much of a price differential between farmed and wild grouper. “We have our own missions and values, we don’t cut corners. There are ways to make it grow faster but you compromise quality in terms of texture and quality. Our products have been facing the most strenuous tests in the Hong Kong market, which tests for antibiotic and microbe traces.”
Its aim of “Ensuring quality while maintaining ecological balance” got Santai the ECO Excellence Award last year from the Hong Kong Eco Association. The firm claims its fish farms ensure short food miles as well as reduced fuel use because there are no fishing boats involved. “It’s sustainable,” Wu said.
Hong Kong’s Sustainable Fishing Development Fund, launched in July, which “aims to help the local fisheries community move toward sustainable or high value-added operations,” shows that Santai is on the right track, Wu said. “It promotes things similar to what we have done.”
Santai would benefit from worries among consumers over food safety in mainland China, company founder William Choi told the Hong Kong press last year. He invested HKD 80 million (USD 10.3 million, EUR 8.3 million) in a 24,000-square-meter site in Dongguan, an industrial city in Guangdong province, featuring two tanks with 5,000 square meters of water and a current output of 350 metric tons of fish per year. Santai aims to be the “preeminent fish farm in Asia,” Choi told the South China Morning Post.
The company is looking at expanding in 2015 into upstream opportunities such as hatcheries and distribution. “As we build our client base we can increase our capacity at current locations,” said Wu. “Likewise we want to expand our processing business,” Wu added.
The company, according to Wu, hasn’t had any issue in securing acceptance of its farmed grouper species among high-end diners: “it’s widely accepted that wild catch is on the decrease and marine resources are depleted and environmental groups like (World Wildlife Fund) are trying to get people to opt for farmed fish. We definitely see an increase in demand,” said Wu.

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