Fish farming in Singapore

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Jeremy Gay went to Singapore to visit a fish show, but he couldn't resist visiting some tropical fish farms while he was there.

Have you ever wanted to just dig a big pond in your back garden and fill it with tropicals? Well, due to the climate in Singapore, you can do just that, and when they found out how prolifically tropical fish were breeding in such ponds, Singapore soon became the largest exporter of tropical fish in the world.

And because of the amount of fish that they breed and export, many of them travel as far as this country. In fact, if you have a mixed tropical community tank, it is highly likely that some of the fish either originated in or travelled through Singapore. It isn’t just community fish either. Come to think of it, if it swims, the Singapore companies will either be selling it, breeding it or trying to breed it – and that goes for coldwater fish and marines too.

I was told that it all started with species such as gouramis that thrived in the warm, green, still water of the ponds. Anabantoids produce large numbers of fry and the green water was perfect for providing the fry with their first foods. All you need to do is drag a net through the pond every few months, and several pairs of fish will have become several thousand fish. Combine cheap, easy-to-breed species with the polythene bag, better packing methods and airfreight, and you soon have a thriving tropical fish business.

We were lucky enough to spend two days visiting farms – one day on an official fish farm tour and one day being expertly guided by Singaporean fishkeeper and PFK reader Benny Ng.

Both tours were very enlightening and very different. The official tour was with over 100 other people from outside of Singapore and we were bussed to several chosen farms and locations.

Benny’s tour consisted much more of quality insider information and, of course, he could speak the local language (Mandarin) and find out the answers to all our questions.

Benny’s fish farm tour

On the way to our first destination, Benny asked us what the words "fish farm" meant to us in Britain because in Singapore, it is a much broader term that encapsulates everything from small retail units to wholesalers, breeders and large international consolidators.

He said that even a small shop in an industrial complex will call itself a farm and sell to anyone, retail or wholesale, at the same price. We visited some of these on the way and they tended to consist of four or five units next to each other on a trading estate, all selling everything from cichlids to Koi, to community fish and dry goods.

Parrots and flowerhorns filled many tanks along with some of the smallest Angelfish I have ever seen. These babies, smaller than a five pence piece, cost just pennies to buy.

Next we visited Tropical Fish International PTE (pictured above). This was the type of fish farm that we had always imagined, comprising a large fish consolidation business at the back with hundreds of rectangular, concrete and fibreglass vats.

All the vats had large Cordylines growing from polystyrene floats (above). These acted as vegetable filters while the fish sat waiting to be sent out.

There were also huge bags full of Indian almond leaves. These leaves are a must-have for most Betta breeders as they purportedly improve water conditions, thicken skin and heal fins, but they are also used to calm fish while in transport. I bought some recently in the UK for £2. In Singapore, the trees grow wild and they blow around on the ground like our autumnal leaves.

Benny explained that this type of farm buys in fish from other people and sends them all over the world. This is also the type of farm that UK aquatic shops would be familiar with, as they send an availability list to the shops by fax, collate orders and ship them the following week.

This farm didn’t do any fish breeding or rearing that we could see, and the vats were holding vats that received fish from breeders before being packed and sent out.

Costs are kept down by the farm receiving an order, phoning it through to the breeder and then getting it in. It also means a more diverse list for the retailer. But like the small farms, it also sold wholesale and retail to Singaporeans – fish and dry goods.

A building at the front ran as a shop and we got a good idea of the type of fish that they sold the most of. Polypterus, Parrot cichlids, gars, dyed Corydoras and even dyed Convicts. Balloon Victorian cichlids took the biscuit. There was a tank of small Tiger shovelnose for sale at just S$3/£1 each! With prices that low, you can see where the big fish problem stems from.

