An ongoing study to determine how much fish can be sustainably reared in the farms off Singapore's northern coast could have long-lasting implications for the budding aquaculture industry.
The two-year research study on aquaculture zones is the first of its kind to be commissioned by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority, and will be completed next August.
AVA said the study will assess and determine the maximum production levels that can be supported in aquaculture zones in the Johor Strait.
The findings could also inform government regulation in aquaculture, Dr Koh Poh Koon, Senior Minister of State for National Development, and Trade and Industry, told The Straits Times during a study trip to Norway last month.
The study comes amid the Government's push for farms here to be more productive, so local food production can become a better buffer during global supply disruptions.
But as important is an answer to the question of the kind of impact large-scale fish farming would have on the ecological balance. Before farmers can think of ramping up production, they have to deal with problems such as the deadly algae blooms that have hit the same area of the Johor Strait several times in the recent past, Dr Koh said.
"Therein lies the challenge - to see if the increase in volume of production would pose ecological problems there that would eventually kill off the entire industry."
The study is being done by Akvaplan-niva AS, a Norwegian research and consultancy firm which focuses on aquaculture and marine/freshwater environments, among other things.
Currently there are 125 fish farms in Singapore, of which seven are land-based. Fish farms here produced a total of 4,851 tonnes of fish last year, accounting for about 10 per cent of total fish consumption.
This is up from the 3,158 tonnes locally produced in 2012, which accounted for 6 per cent of total consumption then.
Dr Koh said one possible area the Government could look into is how the feeding of fish in commercial farms can be regulated.
Some farmers, he said, may feed fish with low-quality feed like bread crumbs or leftover meal, which pollutes the environment.
"If we don't look at how we can regulate such behaviour, it will become increasingly challenging for that piece of coastal area to be viable in the longer term."
Last year, Chile's salmon farming industry was devastated by an algae bloom said to be the worst in the country. The National Geographic reported that the impact could have been exacerbated by poor regulation of the country's aquculture trade.
The study, said Dr Koh, would help the Government engage industry with science and information.
Mr Chan Wei Loong, chair of the Republic Polytechnic's Diploma in Marine Science and Aquaculture programme, said the study is important as it gives an indication of how much fish the body of seawater off Singapore's northern coast can support.
He pointed out that the Johor Strait is narrow and is shared by two sovereign nations. "But it is good to know the current status of the health of the water in the Johor Strait and perhaps this can help us understand the occurrence of the algae blooms in 2014 and 2015 that killed many fish."