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Vietnam expands fish farms, not without risk


  • Photo 1 of 14

    Hung Vuong Corporation will pour nearly 300 thousand tons of feed into its two square miles of fishponds this year.

    - Sam Eaton

  • Photo 2 of 14

    The company is Vietnam’s largest pangasius producer and expects to raise 200 thousand tons of fish in 2012.

    - Sam Eaton

  • Photo 3 of 14

    Hung Vuong President, Duong Ngoc Minh, says farmed pangasius will be an important source of cheap, healthy fish as the world’s wild fisheries continue to decline.

    - Sam Eaton

  • Photo 4 of 14

    Industrial scale fish farms like this now dominate Vietnam’s export oriented aquaculture industry.

    - Sam Eaton

  • Photo 5 of 14

    Hung Vuong is a vertically integrated operation, controlling everything from feed production to export.

    - Sam Eaton

  • Photo 6 of 14

    Hung Vuong will ship frozen pangasius fillets to 70 different countries this year. The majority will end up in the US and Europe.

    - Sam Eaton

  • Photo 7 of 14

    Jose Villalon heads the World Wildlife Fund’s aquaculture program, which is trying to create a more sustainable model for industrial scale aquaculture operations like Hung Vuong.

    - Sam Eaton

  • Photo 8 of 14

    Pangasius is a fast growing, mostly vegetarian fish that thrives in densely packed ponds, and can even breathe air through its mouth if oxygen levels crash. These traits make it ideal for industrial scale, vertically integrated fish farms.

    - Sam Eaton

  • Photo 9 of 14

    Wageningen University aquaculture researcher Roel Bosma is searching for breakthroughs in creating a waste free model for aquaculture.

    - Sam Eaton

  • Photo 10 of 14

    At a government lab near Ho Chi Minh city researchers are testing different feeds that make pangasius feces more solid so that it can be removed from the water and the water recirculated back into the tank.

    - Sam Eaton

  • Photo 11 of 14

    Bosma says dumping pond effluent back into the Mekong River is not only an environmental problem, it’s also a waste of a valuable resource that could be used to fertilize crops.

    - Sam Eaton

  • Photo 12 of 14

    Tran Van Tach has about five acres of pangasius ponds near the Cambodian border. Small holders like him now account for only a tenth of Vietnam’s catfish supply.

    - Sam Eaton

  • Photo 13 of 14

    Tach utilizes a more integrated approach to aquaculture, flooding his rice fields with the fertile pond effluent. But rising costs are forcing him to abandon aquaculture and return to just rice farming.

    - Sam Eaton

  • Photo 14 of 14

    At fish markets in the Mekong Delta pangasius is the cheapest fish. But there is little demand for it in other parts of the country. Vietnam exports more than 90-percent of the pangasius it produces.

    - Sam Eaton

With the U.N. saying there will be 9 billion people on the planet by mid-century, one big question comes to mind: How are we going to feed them?

One answer: Fish.

Fish are one of the most environmentally friendly sources of animal protein. But already, only half of the fish humans eat comes from oceans, lakes and rivers. The rest? Fish farms. Farms that are growing in number and in size.

While fish farming still is efficient in turning feed into protein, it's hardly trouble-free. Today on our series, Food for 9 Billion, I traveled to Vietnam, where aquaculture farmers are searching for new ways to create a more sustainable fish farm for the future.




In the 1960's Vietnam's late communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, encouraged the rural poor to dig fishponds as a way to boost their nutrition. The small ponds were integrated into family farms where fish fed on agricultural waste until they became food themselves.

The farmers then drained the ponds and fertilized their fields with the sludge before starting the cycle all over again, never buying a single bag of feed or fertilizer.

Today's model couldn't be more different. Cut to the scene at feeding time at a catfish farm in the Mekong River Delta. Workers bang the floorboards on a raft and then pour 50-pound bags of commercial fish pellets -- which consist mostly of imported soy meal -- into the water. The surface of the pond explodes with fish so dense it looks like you can walk across them.

Fortunes are being made raising these native catfish, called pangasius, on an industrial scale. And entrepreneurs like fifty six year old Duong Ngoc Minh are the new tycoons.

"For me this is about legacy," Mihn said. "And the legacy I want to leave for the future generations is the development of this aquaculture business."

In a single decade, Minh has built an aquaculture empire. Today his pangasius farm, called Hung Vuong Corporation, is Vietnam's largest, with nearly two square miles of ponds. Minh also owns his entire supply chain, from the feed mill all the way to processing and packaging. This year he expects to produce 200,000 tons of frozen fish fillets, most of which will be sold as catfish in Europe and the U.S.

But for Minh, that legacy he speaks of, is about more than just numbers. “I think in the future, farmed fish such as pangasius will take a special role in supplying food for the world, especially as wild fish continue to decline,” he said. And he's not the only one who thinks so. Jose Villalon, who heads the World Wildlife Fund's aquaculture program, says pangasius may be the perfect factory fish.

It grows fast. It can breathe air through its mouth if things get too crowded. And, unlike carnivorous fish like salmon, it thrives on a mostly vegetarian diet.

