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Friday December 28, 2012

The world’s first pilot lobster farm off Sabah’s Semporna district holds the potential for billions in revenue

Pioneer: Sarria (above) holding an adolescent lobster at the hatchery
in Sabah. Pioneer: Sarria (above) holding an adolescent lobster at the hatchery in Sabah.

THE Integrated Lobster Aquaculture Project (iLAP), which was started in October 2010, is a world’s first integrated lobster farming project and is seen as a harbinger of great economic change in Sabah once the project kicks into full gear.

Presently, a several thousand tropical spiny lobsters, which are valued at US$50 (RM154) per kilo, are the subject of intensive research at iLAP’s test farm within the lobster aquaculture park in Semporna.

Run by Nanyang Nexus Sdn Bhd and InnoFisheries of Yayasan Sabah, the project has the full support of the State Government as well as the Sabah Department of Fisheries.

Nanyang is jointly owned by Ever Nexus Sdn Bhd and Darden Aquascienes Sdn Bhd, which is a subsidiary of Fortune 500 company Darden Restaurants Inc, based in Orlando, Florida.

Darden Restaurants has over 2,000 outlets in the United States and Canada employing over 200,000 people and is the world’s largest chain of full-service restaurants.

Darden Aquasciences’ managing director Julius Sarria said the idea of sea farming spiny lobsters was pursued after a former president of Red Lobster, one of Darden’s famous restaurant brands, became concerned about the dwindling wild stocks on which Darden was relying on for its supply.

A way had to be found to secure Darden’s own lobster supplies through the most consistent, economical and most of all, sustainable methods.

“In 2006 a scientific team was set up, tapping the top five lobster scientists in the world, to seriously examine the feasibility of farming spiny lobsters. Initial research was done in the Caribbean,” Sarria explained.

In 2009, Darden Aquascienes began looking for the best place to pursue their lobster farming research, which would later lead to commercialisation. and found that Malaysia, particularly the waters off Sabah, was the most suitable location for the project.

All sizes: The pilot farm currently has 5,000 lobsters in stock, from 4cm hatchlings to 1.5m adults. All sizes: The pilot farm currently has 5,000 lobsters in stock, from 4cm hatchlings to 1.5m adults.

By late 2010, a pilot lobster research farm was started in Semporna. Today Darden Aquasciences is in the process of verifying a five-stage modular production method that will allow harvests every 90 days after the initial 1½ years of culture.

“During farming, every 90 days the lobsters are moved to increasingly bigger cages to accommodate the size of the growing lobsters,” Sarria said.

“Using this progressive method, the lobsters can be grown from 15g juveniles to around 1kg in about 1½ years,” Sarria said.

Allowing for some lag time, he said the company expects a total of 3.8 cycles a year using this production system.

“For this trial phase, we now have more than 5,000 individual lobsters ranging from hatchlings (measuring about 4cm including the antenna) to the largest being 1.5kg lobsters that can reach up to a metre in total length including the antenna,” Sarria explained.

Presently, no contract farmers are involved as yet because the project is still in the process of evaluating the best lobster rearing method, testing the market as well as formulating the best feed for lobsters.

“There are still no revenues to show at this point because we are still mostly in the research stage. However, once the commercial phase kicks into gear in 2015, up to 20,000 people are expected to benefit by 2020,” Sarria said.

It is estimated that the revenue generated by lobster farming will amount to RM23.7mil by 2020, and RM3.2bil by 2030.

Lobster cages: Every 90 days, the lobsters
are moved to increasingly larger cages to
accommodate their growth. Lobster cages: Every 90 days, the lobsters are moved to increasingly larger cages to accommodate their growth.

Apart from that, job opportunities in aquaculture for semi-skilled and skilled workers, supervisors, technicians, managers, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, veterinarians, nutritionists and logistics specialists will also be created.

“Sabahans will be given priority to fill job vacancies and contract-farmer positions provided they qualify and satisfy specific requirements,” Sarria said.

On why the company chose Malaysia and particularly Sabah for iLAP, Sarria said it is because of many sound reasons such as water quality, suitable weather and climate, the absence of typhoons as well as the availability of wide but naturally protected coastal, Sarria said.

Apart from that, the company also took into account the country’s stable government, safe and peaceful environment and relatively low corruption. Also, Malaysia’s infrastructure is better than most other countries in this region, he added.

“Malaysia has stronger intellectual property protection laws and this is part of the reason why we decided to set-up the hatchery here in Sabah — the first in the world for lobster farming,” he said.

Julius said a pilot hatchery is expected to be built by the second quarter of next year, followed by many other plans relating to this industry in Sabah.

Darden Restaurants will also set up its Asian hub in Kuala Lumpur to manage the operation of its brand outlets in Asia and the Middle East, he said.

Although it is still too early to say how iLAP will turn out, the Government is confident of the potential returns and recently witnessed Nexus Sustainable Seafood Sdn Bhd and Inno Fisheries Sdn Bhd sign an agreement to build a lobster aquaculture park in Semporna under a new company, Lobster Aqua Technologies Sdn Bhd.

The RM2bil project, set in waters spanning 9,300ha inside the 15,000ha Aquaculture Park managed by the Department of Fisheries, will generate up to 88 million kilos of spiny lobsters once it reaches maximum capacity in 2029.

Chief Minister Datuk Musa Aman had said during the signing ceremony that Malaysia welcomes foreign direct investments from strategic partners that are able to stimulate the local economy and generate income for Malaysians in Sabah.

He said the cooperation with Darden Inc is timely as the country moves to unlock the potential of Sabah’s natural endowments using sustainable methods.

Musa added that it marked a significant milestone for Malaysia’s aquaculture industry and estimates the global market for lobsters at over US$4bil a year with the Asia Pacific region, particularly China, making up about 75%.

The pioneering sustainable lobster aquaculture initiative will place Malaysia and Sabah on the global aquaculture map, he stated.

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