We moved on to Quin-Hu, probably the most famous farm in Singapore and one that is very public-relations driven. It is always open to the public and put on an awesome display of fish from its list including Salminus, Brycon, Aba Aba, Esox spp. and Peacock bass. Less attractive were the hideously deformed Alligator gars contorted into all sorts of shapes. Misshapen fish are seen as unique – even lucky – by the Chinese.

Plant farms

A treat for any green-fingered fishkeeper is a trip to one of the many plant farms. Again, due to the hot, humid, sunny conditions, tropical plants thrive on this island and most species are grown immerse, with their leaves completely out of the water.

The advantages to the farmer are abundant, and we stood and gazed upon a field divided into Amazon swords (above) Cryptocoryne, Hygrophilla, red Alternathera and lots more. They were growing in raised beds of quartz sand with hoses draped everywhere keeping them wet.

There were also lots of non-aquatic plants being grown for the aquatic plant market. Dracaena, Acorus and cuttings of Selaginella wildenowii, a plant cut from terrestrial forests in Malaysia.

There is so much sun in Singapore that Anubias, Microsorium, Vesicularia and Bolbitis are grown in the shade.

The owner showed us a shaded enclosure where he grew plants on wood and rock. He pulled out some 70-90 cm/28”-36” monsters covered in Anubias, which I told him would sell for about £100 in the UK. He nearly fell over and said something about S$20 (£7) – but he sells to consolidator farms, who then sell to wholesalers and finally to the retailer: someone is getting fat along the way!

The plants in the enclosure were watered, on a timer, by a fine mist.

Benny pointed out some fashionable carpeting plants like Glossostigma, Echinodoras tennelus, Lileaopsis brasiliensis and the then relatively new Hemianthus cuba. It was also growing immerse like the other plants, and Benny said that anyone who wants a carpet in the tank of say 120 x 60 cm/4’ x 2’ can simply turn up at the farm, get a carpet cut to size, roll it up like turf and take it home for an instant aquascape! (Hobbyfish in the UK grow immerse vats of Glosso.)

Interestingly, the farmer said that due to the high price of land in Singapore, he and his family had plant farms in Malaysia and China. So even if you order plants from Singapore, that may not always be where they come from. All plants are refrigerated before shipping.

The official farm tour

We signed up for this visit through the Aquarama show before we left the UK. It worked out at about £40 per person and although we had our doubts as to whether a chaperoned farm tour would give us the kind of juicy stuff we wanted, we went ahead – and were not disappointed.

The first stop was at Hup Soon Aquarium, billed as a Platy and Swordtail farm, but it also had lots of Mollies, Guppies and community fish. There we got to see a guy sorting fish into batches of size and variety for shipping, which he did with a tiny pan net.

Outside were some huge ponds that were criss-crossed with timber framing and netting. One was empty and we got to see how the timber divided the pond up into about 100 individual ponds that were then lined by box netting. The netting kept the varieties separate, but allowed water flow through, and the whole thing was then covered by one large net to stop predatory birds.

We saw hundreds of Platies in each net, swimming around in the muddy water. They looked like grow-on ponds as most of the fish were about the size that we see in the UK. There were some adults in large rectangular concrete vats, and the edges of those vats were covered in bright pink Apple snail eggs.

At virtually every farm, at least one pond was given over to Arowana breeding, and this one was no exception. A large rectangular pond at least 10 m/33’ long was home to some South American Silver arowana. Seeing these 90 cm/3’+ fish gliding around at the surface in metres of open space was an awesome sight. These fish are made for gliding.

Max Koi Farm

As the name suggests, this farm specialises in Koi and it was the largest and most professional-looking farm that we visited. It is also the one that stood out most in my memory, but not for the Koi...

The farm was neatly laid out on a flat piece of land, divided into several large lakes and lots of large, concrete vats. A landscaped pond displayed some very high-quality Koi that looked stunning, and a nearby building showed off rows of trophies that the Koi had won.