"When you look at ponds like this and you see the production output of them and you see how the fish are feeding efficiently," Villalon said. “This is going to be how the future will receive its marine protein."

Intensive systems like this can feed a lot of people, but there's also the potential for things to go terribly wrong. Rivers get polluted. Diseases run rampant. Forests and wetlands get bulldozed into new ponds. This is why Jose Villalon and WWF are here in Vietnam working with big producers like Minh. They hope to create a new model for industrial-scale fish farms that puts the planet on equal footing with profits.

"Right now we're at this transition where aquaculture's being produced in traditional ways and it's not yet being asked to be responsible," he said.

But Villalon says it will be as aquaculture is projected to double by the middle of the century. And for the WWF being responsible means following the environmental standard it helped create. It's called the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. And in order to become certified, pangasius farms have to do things like stock their ponds with fewer fish to reduce disease outbreaks, and treat wastewater in sedimentation ponds before dumping it back into the river.

But there are about half a dozen other certification schemes in Vietnam as well, all competing for the same business. And the jury is still out as to whether these voluntary standards will actually translate into real environmental gains.

"The standards are what I would call set without evidence," said Roel Bosma, an aquaculture researcher with the Netherlands' Wageningen University. He says the certification standards being touted by environmental groups set the bar way too low.

In a government lab outside of Ho Chi Minh City Bosma and his Vietnamese colleagues are searching for ways to make fishponds completely waste free. They're experimenting with new feeds that make fish feces more solid so they can easily be removed, and the water reused.

"So this is how the sampling goes. You can smell it different huh? You don't smell it when it's around but when it's concentrated you smell the difference," Bosma said.

The fact that this fragrant brew gets dumped back into the Mekong River instead of being used as fertilizer for crops or as food for other fish drives Bosma crazy. He says it's a basic lesson in efficiency even the original fish farmers understood.

"Farming systems in the past, they were mixed systems, where the residues, the waste of one animal or component of the system were reused by another component of the system," he said.

Bosma says by treating the pond as a natural system rather than a factory, farmers can reduce both their waste and their need for imported, soy-based feed, which has an entire set of environmental implications of its own. But he says this ecological approach is also labor intensive, making the model much more suited to smaller farms. The problem is… only a few are left. As recently as five years ago small-scale farmers produced the majority of the country's pangasius. But today, after a wave of consolidation, they account for less than ten percent. A number that's likely to fall even lower in the coming years.

Tran Van Tach has about five acres of pangasius ponds in a remote village near the Cambodian border, and he says this year's harvest will be his last.

"I already discussed it with my wife to change the business," Tach said. "Maybe after harvesting the fish this time we change everything back to rice. Maybe we'll have just the rice field again."

Tach stands to lose more than a quarter of a million dollars because of rising feed and labor costs. Like the industrial scale farm I visited earlier, Tach's fish are also destined for foreign markets. But he says for him, the cost of complying with the new certification standards his buyers demand means the difference between a profit and going deep into the red.

"If I want to sell my fish I have to follow the international standard," Tach said. "Even though as a small farmer I have a harder time meeting the requirements. I have no choice but to follow them."

With the loss of Vietnam's smaller fish farms, the country may also be losing its best chance of adopting Roel Bosma's more ecological approach to aquaculture. Tach, for example, floods his rice fields with pond effluent instead of dumping it back into the river, fertilizing and watering his crop with the waste.

And before the pressure to adopt environmental standards like WWF's, many pangasius farmers used home-made feeds that included farm byproducts like rice bran and vegetables. They even used ground up golden snails, a pest in their rice fields, as a source of protein. These practices may be more sustainable, environmentally and economically, than importing huge amounts of soy meal to feed the fish. But they would never pass the strict food safety standards required by big retailers in Europe and the US, where most Vietnamese pangasius ends up.

Which raises another key question in the search for a sustainable aquaculture model. Who's it for?

At a small fish market in the Mekong Delta, pangasius is one of the cheapest fish you can buy. But there's virtually no demand for it in other parts of the country. So as the pangasius tycoons like Duong Ngoc Minh focus on feeding the rich world in more sustainable way maybe the small producers, with their integrated farms, can focus on feeding the people who need protein the most: the world's poorest.

Tess Vigeland: Wild-caught fish from the world's oceans, rivers and lakes are one of the most environmentally friendly sources of animal protein on the planet. They're also far tastier than most of the farmed fish you'll find in the store.

But today, just about half of the seafood we consume isn't wild -- it comes from aquaculture, otherwise known as fish farms. And while it still beats out other forms of meat when it comes to converting feed into flesh, it's hardly trouble-free.

Today on our series, Food for 9 Billion, Sam Eaton takes us to Vietnam, where aquaculture farmers are searching for new ways to create a more sustainable fish farm for the future.


Sam Eaton: In the 1960s, Vietnam's late communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, encouraged the rural poor to dig fishponds as a way to boost their nutrition. The small ponds were integrated into family farms where fish fed on agricultural waste until they became food themselves. The farmers then drained the ponds and fertilized their fields with the sludge before starting the cycle all over again -- never buying a single bag of feed or fertilizer.

