Mon, Sep 14, 2009 - Page 3 News List

FEATURE: Fish farms struggle after Morakot

By Yeh Yung-chien and Chung Li-hua  /  STAFF REPORTERS

A man holds a grouper in his hands on Tuesday. It takes one year for a giant grouper to reach 1.2kg in weight and three years for it to become fully grown.

PHOTO: YEH YUNG-CHIEN, TAIPEI TIMES

With shrimp and eel farming becoming less competitive, the nation’s aquaculture industry is turning toward grouper, and the Council of Agricultural Affairs launched a program this year to increase the value of grouper farming by NT$10 billion (US$306 million) in four years. But Typhoon Morakot changed everything.

Now the grouper industry has to be rebuilt before it can become a key component of Taiwan’s aquaculture sector.

Linbian (林邊) and Jiadong (佳冬) townships, along with other areas in hard-hit Pingtung County are the main regional production centers for grouper. Their annual production — prior to Morakot — was 11,000 tonnes per year, or 65 percent of the nation’s 17,000 tonnes per year.

Estimates from the industry, however, indicate that another three years will be needed before pre-Morakot levels are restored. The typhoon caused more than NT$4.1 billion in losses for the aquaculture industry — a record.

Grouper aquaculture alone sustained NT$2 billion in losses.

“If the damages [to your grouper farm] did not exceed NT$1 million, it isn’t considered a loss,” an aquaculture farmer said sarcastically.

Other aquaculture farmers who were preparing to ship their goods abroad lost everything when Morakot struck. Now they are saddled with tens of millions of dollars in debts.

Shih Sheng-lung, (石聖龍) section chief at the Fisheries Information Service’s (FIS) aquaculture section, said the cost of a single fish for breeding was NT$30,000. The loss of an entire fish farm can cost between NT$20 million and NT$30 million.

Morakot not only filled fish pools with mud, mud piled 1m above the pools. A 1-hectare pool could be covered by more than 100 tonnes of mud.

The first step to reconstruction is dredging the pools, but some farmers say they won’t do that. Instead, they plan on building new pools on top of the mud.

Nan Fan-hua (冉繁華), an assistant professor at National Taiwan Ocean University’s (NTOU) Department of Aquaculture, said the mud should not be used for aquaculture.

Unless it is cleared away and the area is disinfected, it will be difficult to guarantee diseases will not strike the fish stock later.

Su Mao-sen (蘇茂森), deputy director of the agricultural council’s Fisheries Research Institute, said grouper stocks in Taiwan were often hit by the nervous necrosis virus and the grouper iridovirus.

The situation in the wake of Morakot means that the water is contaminated. The ability of remaining fish stocks to resist disease has worsened and death rates among the fish are higher.

The FIS estimates that 20 million fish may be needed to restore the industry.

But prices are through the roof, says Cheng Ann-chang (鄭安倉), an assistant professor in the Department and Graduate Institute of Aquaculture at National Kaohsiung Marine University.

A 3-inch fry used to cost NT$15, but now a 2.5-inch fry is NT$27 — an 80 percent increase — Cheng said. For 10,000 fish, that adds up to NT$2.7 million — a heavy burden for fish farmers in the disaster areas, he said.

The higher prices mean fry theft could become a problem. Nan said the FIS should study the supply and demand situation and determine whether there is a shortage of fry.

If so, the most effective solution would be to import more fish as soon as possible, Nan said.

Rebuilding the grouper industry will take time, Nan said, suggesting that the FIS direct aquaculture farmers toward shrimp or cichlids, which grow faster and can be harvested in six months or less, since this would help solve the urgent livelihood problems they face.

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