Greener alternatives for giant grouper

Posted on November, 06 2013

There is a new kid on the block in the grouper farming industry, and this company is setting a new standard in responsible farming techniques. Find out about how the industry has evolved, and where ATA is taking it next.
Grouper has long been one of the most sought-after seafood species in many parts of Asia. Rising demand and a desire to reduce dependence on wild stocks and produce a stable supply have driven a growing aquaculture industry. The commercial culturing of grouper dates back to the mid-70s with Taiwan being one of the first countries to farm grouper at scale.

At that time, the industry relied on the capture of wild-caught seed (i.e., very small juveniles known as fry or fingerlings) for grow-out, but by the early 80s, closed cycle culture (where mature fish, also known as broodstock, spawn in a regulated environment and fertilized eggs are collected and nurtured in a highly controlled condition until hatching, and larvae, fry, and fingerlings are grown-out in closed systems) was successfully achieved for two grouper species: Orange-spotted grouper (Epinephelus coioides); and Malabar grouper (E. malabaricus).

The list of grouper species for which the lifecycle has been closed and which are being farmed at a commercial or semi-commercial scale has grown since then and now includes around a dozen species, mainly from the Epinephelid family.

A commercially-valuable seafood product

Volume wise, most of the grouper species farmed in Southeast Asia are of lower value (e.g., orange-spotted grouper which wholesales for an average price of USD 20 per kilo). However, a few higher priced species including the highfin grouper (Cromileptes altivelis) and giant grouper (E. lanceolatus) are now being farmed commercially (there is evidence of hatchery production of coral trout, one of the highest priced species, which are subsequently sold in wholesale markets in mainland China. However the scale of production remains unknown).

Taiwan has long been the leader in full-cycle culturing of grouper and the sector is now highly segmented with enterprises specializing in either cultivating and breeding broodstock, nursing larvae and fry, growing fingerlings (up to 5 - 10cm), and farming the species until they grow-out to market size. By the early 2000s, Taiwan was successfully breeding and growing giant grouper—the largest of the grouper family and a favorite in Chinese banquets.

Responsible grouper farming

While giant grouper in Taiwan is now based almost entirely on full-cycle culture, the farming of this species in other countries (i.e., Indonesia and Malaysia) still relies mostly on wild-caught seed for grow-out. With its technological superiority and proximity to markets in Hong Kong and China, Taiwan has dominated the supply of this species for many years with little scrutiny over sustainability and quality issues.

However, there are new kids on the block and not only are they based in Hong Kong, they are taking their green credentials very seriously.

New technologies in responsible fish farming

Established in 2003, Aquaculture Technologies Asia (ATA), based in the New Territories, is Hong Kong’s premier supplier of full-cycle farmed giant grouper.

Using its own recirculation aquaculture systems technology, this large-scale, indoor farming facility is the first to be recognized as an accredited fish farm by the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department of Hong Kong.

ATA brings in giant groupers as fingerlings from a hatchery. These are then nurtured for a period of 12 to 18 months until they reach market size. The groupers are fed with high quality feed free of heavy metal and other pollutants that are commonly found in the food chain of coastal sea fish. Unlike conventional aquaculture, ATA’s farm is indoors.

Through the exclusive use of tap water and aquarium salt, they recreate an environment where the habitat of giant groupers can be monitored and controlled for safety and quality.

ATA is now supplying giant groupers at an average size of 1 – 9 kilograms to a number of high-end hotels and restaurants, wholesaling between USD30 - 40 per kilo, and may retail up to twice this amount.

Choosing wisely

WWF-Hong Kong recently assessed giant groupers coming from the ATA farm to update its consumer Seafood Guide. WWF’s Seafood Guides use a traffic light system to rate the sustainability of seafood coming from wild-caught and farmed sources with species rated either: Red (Avoid); Yellow (Think Twice); or Green (Recommended).

Many farmed groupers listed on the new WWF-Hong Kong Seafood Guide are either listed as Yellow, and in most cases, Red. Some of the main concerns include sourcing of wild juveniles for grow-out, lack of sustainability and traceability in the fish feed, and the general lack of effective control on the use of feed and chemicals, which can lead to pollution to the marine environment.

ATA has made tremendous efforts to source only hatchery-produced fish, purchase traceable fish feed, and invest significantly in the use of a recirculation system to keep any pollution to the environment at a minimum.

On top of that, ATA also partners with consultancy firms to reduce overall electricity use, thus reducing carbon emission and saving cost. All these actions have contributed to the overall sustainability of this production system, and this giant grouper production has been assessed as Green (Recommended) in the latest WWF-Hong Kong Seafood Guide.

If we are to continue feeding the world’s growing demand for farmed fish, more seafood producers and suppliers will need to follow suit.

For more information, please contact:

Dr. Allen To, WWF-Hong Kong Senior Conservation Officer (Footprint)

Nurtured giant groupers at ATA
ATA Delivery Van
ATA Recirculation Aquaculture System
High quality feeds