Breeding tuna in PHL: Is it doable?

In Photo: Atlantic bluefin tuna in cages at Instituto Españo de Ocenografia, or Spanish Institute of Oceanoghaphy, in Spain. The Philippines, however, trades mostly yellowfin tuna (de la Gandara, 2014).

After successfully breeding bangus (milkfish) and tilapia, and at some extent, grouper or more commonly known as lapu-lapu, Department of Agriculture officials are now floating the idea of breeding tuna.

Is it doable?

Best Alternatives Campaign, an environmental communications think tank, believes it is so. It views breeding tuna as the best alternative to the global problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated illegal fishing, particularly of the commercially viable tuna.

Jonah van Beijnen, cofounder of Fins and Leaves, who endeavored to develop and successfully market one of the Philippines’s first grouper hatcheries 10 years ago believes that sustainable production and consumption of seafood is the key to ensuring a better world for all people.

With tuna being highly migratory, making them agile and meaty, as they travel long distances, would breeding tuna not affect their natural taste and texture?

Beijnen told the BusinessMirror via e-mail and social media that, indeed, tuna swim long distances constantly, which lowers their fat content.

Better-tasting tuna

However, he said, overall a tuna’s price is mainly determined by its fat content, as Japanese customers and sushi lovers prefer, which they say has better taste.

“Tuna grown in cages overall have a higher fat content because they are fed well and don’t swim too far. Another big advantage is that you can harvest the fish and sell them immediately, while most fishing vessels go out for many days, storing fish on board an ice box. Except for sustainable handline-caught tuna, fresh tuna from a fishing boat is sometimes a week old before sold,” he said.

Best Alternatives Campaign founder Gregg Yan believes that, despite lagging behind in terms of technical capacity compared to other countries, sustainable aquaculture and mariculture remains the best alternative for the Philippines, thereby supporting Beijnen’s analysis when he admitted that the Philippines is a bit behind with culturing marine finfish.

Beijnen added: “Species like grouper, snapper and sea bass are already cultured in large quantities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. [The Philippines is somewhat left behind mainly because of local bureaucratic hurdles and a somewhat riskier investment climate].”

He noted, however, the Philippines “has the best marine waters and water quality in Southeast Asia and is in the best position to make this [breeding tuna] work.”

Yan, a Filipino, said any tuna size for harvesting in fish cages is economically viable, because full-cycle mariculture is a means to reduce pressure on wild-capture fisheries.

“Any size. Because eggs are produced, several tuna can quickly grow to several hundred,” Yan said.

Ideal breeding ground

With many islands and surrounding calm and productive waters, the Philippines, which sits at the center of the natural spawning grounds of wild yellowfin tuna, is ideal for breeding tuna.

“Juvenile tuna love these warm and calm waters teeming with food. This might just give the Philippines a big advantage in the future closed-cycle culture of yellowfin tuna,” he explained.

Realizing this potential, even the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) on July 11 issued a statement announcing the plan to collaborate with the Japanese government to start yellowfin tuna-fattening operations in Samar. Juvenile tuna will be gathered there for farming from their spawning grounds in municipal waters.

Beijnen added that cages for tuna are pretty large, but are very similar with cages that are used to farm milkfish or bangus at sea. This means that the Philippines has the resources for putting up tuna cages with available local materials

A lucrative business

According to Beijnen, at this time, it is not easy to peg how much would it cost to start tuna-breeding business but cautioned that hatcheries are not cheap to establish and require a long-term approach.

“This is why we propose that the Philippine and the Japanese governments build a research station together. Successful private companies can start growing tuna after buying captive-bred juveniles from the research center and hatchery,” he said.

He said there should also be a proper guideline that will take into consideration the situation that tuna is already overfished and that the global stock is depleted.

“We have some concerns with the plan of BFAR to catch juvenile tuna for fattening purposes. We believe that the sea is already overexploited. A better alternative would be to focus on producing juvenile tuna from the eggs in captivity,” he said.

Major tuna exporter

A large predatory pelagic fish species, tuna is among the most important species for the Philippine fisheries sector, the country being a major exporter of fresh and processed tuna fish products.

