Save Our Stock: Helping Fish Farmers Affected By Plankton Bloom

As the global climate changes, plankton blooms threaten to wipe out thousands of farmed fish each year when the temperature rises. Challenge looks into Singapore’s efforts to stem the devastating effects of the deadly tide.

Save Our Stock
Every year, AVA officers Vincent Ong (left) and Choong Foong Choong visit all 117 coastal fish farms in the course of their work.

March 1, 2015, was a Sunday but Mr Choong Foong Choong was not resting. Instead, the executive manager from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) was on a small vessel racing towards a fish farm off Singapore’s eastern coast.

As he drew nearer, the wind brought a stench of rotting fish — a preview of the thousands of dead sea bass he would be helping to dispose of minutes later.

In the week before, high levels of algae, or plankton, had sucked the region’s seawater of oxygen, killing fishes from numerous coastal farms.

Mr Choong, and his team, who normally carries out fish farm inspections and surveillance had been called back to work to help overwhelmed farmers clear dead fish.

Lending a Hand

The AVA had sounded its first plankton bloom alert on January 30, and again on February 16 and 17, before plankton levels became deadly on the 19th. This was the second straight year that plankton had caused mass fish deaths in the region. (See sidebox: Coloured Warnings)

Some farmers, who had learnt from the last plankton bloom in 2014, activated their contingency plans at the first warning. They herded their most important breeding stock into makeshift canvas enclosures that were infused with extra oxygen and water treatment systems. This isolated the fish from the plankton, saving most of them.

Save Our Stock
A fish farmer and Mr Ong look out for any abnormal behaviour in the fish as the workers herd them into a canvas containment system that is infused with oxygen and has a water filtration system.

As the plankton levels climbed, another team of AVA officers, led by Senior Scientist Vincent Ong, was dispatched to help more farmers with their temporary water containment system set-ups.

Farmers who did not have such contingency plans lost a total of $1 million in earnings. Those farmers also had hundreds of tonnes of dead fishes to remove before they could resume normal operations.

To help farmers, the AVA hired additional cleaning contractors on top of vessel waste cleaners. AVA officers also chipped in to bag dead fishes for disposal on the mainland.

The stench was so overpowering that some of the cleaners vomited, recounted Mr Choong who, after numerous disposals, had developed a stronger stomach.

For 10 days, his team spent nine hours at sea daily, helping in the clean-up. When it ended, “a few of us threw away our shoes as the smell couldn’t be washed away,” he said.

Save Our Stock
Left: Mr Choong assists a farmer in packing a sample of mussels for food safety testing. Right: The sample is sent to the AVA's Toxins Lab for testing. As mussels are filter feeders, they pick up contaminants in the water and are good bio-indicators of environmental pollution.

Searching for toxins

While Mr Ong, Mr Choong and their teams were at the coastal fish farms, a third team was working round the clock at the AVA’s Toxins Lab in Lim Chu Kang.

They were running tests to screen the 400 fish and mussel samples gathered by Mr Choong’s team for biotoxins. The lab scientists had to work fast to get quick results. At the same time, they had to continue their routine testing of other food products.

This year’s plankton bloom, which lasted from late January to mid-April, did not reach the same deadly levels as previous years. There was no reported mortality from the fish farms. However, this made the lab’s testing of the fish and mussel samples even more critical because the surviving fishes would be sold and needed to be fit for consumption, explained Principal Scientist Joachim Chua, who heads the lab. A total of 265 fish and mussel samples were tested during this period and no harmful biotoxin was detected.

Save Our Stock
Left: Principal scientist Joachim Chua heads the Toxins Lab, which conducts food safety tests whenever a plankton bloom occurs. Right: Samples of clams, mussels and fish will be processed before lab scientists can test them for biotoxins.

Despite that, Mr Choong’s team went on to step up its biotoxin surveillance by collecting samples from different farming zones for the lab. They did this intensively for a month to ensure that the fish from farms were safe for consumption.

