When local marine fish farming company Aquagrow Corporation Sdn Bhd was setting up in 2008, it received only one Malaysian applicant to join the company.
In Malaysia, fish farming is still perceived as a small-scale rural activity, says its CEO Mohd Razali Mohamed.
“What many don’t realise is that aquaculture (fish farming) is now a RM380bil global industry with some 160 million tonnes of fish being traded all over the world each year. Fish production is already the biggest food production sector in the world – bigger even than chicken, beef, dairy or pork. And the pay is fantastic and is on par with other industries,” he says.
Crucially, aquaculture is becoming increasingly high tech, requiring extensive research and development to spur its growth, and experts in related specialisations from marine biologists to feed specialists, geneticists and food technologists.
Seeing the potential in the field, Mohd Razali decided to turn his “side project” – a fish farm in Adelaide, Australia – into a fulltime career.
Mohd Razali decided to walk away from his high tech career in Geographical Information System and Remote Sensing to pursue aquaculture fulltime.
“I entered the aquaculture industry at 36 years old. Initially, it was just for diversification of business portfolio. After five years, I gave up everything else and concentrated on fish farming, having seen how big the industry is.”
Along with his business partners, Mohd Razali decided to test the waters here.
“We had a bit of a culture shock! Compared to when we were in Australia, we got so much support from the government here and there were even funds available through various grants.”
Through BiotechCorp, Aquagrow received the BioNexus Status, which gave them various incentives and guarantees to develop their aquaculture enterprise.
“With BioNexus, we got help at all stages of our development, even with petty issues,” says Mohd Razali, describing BiotechCorp as a “nurturing” agency.
After studying the market, they decided to focus on Tiger Grouper, Giant Grouper, Barramundi and Red Snapper.
They started with a farm in Langkawi and another in Tok Bali, Kelantan. To reap optimum “catch”, they invested in research and development (R&D) at their facilities and hatcheries, says Mohd Razali.
“The biggest problem in fish farming is the high mortality (about 50% for Barramundi and Snapper, and 70% for Grouper) due to viruses, diseases, parasites and bacteria. We apply aquaculture biotechnology in fish farming at all three stages of our operations – from hatchery, nursery to grow-out – to reduce the mortality and to increase profitability.”
Through aquaculture technology, they are working to develop a long term Broodstock Enhancement Programme using a DNA-marker assisted family selection method to reverse the declining quality of their broodstock and a commercial scale Copepod production for first feeding in all their hatcheries.
Another initiative is to develop high-density poly ethylene (HDPE) materials to make sea cages to allow them to keep their brood in deeper and higher quality waters.
According to Mohd Razali, the more common wooden cages restrict the fish farmers only to shallow, near shore and sheltered areas which have lower quality sea water. “HDPE cages are also designed to withstand monsoons,” he adds.
Previously, they would have to import HDPE cages which are usually too expensive. “We are designing our own cages with assistance from a Danish aquaculture engineering company. We ordered the fabrication equipment from Europe and will start to fabricate the HDPE cages in Tok Bali soon, at a lower cost than the fully imported models.”
It helps that they are given exemption for import duty as a BioNexus company, says Mohd Razali.