“The most commonly caught species, including skipjack, yellowfin and bigeye tuna, are taken using a variety of gear ranging from purse seine nets to circular handline reels. Tuna provides excellent income for fisherfolk and fishing companies, while generating thousands of jobs in vessels, canneries and other parts of the supply chain,” he said.

According Beijnen, because of their high value in local and international sushi restaurants, many fishers focus on catching yellowfin tuna.

Depleted tuna stock

He noted that the rising number of fishers and large fishing vessels targeting this fish have depleted stocks, putting the livelihoods of Filipino fishers and other tuna-sector workers at risk.

“Besides promoting sustainable systems like handline fisheries, limiting fishing effort and improving enforcement, [the use of] closed cycle aquaculture or breeding tuna can be a best alternative—especially for the Philippines,” he said.

Owing to technical difficulties, most aquaculturists still think producing captive-bred tuna from eggs is impossible. Not anymore. Beijnen said much has changed in recent years.

Fattening operations

He said that, in Europe and Japan, the culture of tuna started many years ago with fattening operations.

Special purse seiners in Europe and Japan target wild juvenile and sub-adult tuna, which are carefully caught and towed back to special fattening farms.

“Upon arrival, these tuna are transferred to large floating cages where they are fattened to attain better marketable sizes and to improve the fat percentage of their meat. Fatter tuna fetch higher prices,” he said.

Feed options

Since pellet feeds for tuna are still under development in Europe, fresh fish like sardines and mackerel are used as feed, he said.

The feed-conversion ratio of fresh fish fed to tuna is not yet very efficient and approximately 15 kilograms to 20 kg of other fish is used to produce 1 kg of tuna.

About 10 years ago, with the number of fattening operations rising and most tuna stocks overfished or fished close to their maximum sustainable yields, a number of governments, nonprofit organizations and other stakeholders expressed their concerns about the sustainability of these farming practices.

This eventually drove the European Union and the Japanese governments to steer their aquaculture sectors away from fattening wild-caught juvenile fish and instead invest in developing technology for the sustainable closed-cycle aquaculture of tuna.

Hatchery projects

According to Beijnen, hatchery projects for Atlantic bluefin tuna are already operating in Spain, Malta, Greece, Croatia, Egypt and Turkey.

“Since 2014 many of these projects have successfully produced small quantities of fingerlings and some harvestable fish. The first tuna products from these efforts are already available in the Netherlands,” he said.

Beijnen added that, in Japan, scientists have been working hard to close the lifecycle of its closely related Pacific bluefin tuna, a species that is also found in the Philippines, especially around the recently protected Philippine Rise, east of Luzon.

“After many years of trial and error, approximately 20 hatchery facilities are now producing Pacific bluefin tuna with an average survival rate estimated from 3 percent to 5 percent,” he said.

In 2016 the hatcheries produced a total number of 500,000 fingerlings.

Commercial viability

The sales from grow-out operations using hatchery-produced Pacific bluefin tuna have lifted off as well, with 900 metric tons of sales in 2016 and over 1000 metric tons of sales in 2017—thereby proving beyond doubt that the closed-cycle aquaculture of bluefin tuna is viable, profitable and an excellent alternative to wild-capture fisheries.

In the meantime, two projects in Panama (South America) and Bali (Indonesia) have been focusing on yellowfin tuna. Both projects have been able to produce plenty of eggs in captivity and some fingerlings.

“Although there are still plenty of challenges in improving the survival of tuna larvae and fingerlings, improving the sustainability of feeds and minimizing the environmental impacts of farming activities, the potential of the sector is clear,” he said.

Image Credits: Best Alternatives Campaign

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Jonathan L. Mayuga

Jonathan L. Mayuga is a journalist for more than 15 years. He is a product of the University of the East – Manila. An awardee of the J. G. Burgos Biotech Journalism Awards, BrightLeaf Agricultural Journalism Awards, Binhi Agricultural Journalism Awards, and Sarihay Environmental Journalism Awards.
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