Once again, the lab clocked long hours to test samples swiftly. Mr Chua also had to rope in three lab scientists from another department to bolster his team of five.

Preparing for future shocks

As oceans grow warmer globally, plankton blooms are set to become a yearly occurrence. The only defence for coastal farmers is to practise resilient farming.

That’s where Mr Ong’s team comes in. When there is no plankton emergency, their day-to-day work is to help farmers become more productive, which includes finding ways and applying technology to protect fish stock from adverse water conditions.

So when the team makes their frequent visits to fish farms, they “sell” the need to develop Farm Contingency Plans (FCPs) urgently and to invest in shock-resistant, closed containment aquaculture systems.

Coloured Warnings

The AVA’s colour-coded SMS alert system warns farmers of elevated plankton levels. Yellow indicates elevated plankton levels with no mortality of farmed fish; orange means there’s been some mortality while red signals widespread fish mortality. This year, the AVA issued three yellow alerts in January and March that triggered farmers to roll out measures to safeguard their fish stocks.

In 2015, the AVA introduced a one-time assistance package to help affected farmers pay for 70% of the cost to restock fish fry. The condition was that farms had to have viable FCPs for the future.

They also teamed up with Temasek Polytechnic to train farmers on developing FCPs. Additional workshops reinforced knowledge on containment strategies, and highlighted the funds that could help them defray costs.

Save Our Stock
Left: The farmers herd their fish stock into a canvas containment system. Right: Mr Ong pitches in to help a farmer set up the oxygen system for their contingency plan.

“I talk to the farmers in Hokkien: ‘Boss, can you tahan the fish deaths or not? Boss, would you rather spend $2,000 [on FCPs] or lose $5,000 worth of fish stock?’” shared Mr Ong.

He quips that he connects well with the farmers as he was once a Hokkien peng (“soldier”) who signed on with the Navy after failing his O-Levels twice. He was in his late-20s when he went to Tasmania, Australia, to study aquaculture.

He continued: “We have a 24/7 hotline. The farmers can call us like [fish farm] Ah Hua Kelong did. They said, ‘Eh, Vincent, I don’t really understand how to draft this farm contingency plan. Can I visit you someday?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure, why not?’”

Mr Ong’s affability led a farmer to remark on Facebook that he was “one of the handful that sincerely [spends] his time to help farmers and offer constructive feedback and solutions... Best of all, he can [speak] Hokkien which the older farmers can understand better.”

Some farmers think, ‘AVA officers only want to penalise me.’ I really want to change that perception.

While Mr Ong is the “good cop” who persuades farmers about their FCPs, his colleague Mr Choong plays the “bad cop” who inspects the fish farms for structural safety and brings back samples for food safety tests. Understandably, he gets a cooler reception from farmers.

Nevertheless, Mr Choong — who was once a shrimp farmer himself, in Malaysia — listens to the farmers who care to share their woes with him. He also gives them advice on how they could improve their farms to deliver safer seafood while helping Mr Ong’s team to “sell” the idea of FCPs.

“I met an elderly farmer who shared, with tears, that his fish stock had been wiped out ... currently we’re working with him to develop a contingency plan for his farm,” he said. “Some farmers think, ‘AVA officers only want to penalise me, better you don’t come down.’ I really want to change that perception. We’re not here to find fault, but to help.”

For the AVA officers, it’s no question that they’ll be ready to help when the next plankton bloom hits. They only hope that their ongoing efforts can prepare farmers for the next onslaught. With just 33 out of 117 coastal fish farms currently armed with FCPs, the AVA officers certainly have their work cut out for them.

Rehearsing For Crisis

The AVA conducted its first plankton bloom “table-top exercise” to test its crisis management framework and operational readiness in November 2015. Some farms participated in the exercise and were assessed on their readiness to re-deploy their FCPs according to the AVA’s colour-coded alert system.

    Sep 1, 2016
    Bridgette See
    Allan Tan, RAMP Pictures
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