We walked past pond after pond of large, well-patterned Koi swimming in clean, well-filtered surroundings, but when we got near to the end of the row, one of the ponds stopped me in my tracks. I looked down into a 20’ x 15’ x 10’ pond and saw Altum Angelfish: hundreds of them. They were about 5’ down in the water and when startled, flitted across the pond at speed, a sight I’d never seen before from Angels. And they were massive – 30 cm/12” tall including fins.

A guy who worked there said they had put 600 in to grow on and breed, but so far none had bred. I suggested that he should catch one to let me look at it – but he didn’t.

Sadly, laterally compressed fish photographed 5' under in sun-lit, rippling water don’t reproduce that well. Just believe me when I say that they were the best Angels I have ever seen – ever!

And when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I looked over into the opposite pond and jumped.

A few people had got there before me and started to gather in one of the corners. As I looked over the edge, I was confronted by several large, dark shapes that had such size and girth that I thought they were manatees. I leaned over further then quickly leaned back again as my thought processes struggled to evaluate what was before me. They were Arapaima gigas, the largest freshwater fish in the world, and six of them were looking up at me.

We stood and watched as the still-juvenile 1.8 m/6’ long Arapaima stacked up, greedily lunging for pellets that were dropped into the water. We took very little notice of the other fish that resided with the six Arapaima, but they were impressive in their own right and included two 90 cm/3’ Albino grass carp, four 90 cm/3’ Pangasius, two 90 cm/3’ Silver arowana, one Giant gourami, one Pacu, one 120 cm/4’ Tiger shovelnose and two 90 cm/3’ Red tail catfish.

It is only when you see them in the flesh that you realise how colourful Arapaima are around their tails. The sunlight revealed rows of red iridescent scales on their flanks that stood out against the matt black of their backs. So I have seen the world’s largest freshwater fish, not in the Amazon, but Singapore!

Chasing the dragon

OTF Aquarium Farm specialises in dragonfish, but for some of our party, they had seen a few dragonfish too many and stayed on the bus for a siesta. They missed out in a major way because the OTF team had timed our visit with the hand-stripping of several top-class mouthbrooding arowana (see picture at the top of the page).

A large crowd gathered on the edge of the lake as the seine net drew ever smaller. It took six men, some of them in the water, to bring the fish close enough for handling.

As one was selected, its microchip was read and recorded before the most senior team member picked up the fish and held it tight against his chest. Wearing a wet, woollen glove, he pulled down the jaw and about 20 youngsters tumbled out, complete with bright orange egg sacks attached.

Our cameraman’s Canon clicked repeatedly as he captured every unique step. After hand-stripping several more fish, the very valuable youngsters were taken away. These tiny fish were already worth several hundred pounds – but they weren’t for sale at that size.

Swift Marine

This farm was quite a contrast to the previous ones as it was mostly marine, with only about 10% being freshwater fish from South America.

It was more of an importer/consolidator and carried an impressive 1000 species in 650 tanks, exporting 5000 boxes of fish a month. From memory, I used to import about 20 boxes a month, so in terms of livestock turnover, it is a big concern.

The invert section was large (they had 28 tanks dedicated to anemones), but we did see some ropey-looking ones and it wasn’t in the same league as TMC in the UK. Like everyone else in Singapore, this company also sells direct to the public.

Something we did like was the marine fish being grouped by region. You could choose from Red Sea, Caribbean, Hawaii, Australia, Pacific and Indian Ocean. They buy in lorry loads of seawater for water changes.

Other farms

It isn’t just fish that fill the farms in Singapore. There are substantial Orchid farms, puppy farms (for the pet trade) and frog farms that supply frogs for the ornamental trade, for human consumption and as food for Asian arowana.

A bag of live frogs can be bought from aquatic shops like we would buy live bloodworm.

Many arowana keepers swear by feeding live frogs and large centipedes to their fish, to keep them in tip-top condition.

This is an item from the Practical Fishkeeping archives. It may not be reproduced without written permission.