Life in a fish tank gets stuffy for exporters

Visitors (inset) at ornamental fish show Aquarama at Suntec yesterday. Singapore is the largest exporter of ornamental fish like betta (above) globally, but exports have fallen to levels similar to those a decade ago.
Visitors (inset) at ornamental fish show Aquarama at Suntec yesterday. Singapore is the largest exporter of ornamental fish like betta (above) globally, but exports have fallen to levels similar to those a decade ago.ST PHOTOS: SEAH KWANG PENG
Visitors (inset) at ornamental fish show Aquarama at Suntec yesterday. Singapore is the largest exporter of ornamental fish like betta (above) globally, but exports have fallen to levels similar to those a decade ago.
Visitors (inset) at ornamental fish show Aquarama at Suntec yesterday. Singapore is the largest exporter of ornamental fish like betta (above) globally, but exports have fallen to levels similar to those a decade ago.ST PHOTOS: SEAH KWANG PENG

Ornamental fish business feels pinch of competition, strong Singdollar

THINGS are not looking pretty for Singapore's ornamental fish business.

The Republic might still be the world's largest exporter of ornamental fish like mollies, guppies, goldfish and koi, but the amount of fish exported has fallen to levels similar to those a decade ago.

Major exporters here point to a strong Singapore dollar, falling global demand, high operating costs and uncertainty over the lease of their premises.

The latest UN Comtrade statistics released by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority yesterday showed that firms here exported about US$56 million (S$75.8 million) worth of fish in 2013.

This is a dip from 2012, when Singapore exported US$62 million worth of ornamental fish, and is even lower than the US$60 million in 2009 - in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Figures peaked at US$69 million in 2008.

Export figures for 2013 were comparable to the US$54 million worth of fish exported in 2005.

Sanyo Aquarium managing director William Chew had 20 per cent less turnover last year than in 2013. "The strong Singdollar is making our fish more expensive, and a lot of our customers in Europe are now bypassing us by going right to source countries."

Mr Chew added that ornamental fish farms here "are afraid to invest". They can set up only in locations approved by the Government, and such land is leased out for a limited number of years.

Sanyo's 2010 move from Jalan Kayu to its current Sembawang site to make way for industrial development cost the company $1.5 million. Sanyo has written to the Government for an extension on its current lease, and is holding off on automation projects.

Meanwhile, Sunbeam Aquarium's Nicole Chin said its turnover has fallen 10 per cent year on year since 2008. "Compared with 20 years ago, there are fewer hobbyists. Now, young people would rather save up for an iPad than a fish tank."

Operating costs here have increased but firms like hers cannot raise prices due to competition from other countries, she said.

Even Qian Hu Corporation, Singapore's leading exporter, has not been spared. Managing director Kenny Yap said its exports have fallen by a single-digit percentage over the last few years, despite it venturing into new markets like China, Russia and India.

The firm is installing a new tank system costing over $1 million. Fully automated, it halves water use by recirculating it, and Qian Hu's capacity has increased from 2,000 to 4,000 tanks without the need for more manpower.

At the opening of ornamental fish show Aquarama 2015 yesterday, Dr Maliki Osman, Minister of State for National Development, said it was critical that firms find ways to raise productivity.

Citing Qian Hu's tank system, he said: "I strongly urge other ornamental fish farms to take bold steps in this direction as well."

He said the ministry is exploring the possibility of developing a multi-storey building for flatted farming, like a flatted factory, a move he called a "game changer".

But at least one company has thrown in the towel.

Mr Fong Ching Loon, 78, owner of Pisces Tropica and chairman of the Singapore Aquarium Fish Exporters' Association, shut his firm in January despite having paid rent until 2020 and spending $2 million to relocate in 2010. "We make a smaller loss closing down than remaining open," he said.

limjess@sph.com.sg