Science - April 1, 2010

Fish farming: Is the pangasius spoiling the market?

The Dutch fish-farming and fishery sector is experiencing tough competition from pangasius fillets imported from Vietnam. It is claimed that animal welfare and sustainability are at risk in the cultivation of this catfish species. There are also regular reports that this fish contains high levels of polluting compounds. Consequently, the Dutch fish sector feels that cheap Vietnamese fish are creating unfair competition. Is this really the case or not?

Pangasius hypophthalmus
Arie van Duijn, a researcher at LEI, co-author of the report entitled Reasons for the decline in fish farming in the Netherlands, which appeared last week
'In every discussion with the Dutch fish farmers they say that they see imports of cheap farmed fish like the pangasius from Asia as a major problem. People buy pangasius because it's cheap and has a neutral flavour. That makes it easy to use in different recipes. However, the main problem is that it is difficult to distinguish between Dutch farmed fish and the cheaper Asian imports. The impression is given that the cheap foreign fish is fresh although it has actually been frozen. The more expensive Dutch fish is fresh. You should be able to compete fairly; it should be made clear to consumers that the cheap pangasius is a defrosted product. Only then will the Dutch be able to stand out with their truly fresh products.'
'Cultivated eel is slowly disappearing from supermarket shelves, whereas that was a fish with an excellent market position. But that in turn offers opportunities for catfish farmers. They can take advantage of this development by producing smoked catfish as an alternative to eel. For you will never be able to compete with the imported Asian fish on price.
Fish farmers have to market their products differently and make sure they stand out through high quality and sustainable production. However, there is not enough market focus in the sector. It doesn't matter how fantastic your product is, consumers still have to buy it. Collaboration between fish farmers also leaves a lot to be desired. This means they are at the mercy of the market. On the other hand, we have been seeing a shift the last while to a more market-oriented approach.'

Clarissa Buma, spokeswoman for the World Wildlife Funds
'We understand that the fishery sector is concerned, but it's a free market. It is true that there is a lot of room for improvement in the cultivation of pangasius in Vietnam. It isn't shown as a second-choice fish - orange - in the fish guide for nothing. The cultivation has a negative impact on the environment, and the location of the fish farms can sometimes be a problem. Used antibiotics and fish excrement pollute the river water. The WWF does not oppose fish farming but we do want to reduce its negative effects. Both farmed fish and wild fish are important food sources and they can coexist as long as they are both sustainable. One of the solutions we are putting considerable effort into is certification for farmed fish. Following on from the MSC label for wild fish, we are now working hard on an ASC label for farmed fish. Small-scale fish farms in Asia could form cooperatives and apply jointly for this label.' 

Simon Bush, a lecturer in the Environmental Policy Group
'The import of cheap fish from Vietnam is not unfair competition. It's a global market in which you are free to sell your product as cheaply as you can. The Dutch aquaculture sector was not hugely successful even before the arrival of the pangasius. There is a lot of price competition within Vietnam as well. That has led to nearly half the fish farmers going bankrupt; only the larger fish farms were able to survive. The negative effects on the environment are relatively limited as the pangasius are farmed in paddy fields in the interior. There are, however, localized problems with water quality due to the discharge of the aquaculture water.'
'Reports regularly appear in various newspapers talking about problems due to contamination by PCBs and pesticides. The industry does have one or two problems when it comes to food safety but that doesn't mean that all the fish is contaminated with chemicals or antibiotics. It is more a question of protectionism than health. In any case, the food safety of pangasius is not a problem in Europe because there are strict checks, both in the EU and in Vietnam, to guarantee food safety. There were more incidents with polluted farmed prawns and salmon in the past year in the EU than with pangasius. Dutch fish can indeed compete on quality. Both the Dutch wild fish and Dutch farmed fish are of a higher quality, but that is inevitably reflected in the price.'

Johan Verreth, professor of Aquaculture
'The Dutch fish farmers find it difficult to compete, but then it is a global market. So whose problem is it? The farmers whose production is too expensive or those whose production is too cheap? Of course, legislation in Vietnam is not as strict as in the Netherlands. They don't pay for discharges there, but there will always be differences between countries. It is actually the small-scale Vietnamese farmers who are suffering in particular. They are being squeezed pretty hard by our purchasers. At the moment there is a glut in the market. It is unfortunate that it is precisely eel fishing, the best-performing sector in the Netherlands, which is under so much pressure now because of declining eel populations.'
'A report was published in mid January by the food technologist IJsbrand Velzenboer.  He took water and soil samples in an unscientific way at various locations in Vietnam in and around pangasius cultivation and processing sites. Those samples contained all sorts of pollutants, but in principle that doesn't tell you anything as they are ad hoc observations.  It does show, however, that there are also people in Vietnam in the pangasius sector who don't always stick to the rules. That is reason enough to be on our guard. Even so, I am prepared to bet that all the pangasius fillets imported into the Netherlands are perfectly safe.'Having said that, there is plenty of reason to be concerned about the sustainability of the cultivation, and that concern is shared by the Vietnamese government. There is still plenty of room for improvement in this area. That is a point for attention and research programmes to deal with this have been initiated with support from the Dutch and Vietnamese governments. Improvements must be made in the areas of waste emissions and the use of antibiotics. There is also considerable loss of life among the farmed fish. That is obviously a cost factor but it is also a welfare problem. I think you can solve this problem by improving water quality. Eventually, we want to introduce certification for pangasius farming. We are working hard on arranging that and are now in the final completion stage of an ASC certification scheme.'