Inside a lab in Temasek Polytechnic, dozens of mud crabs are scuttling, feeding and breeding - to meet Singaporeans' insatiable appetite for chilli crab and black pepper crab.
Due to overharvesting and bad weather conditions brought on by global warming, the mud crab populations in countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, where Singapore imports crabs from, have dwindled by 30 per cent.
Many crabs are also harvested before they reach maturity, which is an unsustainable farming practice.
The crustaceans - from tiny crablets to two-year-old female crabs waiting patiently to bear eggs - are housed in the Aquaculture Research Facility within the Centre for Aquaculture and Veterinary Science (CAVS), where they are being reared in a clean and sustainable manner.
The Aquaculture Research Facility is part of the new Aquaculture Innovation Centre (AIC), which was launched yesterday to further boost Singapore's food security.
Said Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon, who launched the AIC at Temasek Polytechnic: "Our strong innovation ecosystem, robust intellectual property and standards framework, as well as our pro-business environment, put Singapore in an excellent position to become a leading player in the urban agriculture and aquaculture industry."
Singapore is on a mission to have local production account for 30 per cent of its food needs by 2030. Only 9 per cent of the country's fish consumption is now produced locally.
AIC director Lee Chee Wee's vision is for the centre to attract firms from other sectors to develop high-tech marine farming.
"The aquaculture industry is big and it is more than just rearing fish," Dr Lee, who is also technology adviser for Temasek Polytechnic, told The Straits Times. "Sectors from engineering to information technology to pharmaceuticals can work together with us."
For instance, robotics and artificial intelligence firms can invent sensors or other solutions to identify fish with abnormal behaviour or signs of illness deep in the tank.
Dr Lee said AIC's main focus during its first three years will be on optimising nutrition for food fish.
High-quality fish and other seafood reared in a high-tech farm need high-quality nutrition.
The centre and its neighbour, the CAVS, are trying to create optimal food pellets for its fish, shrimp and crabs, among other marine animals.
Take the crabs, for example.
About 300 of them have been produced in the lab through a few batches of spawning, in 15 months.
Five years ago, the project started with three or four mud crabs obtained locally.
The eggs produced have a 75 per cent hatching rate, but as the crab larvae transform to crablets and full-fledged crabs over phases, some do not survive.
The researchers suspect this is due to a lack of optimal nutrition.
TAKING THE LEAD
Our strong innovation ecosystem, robust intellectual property and standards framework, as well as our pro-business environment, put Singapore in an excellent position to become a leading player in the urban agriculture and aquaculture industry.
DR KOH POH KOON, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry.
"Since some of them die off because they struggle while moulting their shells, it shows that the crabs may be lacking in calcium," said Dr Diana Chan, head of CAVS.
Last week, the research team created the first batch of home-grown pellets in the institute's feed-making facility by adding substances like fatty acids, alternative proteins and pigmentation to the commercial feed. It will take another few months of trial and error to create the most optimal feed for the crabs so they can survive and grow faster.
Then, the researchers will selectively breed them to produce the meatiest and fastest-growing crabs.
The project's immediate goal is to build a crab hatchery to supply high-quality crablets to local farms by the end of the year.
Additional crabs will be returned to the wild here.