With the number of groupers dwindling in the wild, a father-and-son team ventures boldly into rearing the fish in Banting, Pulau Ketam and Pulau Pangkor to cater to demand from restaurants in Hong Kong and China.
Tan Sri Ng Teck Fong, the founder and group executive chairman of jeweller Tomei Consolidated Bhd, once again has his eyes focused on something glittery. This time around, however, it has nothing to do with precious metals or gems.
What he has his attention focused on now is groupers — fish with glittery spotted bodies that are in great demand as a pricey delicacy in restaurants across the region, especially in Hong Kong and China.
The market for the fish is also international, as grouper can be shipped as far as the West and Middle East with deep freezing.
Due to the dwindling population of wild groupers as a result of overfishing and damage to coral reefs, limits on catches are starting to emerge in waters where groupers are fished.
This, and the demand for the fish, is the driving some to take on the farming of groupers.
Still, the farming of deep-sea fish is not an easy task, especially since groupers are highly sensitive to the environment and prone to sickness.
Groupers, which are carnivores, are particular about the protein content in their feed. If they reject their feed and become hungry they can attack each other.
“Currently, Taiwan has developed grouper farming quite well thanks to its technology and proximity to Hong Kong, where the demand is. However, Taiwan has to deal with typhoons, earthquakes and also winter. Malaysia is free of all these enviromental concerns,” said Ng in an interview with MetroBiz, adding that the Malaysian waters are also less polluted.
Ng said that many banks would not grant loans for such efforts as grouper farming is seen as a high-risk industry that needs a huge amount of capital.
He is urging the the government assist the industry to maximise profit and potential.
“We are dealing with live organisms here, not machines. Fish farmers may lose all their stock overnight if there’s something wrong with the water, or if bacteria hits,” he said.
Ng said that fish farms in Malaysia produce mostly tilapia and seabass and bank on volume, with only a handful daring to dabble with grouper.
Commercial grouper farming began only in recent years, and he believes his operation is the largest of its kind in the country.
The farm in Banting, where the hatchery and nursery sections are located, sits on 12ha site.
Located about an hour away from Kuala Lumpur, the farm is near stretches of oil palm plantation and fishing villages sitting near the estuary of Sungai Langat.
“We started setting up the business about four years ago, and spent a good 12 months searching for the right place.
“In the end, we managed to convince several former shrimp farmers to sell their land to us, and we signed a 30-year tenancy contract with the National Fishermen’s Association to convert a peat swamp gazetted for agricultural purposes to what it is today,” Ng said.
The venture, which also includes two more farms in Pulau Pangkor and Pulau Ketam where 200 cages are placed for fry cultivated in Banting to grow into adult fish, was set up are a cost of RM10mil. They needed the business and import/export licences as well as permission from the Fishery Department.
Brood stock also cost a substantial amount, a large quantity of of Tiger Grouper, Potato Grouper, Giant Grouper and Coral Grouper were bought from Taiwan. Giant Tiger, which is a hybrid hardier than the other grouper species and developed in Malaysia, is also bred here.
The company, Oasis Long Diann Bio-Tech Sdn Bhd, is a joint venture with a Taiwanese company and has no links with Tomei. Ng, who studied in Taiwan, jumped at the opportunity to diversify his family business when a Taiwanese professor was looking for a business partner in Malaysia. He sees a bright future for the industry.
Ng’s son, Yih Chen, runs the show. Even though grouper farming techniques are new to not only the family but also most Malaysians, Yih Chen seems to know it like the back of his hand, sharing all the nitty-gritty of breeding the fish.
“It is known that groupers are highly sensitive to the external factors and will attack each other when they are hungry. Once they do that, you may lose half of the fish overnight,” said Yih Chen.
“The survival rate matters most. We have achieved a survival rate of 80% in good times, from a start of around 50%. Many other local grouper breeders are hovering around 50%,” he added.
Extra care is needed because their focus on groupers requires a constant supply of the various species. Unlike other players, they cannot afford to just give up on those with low survival rates, such as Tiger Grouper which are prone to parasites.
At the simple setup of tanks, ponds and paddle wheels, one can catch a glimpse of groupers’ life cycle, from eggs, tiny one-inch-long transparent fry to the massive 20kg adults used for breeding.
The operations in Banting are manned by 10 employees, including two aquaculture experts.
“Even with highly efficient technologies, we still need to brace for the unexpected. You may have two fish farms in the same area — one may thrive but the other may not,” he shared, citing how the farm in Pulau Pangkor drew the attention of otters from a nearby island. This brought up the need for more dogs to guard the farm.
The company has two income. One is from selling groupers grown to the required size of 600g to 700g to live fish transporters who export them to Hong Kong, where demand is so high that not much is left for local buyers.
According to Yih Chen, since last year, they could sell 1,500 to 2,000 fish in one batch, made ready every one to two months. The fish are priced from RM70 to RM130 per kilogramme.
Revenue is also derived from selling three-inch fry to other farms that grow them.
They sell an average 20,000 to 40,000 fry a month; smaller operators take about 5,000 while the major ones can ask for more than 30,000.
The fry are sold at RM6 to RM12 each, which is about 10 times higher than many other fish.
“The survival rate of our fry is said to be one fold higher than those bought from Taiwan and Indonesia,” he said.
He added that the company’s annual turnover is now only “a couple of million ringgit” as sales began only about 18 months ago.
The company has set aside RM2mil to improve the farm’s facilities in the near future.
In addition to that, Yih Chen has been in discussion with local restaurants since beginning of the year, and will most likely start to supply groupers straight to the dinner tables here in two months.