Fishing in troubled waters

The scale of the plankton bloom that has left fish farmers worried is evident from the more than 22,000kg of dead fish collected at four beaches - Pasir Ris, Punggol, Changi and Ubin. Fifty-five out of 63 fish farms along the East Johor Strait have been affected. Other troubling numbers are that, of Singapore's 126 fish farms, 117 are coastal, and most grow their fish in net cages in the sea. This practice makes the livestock acutely vulnerable to environmental changes.

Singapore's food security strategy includes 15 per cent for fish, a figure that will be difficult to reach if plankton blooms become a recurring affair that farmers accept as an unavoidable fact of nature. They are a natural occurrence; in fact, plankton is a main food source for sea creatures. However, a sudden plankton explosion, triggered by dry weather and pollution, could suffocate them. It is essential therefore to be prepared to deal with the problem, not least because the natural vagaries unleashed by climate change threaten to become a feature of the times. The current episode gives rise to disquiet because some farmers could not move fast enough in spite of the early warning given by the authorities.

Given its latent, devastating effect on the livelihood of the farmers and the stability of market supplies of a staple, the plankton attack calls for both short-term ameliorative solutions and longer-term preventive measures.

In the short term, the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority will not impose the minimum production requirement of 17 tonnes of fish for every 0.5 ha of farm space on affected farms. This concession will come as a relief to farmers, who need time to recover and restart their operations. Farmers can also upgrade their operations to protect their farms by tapping into the Ministry of National Development's $63 million Agriculture Productivity Fund, which is available to help local farmers boost their yields and raise productivity.

However, such moves must not make farmers dependent on the state's largesse for their survival. Older farmers who are reluctant to change farming methods need to understand the gravity of the situation. In the longer term, research on the link between plankton blooms and fish deaths should provide an additional avenue of preparedness for farmers. But here, it is the attitude - vigilance and a desire to improve practices - that will be key. Singapore could pursue fallback options such as diversifying its fish supply sources further and exploring joint fish-farming ventures with its neighbours. However, the target of even partial self-sufficiency in food makes the industry worth sustaining.