Growing big on udang galah

Goods in hand: Juvenile freshwater prawns after 45 days in the nursery

Biotechnological breeding methods using only males of the species look set to revive Malaysia’s freshwater prawn industry.

MALAYSIA was the first country to discover the method for freshwater prawn farming back in the 1960s.

But look at the scenario now.

Today, Malaysia produces only a dismal 400 metric tonnes yearly of the highly prized giant Malaysian freshwater prawn popularly known as udang galah. Others like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, China have surged far ahead.

“Do you know that Bangladesh is the world’s second largest producer of freshwater prawns with 40,000 metric tonnes every year?

“China is the world’s largest producer and farms 400,000 metric tonnes each year. Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia too produce a sizeable number.”

“But Malaysia is stuck at 400 metric tonnes,” says Giva Kuppusamy, a biotech graduate who plans to change that and grow the industry which globally is worth US$7bil (RM29.39bil).

The question of why Malaysia – once a pioneer - lags so far behind has bugged Giva, 32, for almost a decade.

A year ago Giva, who is now doing his Masters in sustainable aquaculture, and a partner decided to jump in.

All smiles: Giva at his freshwater giant prawn hatchery in Lenggeng Negri Sembilan.
All smiles: Giva at his freshwater giant prawn hatchery in Lenggeng Negri Sembilan.

They set up GK Aqua Sdn Bhd to breed baby udang galah to sell to freshwater prawn farmers.

They secured the sole licensing rights for Malaysia from Tiran Shipping Ltd to introduce a unique biotech method using only male prawns to mate and breed.

“When there are male and female prawns, the males have to fight with other males to get the female to mate. When they fight, some will die.

“Energy is diverted and productivity goes down, which means feeding and operational costs goes up.

“And it takes 150 to 180 days to harvest these mixed sex prawns. But with our monosex ones, it takes only 90 days,” he says.

With mixed prawns, the size varies between the male and female prawn, with the males being bigger.

So what GK Aqua does is to have all male prawns in its farm.

They would then inject an “RNAi silencing chemical” into a normal male prawn which blocks it from developing into a male and turns it into a “neo female” instead, he says.

This “neo female” (which genetically is still male) can now carry eggs.

Normal male prawns would mate with these “neo female” prawns to produce eggs, which would hatch into all-male baby prawn larvae, making it an all male affair.

The larvae is bred at GK Aqua for 45 days, and then sold to big prawn farmers who would grow it in their nursery for another 45 days until it is about 4gm in size.

Then the prawns are transferred to a “grow out” pond.

Giva says at this stage they have escalated growth, going from 4gm to 80gm within the next 90 days.

“The results are overwhelming. There is no fighting. The mono sex prawn are three times in size and grow faster.

“Our pilot study shows that we can get 130% more yield this way compared to the conventional (mixed sex) prawn farming.”

A one-acre piece of land, he says, can produce 1.2 tonnes of all male prawns every six months.

“In a worst case scenario – if a farmer with a two-acre farm is really lousy and gets only a 30% to 40% survival rate for his all-male prawns – he can still get a net income of RM3,000 to RM4,000.

“If he is good and there is a 60% to 70% survival rate, he would then be looking at an income of RM6,000 to RM7,000 after subtracting all the overhead expenses.”

Oil palm in comparison gives you only RM900 a month, he says.

GK Aqua sells its broodstock 45-day-larvae at 15 sen per piece.

“It spends 45 days in the nursery. After the next 90 days, you can sell the fully grown udang galah at RM75 per kg. There are about 10 prawns per kg.

“If you grow them for another month, you can sell them to hotels for RM120 per kg.”

That is a 50% increase in just a month, he says.

Giva says GK Aqua is producing half a million post-larvae prawns for every two-month cycle, which is still only 20% its capacity.

It is targeting four million per cycle – full capacity in two years.

“That would give us 24 million post–larvae prawns per year. If all become big prawns, that would give us 1,000 metric tonnes of prawns in Malaysia, which would already break the record for national production.

“And once we are on that scale, we can replicate it in all states. If we can do it in 10 states, we are looking at 10,000 metric tonnes.

“At RM75 per kg, it will amount to a RM750mil industry. Even if you bring the price down to RM50, you are looking at a RM500mil industry.”

Giva says Malaysia’s seafood consumption is at 50kg per capita. With a 30 million population, this translates to 1.5 million metric tonnes of seafood.

“If udang galah captures only 1% of that, it works out to 15,000 metric tonnes. Our national production is only 400 tonnes, so even our local demand is not being met.”

He sees GK Aqua is positioning itself in the next five years to maintain a continuous supply and quality control of freshwater prawns through breeding its monosex male prawns.

They are also looking at marketing its capability to buy back the fully grown udang galah from the farmers and then to take it to the market.

“If we have the volume, we can talk to the big hypermarkets. The industry is so scattered now. Everybody is doing his own thing.”

He says the big companies are looking at marine prawns because the logistic supply chain is established.

“There is not much attention being paid to fresh water prawns. We are looking to revive that.”

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