“The problem with technology is that what might work for three months may not work for three years and at sea it’s a harsh environment so you’ll often see equipment or parts failing.”
Eventually, his perseverance paid off. The water monitoring system implemented at Mr Ong’s farms – which have a total production capacity of 1,000 tonnes of fish each year, including red mullet, milkfish and red snapper – has significantly reduced fish mortality rate.
“We have problems with low oxygen levels twice, sometimes three times a month,” he said. “So without the system, our fish would be wiped out before we harvest a year later.”
“It’s about finding a balance,” he said.
“For small farms like ours it’s not financially viable to try to control everything, there are some areas where you have to put technology and some areas where you have to work with nature,” he said. he adds.
To cut costs, Assoc Prof Tan said small-scale fish farms could consider banding together to form a cooperative.
“Unfortunately, the agricultural industry in Singapore is quite fragmented, where every farmer works for himself,” he said.
“By the time we move to a lease these farmers will have to think very hard because now they will have a recurring cost so I suspect a bunch of smaller players will eventually leave the industry,” he added, noting that many traditional farmers are also elderly.
“But if they come together, it could throw a lifeline for all those farmers because when they do central buying or want to bring their produce to market, their costs go down,” he said.
Although there are already several associations of fish farmers, he said that these do not come together and therefore are not able to benefit from greater economies of scale.
Citing agricultural industries in Africa, which have cooperatives of at least 100 farmers, he said this has enabled them to order fish feed in bulk, reducing their costs significantly.
“If you have 100 farms coming together, that means instead of ordering 1,000 tons of feed, you can order 200,000 tons, which is a lot of economies of scale for feed” , did he declare.