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Pangasius : Agriculture’s New Rising Star

Called mekong kanduli and kanduhito in Filipino, the rising demand in the international market for this family of catfish has started to create ripples in the local agricultural world.

It started rather innocently. Early this year, top managers of Vitarich Corporation went to Vietnam and came across thisfreshwater fish called by many names: Siamese shark, sutchi catfish, swai, white or striped catfish. Scientifically called Pangasius hypopthalamus, these slender, elongated silverish to bluish-bodied fishes that can grow at 4ft in length and can weigh up to a maximum of 44 kg have been making waves in Vietnam because they are processed into fillets and are exported to Russia, Poland, Spain, USA, Netherlands, China, etc.

Marketing and sales expert Jose de Leon Angeles, Vitarich’s national marketing manager, who was with the team that went to Vietnam, was one of those who saw the potential of pangasius being cultured and grown in the Philippines on a commercial scale. “When we started to ask around, we found that there were already small breeders of pangasius here but they were not doing this on a commercial scale,” Angeles said. “They are bred only in aquariums because they are still considered as ornamental fishes.”

Seeing the growing market potential for pangasius, Vitarich soon found business partners in two aquaculture companies-Blue Bay Aqua Ventures, Inc. and Aqua Trends, Inc. both of which have the expertise to breed and market the pangasius fingerlings. “And since Vitarich has the technology on feeds to grow the fishes, the partnership was solidified and we’re working on this project to propagate pangasius.” Angeles disclosed.

Some local fishermen, though do not share the same level of excitement as Angeles and his partners do. “There’s this degree of hesitation among them and it’s understandable,” the agricultural sales and marketing veteran declares. “They are still afraid because there is no clear market. They would invest money but are doubtful if there are buyers out there. So we said there ought to be one final program of the project and that is to sort of give our farmer-fishermen insurance-and that’s a buy back. We thought of a risk sharing thing. They have to pay for the inputs, but they are assured of the buyers and that is us.”

And why would farmer/fishermen go into pangasius farming when there’s the growing local tilapia and bangus market that could always be tapped? Angeles has this answer: “Number one, the common concern in aquaculture today, especially if you’re involved in tilapia and bangus farming, is that they are not as durable or as hardy as pangasius. Bangus and tilapia cannot survive without oxygen. Pangasius can survive at an oxygen level of 0.01-that’s almost no oxygen at all!

Therefore, pangasisus can be spared from calamities such as fish kill and pollution because they have the capability to breathe in the surface.

“Number two, the number of species that you can stock on a per cubic meter of water space is thrice or more than tilapia and bangus. If you are growing pangasius in cages, a 30 to 50 cubic meter of space is going to be easy because fishermen in Vietnam are growing them at several times more and they still survive. If you can stock more fish per square cubic meter, the tonnage of the harvestable fish is going to be more and you can multiply it by the kilo and the price per kilo.

Number three. Vitarich is willing to buy your grown pangasius fish. We’re really developing the process of where to sell the fish just to prove the point that it can be sold and that it’s going to be feasible.”

Today, a two-centimeter pangasius fingerling is sold at 2.50 centavos each-that is, if someone is located within the Central Luzon area (price delivered). In other areas, breeders require a minimum volume of 50,000 fingerlings. Common sources come from Munoz, Nueva Ecija, Jala-Jala, Rizal and Apalit Pampanga. According to Angeles, a fisherman who is seriously pondering on going into pangasius farming should be able to spend around Php38 to Php40 on a fish kilo basis. “If we can buy it at probably a dollar, they can make money already. It’s not going to be something that they will lose their shirt in the process,” he quipped.

Growing pangasius, Angeles said, is far more easy than growing tilapia and bangus. This freshwater fish can be cultured in fishponds, concrete fish tanks, fish cages and fish pens. For earthen ponds, experts recommend around 1,600 sq. m or at least 400 sqm. Suitable depth is about 1.5 to two meters. The fingerlings to be put in the pond must be based upon the fish’s healthiness (without wounds, abnormalities and no diseases) and should be approximately of the same size to avoid fighting for food. The stocking rate should be about 10-15 fish per sq.m. Food for feeding are pellets, trash fish (to include water plants and small animals such as in sects and worms). Given the proper feeding and management, pangasius can grow to one to 1.5 kilos in five to six months time. Some very important things to remember in pangsius production are the following: traceability of the production (from processing plant to hatchery and feedmill) and environment (site selection and production practices and sanitation). Farmers/fishermen should avoid using insecticides, antibiotics, waste water and leftover food discharge to pond, illegal chemicals, etc. Pangasius fish growing is now seen as an alternative to raising tilapia and bangus.

Meanwhile, as the growing number of fishermen are trying to raise this new agricultural rising star, the processed pangasius fillets are now sold at around Php220-Php270 per kilo. Angeles said the taste and texture of the fillet is very apt for a lot of recipes and menus and is also suited for the discriminating Pinoy palate. “This could make for a yummy sinigang. Remember that in the fillet process, the head and the belly are left out so these could be made into sinigang sa miso. The fish can also be fried and grilled. The skin can be made into chicharon. Some said the pangasius’ belly has a similarity to the taste of salmon-rich creamy. Others say that the belly fat can be very good for sardines.”

Indeed, pangasius’ possibilities, according to Angeles, are endless: “Would you believe that in Vietnam, the oil from the fish is being used for biodiesel? There are no trashy parts here because even those that you think could be thrown out could be converted into fishmeal. What really excites us is that the government and the private sector are also with us in helping promote this fish. Through the intercession of BFAR’s Malcolm Sarmiento, Jr., Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap and FRLD’s Angelito Sarmiento, we are officially launching this in Floridablanca, Pampanga. We all believe in the battle-cry of the Arroyo government to provide fish and rice for every Filipino table. So I’m urging our Pinoy farmers/ fishermen to raise pangasius. Somebody said if coconut is known as the “tree of life,” we might as well call pangasius as the “fish of life.” I believe it to be so.”