“The issue with technology is that what might work for three months may not work for three years and out at sea, it’s a tough environment, so you’ll often see equipment or parts failing.”
Eventually, his persistence paid off. The water monitoring system implemented at Mr Ong’s farms – which have a capacity to produce a total of 1,000 tonnes of fish each year, including grey mullet, milkfish and red snapper – has greatly 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 smaller farms like us, it’s not financially viable to try and control every single thing, there are some areas where you have to put in the technology and some areas you have to work with nature,” he added.
To lower their costs, Assoc Prof Tan said small fish farms could consider banding together to form a cooperative.
“Unfortunately, the farming industry in Singapore is quite fragmented, where every farmer works for themselves,” he said.
“The moment we shift to a lease, these farmers will need to think very hard because now they will have a recurring cost, so I suspect that a group of small players will ultimately leave the industry,” he added, noting that many traditional farmers are also elderly.
“But if they come together, it could throw a lifeline to all these farmers because when they make a central purchase or want to take their products to the market, their costs will come down,” he said.
While there are already several associations for fish farmers, he said these do not group together and hence, aren’t able to enjoy higher economies of scale.
Pointing to farming industries in Africa, which have cooperatives of at least 100 farmers, he said this has allowed them to order fish feed in bulk, reducing their costs significantly.
“If you have 100 farms that band together, it means that instead of ordering 1,000 tonnes of feed, you can order 200,000 tonnes, which is a lot of economies of scale for feed,” he said.