Public consultation for potential fish farms near coral reefs south of S'pore extended by 2 weeks

The potential sites are the waters off three islands, including Pulau Satumu (pictured). ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Public consultation of an environmental impact assessment determining the suitability of biodiversity-rich waters off south Singapore for fish farming has been extended by two weeks, The Straits Times has learnt.

This comes after a notice published in the Government e-Gazette on May 5 said the public had until Wednesday (June 1) to give feedback on the report, which will pave the way for the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) to set up fish farms next to pristine coral reefs, as part of efforts for Singapore to produce 30 per cent of its nutritional needs by 2030.

The potential sites are the waters off three islands - Pulau Satumu, Pulau Bukom and Pulau Jong.

Marine aquaculture done at scale is one of the most efficient sectors available for animal proteins, the report said, concluding that the potential sites can produce up to 22,260 tonnes of fish annually with "limited impact" to water and sediment quality.

Last year, local aquaculture production - 4,200 tonnes of fish - accounted for about 9 per cent of total fish consumption, according to SFA.

But marine biologists and conservationists told ST that building the farms off the three islands could adversely impact on marine ecosystems in the south and might attract unwelcome predators near recreational dive sites, among several concerns.

Of the 110 sea-based fish farms in Singapore, only one, run by Barramundi Asia, operates near the southern islands of Singapore.

Responding to queries from ST, SFA said it will make the report available for public viewing until June 15 to allow more members of the public to give feedback.

Said the agency: "All feedback will be carefully considered and addressed, and incorporated into the final report, where relevant.

"Planning approval on the sea spaces to be used for aquaculture will be sought, and an environmental management and monitoring plan will be implemented before the commencement of any works, to ensure sustainability of aquaculture in those spaces, and minimise the potential impact on the environment."

According to the e-Gazette notice, the environmental impact assessment was conducted from September 2020 to October last year in preparation for more spaces for fish farms to be put up for tender from end 2022.

These sites were shortlisted for study as they lie outside of existing shipping anchorages and fairways, SFA said.

Other parameters considered while shortlisting the locations included water current flow and proximity to recreational areas and marine or industrial facilities, it added.

The hard-copy report, however, can only be viewed by appointment for two hours at SFA's headquarters in Jurong, prompting some to question its accessibility.

While the move to make environmental impact assessments publicly available is welcomed as that has not always been the case, limited time for access hampers in-depth assessment of the report, which is over 315 pages long, said marine biologist Zeehan Jaafar.

According to the report prepared by environment consultancy DHI Water and Environment, the waters near the islands surveyed are home to flora and fauna such as the locally endangered fluted giant clam, blue coral listed as globally vulnerable and smooth ribbon seagrass that is critically endangered locally.

Environmental degradation wrought by fish farming in these waters can be reduced if fish are reared in closed systems rather than open cages, the report found.

Such systems will lead to a lower maximum yield of 18,200 tonnes annually but result in minimal to no impact to water and sediment quality, provided production volumes are capped and measures are in place to mitigate and manage environment impact, the report added.

Marine biologists and food security experts said closed containment systems would be the preferred option to minimise impact on the surrounding environment should it be inevitable for farms to be located in the southern waters.

Said deputy facility director of St John's Island National Marine Laboratory Jani Tanzil: "The idea of closed-containment systems is that conditions can be greater controlled, reducing external environmental threats and unwanted discharges into the marine ecosystem, making it better for ensuring sustainability."

Acknowledging that closed containment systems are costlier to install and maintain, she said the financial gap could be overcome with needs driving technological advancement and streamlining of operations.

Warming oceans brought about by climate change also mean that closed containment systems will be a more resilient option as compared to traditional open-cage farming, said Associate Professor Matthew Tan, chief executive of aquaculture engineering firm Assentoft Aqua Asia.

He said: "When the sea turns bad, open-cage is very hard for farmers to run away from it, so closed containment and land-based farms will be less vulnerable to unexpected weather changes."

Should closed containment farms prove to be too costly, sensor technology can also be harnessed to curb excess feeding and manage waste produced by fishes in open-cage farms, said Professor William Chen, director of Nanyang Technological University's Food Science and Technology programme.

Still, the report has left several questions as to whether the locations identified in it will be adequately protected should development take place, said marine scientists and conservationists.

For one, the proposed farm site in Pulau Jong is located 41m from a dive site, according to the report, which noted that open cage farming in the area may further attract bull sharks and lead to possible attacks.

The proposed farm site in Pulau Jong (pictured) is located 41m from a dive site, according to the report. PHOTO: ST FILE

For this reason, Mr Stephen Beng, chair of Friends of Marine Park community, suggests that the sites be moved farther away from reefs and recreational areas.

Mr Beng said: "The range of large fish like sharks is wide, definitely more than 41m. We can't install a fence or dig a drain to draw boundaries in the sea like we do on land."

Another concern is the failure to model the effects of climate change such as increasing sea surface temperatures and acidification, which can magnify the impacts of the potential fish farms, said Dr Tanzil.

She added that comprehensive environmental monitoring and management planning beyond the brief mention in the report is vital.

Cumulative impacts can result in conditions harmful for both fish farms and marine ecosystems such as algal blooms, Dr Tanzil noted.

She said: "It's important to acknowledge that "30 by 30" is but a part of the longer journey towards Singapore's long-term food resilience goals - achieving it sustainably will be important to ensure that local food production can be sustained well beyond 2030."

Responding to queries from ST, a Ministry of National Development spokesman said SFA will also consult with agencies including the National Parks Board before finalising the report to assess the suitability of the sea spaces for aquaculture, taking into account the potential impact on marine biodiversity in the surrounding area.

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