Ornamental fish retailers aim to cast net farther

Dr Koh Poh Koon checking out an exhibit at the inaugural AquaRealm 2017, accompanied by Mr William Chew, chairman of the Singapore Aquarium Fish Exporters' Association.
Dr Koh Poh Koon checking out an exhibit at the inaugural AquaRealm 2017, accompanied by Mr William Chew, chairman of the Singapore Aquarium Fish Exporters' Association.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Amid dry spell for the sector, firms are trying to tap new markets and win new customers

Singapore's ornamental fish trade seems to have hit a dry patch after its heyday a decade or two ago. Amid a tightening export market, local players are looking to get more beginners to pick up fish-rearing.

They are offering cost-conscious customers cheaper and lower-maintenance equipment, such as all-in-one tank sets.

According to data from United Nations Comtrade, Singapore's ornamental fish export value dropped from about US$52 million (S$72 million) to US$45 million between 2014 and 2015. In 2007, the figure was US$66 million.

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority said about 153 million ornamental fish were imported in 2014 and about 139 million in 2015, with the estimated import value dropping from $22 million in 2014 to $20 million in 2015.

Mr Andy Yap, 51, Qian Hu Corporation deputy managing director, said weak buying power in the global market is one of the main reasons for the slump. "There are also new producer countries such as Israel, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, which are getting more aggressive," he added.

"It's not so much a competition over price as quality. These new players are slowly catching up to (match) Singapore's export quality."

Mr Joel Ho, 29, director of Rainbow Fish Industries, said exports for the company have decreased by 10 per cent to 15 per cent since 2014.

"Singapore is less competitive, because many buyers now bypass Singapore as the middleman and go straight to source countries like Malaysia and Indonesia," he said.

Still, some firms are seeing new opportunities. Ms Nicole Chin, customer service manager at Sunbeam Aquarium, agreed that the trade in freshwater fish, such as guppies and swordtails, has remained stagnant in general, but said there are some markets that are picking up.

"Some destinations, especially India, are growing, as the market there opens up and purchasing power increases," Ms Chin added.

Finding such opportunities is a key theme of the inaugural four-day ornamental fish show held at Temasek Polytechnic, AquaRealm 2017, which started yesterday.

Calling it "timely" to address these issues, guest of honour Koh Poh Koon, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry, cited in his speech Singapore's land limitations, manpower shortages and maintaining its reputation for quality as main challenges for the industry.

"Every industry will need to respond to globalisation and the changes being wrought by demography and technology," said Dr Koh, who is also Senior Minister of State for National Development.

To attract younger, more budget-minded customers, sellers are offering cheaper products and making rearing ornamental fish easier.

Mr Ho said his company sells a tank set that comes with lights and a filter at prices starting at $38, saving first-timers the trouble of choosing accessories separately.

More than 26 exhibitors, including fish and accessory dealers, are taking part in the event, which is open to the public this weekend.

Mr Richard Goh, 56, said his collection has brought him good luck. The butcher, who began his collection in 1978, owns 15 stingrays and more than 30 arowana fish. "I've moved from an HDB flat to a condo, and now a landed property in the past 33 years, so I would say that my fish are good luck charms."

Correction note: This story has been edited to provide the figure for ornamental fish imported in 2015, which is 139 million.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2017, with the headline 'Ornamental fish retailers aim to cast net farther'. Print Edition | Subscribe