Leading exporters and breeders of the tra fish (pangasius) in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta are taking extreme care to conform to globally accepted health and hygiene standards, a Viet Nam News investigation has found.
Visits to several ponds and factories in Dong Thap and An Giang – two delta provinces that have the largest and most intensive tra fish farming areas – showed that farmers were complying strictly with the Global GAP or SQF 1000 standards.
The Global GAP (Good Agriculture Practices) standard requires seafood products to be produced in a manner that reduces detrimental environmental impacts including the use of chemicals. It also ensures a responsible approach to worker health, safety and welfare.
The SQF 1000 (Safe Quality Food) standard, meanwhile, requires clean ponds, the fish fry to be free of antibiotics, and the fish feed to be hygienic and free of banned antibiotics. It also requires that the fish has been cared for with strict disease protection measures and that details of all farming processes are recorded and maintained.
In Dong Thap Province, nine out of 11 companies that have the capacity to produce seafood for export have either filed applications to acquire the Global GAP certification or have been awarded the certification by Bureau Veritas.
Four of them received the Global GAP certification for their production process products this year, and the remaining five will complete filing their applications early in 2011.
“If the companies are in the process of filing their applications, it means that they have already started raising fish in compliance with the standard,” said Trinh Thi Be Ba, deputy head of the Aquaculture Division under the Dong Thap Department of Fisheries.
The nine companies have their own farming areas, and the total area devoted to raising under Global GAP standards is 308.4 hectares.
Besides, these companies also have co-operated with local farmers by providing them with quality fry, better breeding techniques and harvesting practices, according to Ba.
Breeding tra fish according to Global GAP standards has helped the province’s seafood sector produce export products that fetch prices that are 10 to 20 per cent higher, according to Le Hoang Vu, acting director of the Dong Thap Department of Fisheries.
An Giang Province has its own model – the An Giang Pure Pangasius Union (APPU) – to produce tra fish under the SQF 1000 or Global GAP standards. The model has many groups of farmers in the same geographical territory breed the fish for 17 exporters in the province.
Tran Anh Dung, director of the An Giang Department of Fisheries, said four leading export companies have been most successful with this model. They have 155ha of fish farms with an annual capacity of 130,000 tonnes a year, accounting for nearly 50 per cent of total production in the province.
The Vinh Hoan Corporation and Hoang Long Seafood Company, two pioneers in breeding tra fish under Global GAP standards in Dong Thap Province, manage their farms very strictly.
During an unannounced visit by Viet Nam News to one of Vinh Hoan Corporation’s My Xuong farms, the farm managers stopped us at the gate for a five-minute check to ensure we were not carrying any substances that can be harmful to their fish like chemicals or paints.
They also requested a declaration from the guests about their health condition and history over the previous two days on the off chance that the farm could get infected with harmful bacteria from other places.
My Xuong, the 20ha farm on an islet on the Tien River (one of two major branches of the Mekong River) has 13 ponds to breed fish and two wastewater treatment ponds. The location of the ponds in the direction of the river flow facilitates hygienic maintenance.
The farm starts with a large pond followed by two parallel columns of six smaller ponds, and ends with two large horizontally placed ponds that collect wastewater from the 13 breeding ponds for a double-treatment arrangement.
An underground canal runs along the banks along the two columns of parallel ponds, drawing wastewater into the first of the horizontal pond for initial treatment. After this the wastewater goes through further treatment in the second pond before being released into the river.
The farm has six canteens and seven toilets around the farm to serve 42 staff and workers, ensuring no waste gets dumped into the fish ponds. “All solid waste items that we get from farming process is collected and transferred to a professional company contracted to treat waste,” said Ngo Van Quy, the farm’s manager.
At each crossroad of the banks linking the ponds, there were four rubbish bins placed to collect daily waste. “We have also placed bins in the canteens as well as the feed warehouses,” said Ngo Chi Cuong, the farm’s technical supervisor.
“We destroy every potential waste product that can harm the fish’s environment, even removing banana plants from the banks and planting papayas farther from the water’s edge that workers can benefit from.”
At the 48ha farm of Hoang Long Seafood Company in the province’s Tam Nong District, the company has allotted 20 per cent of the area for wastewater treatment. The farm has 30 breeding ponds located in a square format and a U-shape treatment canal covering the raising ponds. It also has a reserve canal for storing fresh water to feed the ponds through a system of pumps and concrete canals.
In An Giang, Vi?t Nam News also visited Nguy?n Minh Nh?’s 200ha farm with its man-made canal running along two columns of breeding ponds to draw wastewater for treatment. Nhi, former chairman of the province People’s Committee, is highly regarded by residents as a pioneer in setting up tra fish nurseries for breeding fry, instead of using wild fry from Cambodia, as was previously done.
Water, fish feed
The My Xuong farm in Dong Thap takes water for the ponds directly from the Tien River through tiny dams. The farm is entirely based on the river islet and it has tiny dams to take water from either sides.
“We take water when water levels on the river are high because of tidal pressure. Then we get the best quality of water for tra fish that doesn’t require any treatment,” said Cuong, the farm’s technician.
Be Ba of the Department of Fisheries confirmed this. “We have tested and found the water is good to raise fish without any treatment.”
Nhi’s farm in An Giang Province adopts a similar method, because it is also built on another islet on the Tien River.
According to the fisheries departments of both provinces, the islets were always unused, with no agricultural cultivation done on them.
In contrast, the farm belonging to the Hoang Long Seafood Company is built on a plot on the banks of a tributary to the Tien River. Here they treat water in the reserve canal with calcium carbonate and by planting water orchids (Eichhornia crassipes Solms).
None of the farms use wild fish or agricultural waste to feed the tra fish, according to the fisheries departments. In fact, many big companies in tra fish farming in Dong Thap and An Giang have their own feed production factories.
“Feed produced by the company meets all requirements set by the former Ministry of Fisheries; and the companies have the capacity to supply feed for other kinds of fish as well,” said Be Ba.
“Feeding the tra fish with wild fish was the method used in farms that raised tra fish in bamboo cages floating on the Tien River,” said Nhi who spared no effort to promote tra fish farming as the People’s Committee Chairman from 1991 to 2004. “But breeding fish in cages has reduced over the years because it yields low quality fish,” he said.
As in Dong Thap, the An Giang People’s Committee had also zoned areas for tra fish breeding farms, which led to a reduction in cage farming, Nhi added.
Treating sick fish
In case any of the ponds had fish with any disease, it would not be harvested, said Quy, manager of the My Xuong farm.
But for prevention purposes, antibiotics that are permitted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development would be used, Be Ba said. She said that each one of 11 districts in the province had aquaculture extension centres whose experts could act quickly to help farmers with any problem.
Planting water orchids is an effective wastewater treatment method, experts have found. “In case there are suspended substances in the water, calcium carbonate will be used,” said Trinh Thi Lan, a lecturer in environmental management for aquaculture at An Giang University. The calcium carbonate drags the substances to the bottom of the pond, and the mud is dredged after the surface water has been released into the river.
“Many studies have proved that the water orchid has the capacity to improve water quality from ponds and water treated thus can be released without causing harm to the environment,” Lan said.
A profusion of water orchids can be found in the farm run by the Vinh Hoan Corporation. Locals says that it also serves another purpose. The plant is used to produce handicraft products that are exported to Japan. — VNS