Today's model couldn't be more different. This is the sound of feeding time at a catfish farm in the Mekong River Delta. Workers bang the floorboards on a raft and then pour 50-pound bags of commercial fish pellets, which consist mostly of imported soy meal into the water. The surface of the pond explodes with fish so dense, it looks like you can walk across them.

Fortunes are being made raising these native catfish called pangasius on an industrial scale. And entrepreneurs like 56-year-old Duong Ngoc Minh are the new tycoons.

Duong Ngoc Minh: For me, this is about legacy. And the legacy I want to leave for the future generations is the development of this aquaculture business.

In a single decade, Minh has built an aquaculture empire. Today his pangasius farm, called Hung Vuong Corporation, is Vietnam's largest, with nearly two square miles of ponds. Minh also owns his entire supply chain, from the feed mill all the way to processing and packaging. This year, he expects to produce 200,000 tons of frozen fish fillets, most of which will be sold as catfish in Europe and the U.S.

But for Minh, that legacy he speaks of, is about more than just numbers.

Minh: I think in the future, farmed fish such as pangasius will take a special role in supplying food for the world, especially as wild fish continue to decline.

And he's not the only one who thinks so. Jose Villalon, who heads the World Wildlife Fund's aquaculture program, says pangasius may be the perfect factory fish. It grows fast. It can breathe air through its mouth if things get too crowded. And, unlike carnivorous fish like salmon, it thrives on a mostly vegetarian diet.

Jose Villalon: When you look at ponds like this, and you see the production output of them and you see how the fish are feeding efficiently, this is going to be how the future will receive its marine protein.

Intensive systems like this can feed a lot of people, but there's also the potential for things to go terribly wrong: Rivers get polluted. Diseases run rampant. Forests and wetlands get bulldozed into new ponds.

This is why Jose Villalon and WWF are here in Vietnam working with big producers like Minh. They hope to create a new model for industrial-scale fish farms that puts the planet on equal footing with profits.

Villalon: Right now, we're at this transition where aquaculture's being produced in traditional ways and it's not yet being asked to be responsible.

But Villalon says it will be as aquaculture is projected to double by the middle of the century. And for the WWF, being responsible means following the environmental standard it helped create. It's called the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. And in order to become certified, pangasius farms have to do things like stock their ponds with fewer fish to reduce disease outbreaks, and treat wastewater in sedimentation ponds before dumping it back into the river.

But there are about half a dozen other certification schemes in Vietnam as well, all competing for the same business. And the jury is still out as to whether these voluntary standards will actually translate into real environmental gains.

Roel Bosma: The standards are what I would call set without evidence.

Roel Bosma is an aquaculture researcher with the Netherlands' Wageningen University. He says the certification standards being touted by environmental groups set the bar way too low.

In a government lab outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Bosma and his Vietnamese colleagues are searching for ways to make fishponds completely waste-free. They're experimenting with new feeds that make fish feces more solid so they can easily be removed, and the water reused.

Bosma: You can smell it different huh? You don't smell it when it's around, but when it's concentrated you smell the difference.

The fact that this fragrant brew gets dumped back into the Mekong River instead of being used as fertilizer for crops or as food for other fish drives Bosma crazy. He says it's a basic lesson in efficiency even the original farmers understood.

Bosma: Farming systems in the past, they were mixed systems, where the residues, the waste of one animal or component of the system were reused by another component of the system.

Bosma says by treating the pond as a natural system rather than a factory, farmers can reduce both their waste and their need for costly soy-based feed, which has an entire set of environmental implications of its own. But he says this ecological approach is also labor-intensive, making the model much more suited to smaller farms. The problem is, only a few are left.

As recently as five years ago, small-scale farmers produced the majority of the country's pangasius. But today, after a wave of consolidation, they account for less than 10 percent -- a number that's likely to fall even lower in the coming years.

Tran Van Tach has about five acres of pangasius ponds in a remote village near the Cambodian border. And he says this year's harvest will be his last.

Tran Van Tach: I already discussed it with my wife to change the business. Maybe after harvesting the fish this time, we change everything back to rice. Maybe we'll have just the rice field again.

Tach stands to lose more than a quarter of a million dollars because of rising feed and labor costs. Like the industrial scale farm I visited earlier, Tach's fish are also destined for foreign markets. But he says for him, the cost of complying with the new certification standards his buyers demand means the difference between a profit and going deep into the red.

Tach: If I want to sell my fish, I have to follow the international standard. Even though as a small farmer I have a harder time meeting the requirements. I have no choice but to follow them.

With the loss of Vietnam's smaller fish farms, the country may also be losing its best chance of adopting Roel Bosma's more ecological approach to aquaculture. Tach, for example, floods his rice fields with pond effluent instead of dumping it back into the river, fertilizing and watering his crop with the waste.

And before the pressure to adopt environmental standards like WWF's, many pangasius farmers used homemade feeds that included farm byproducts like rice bran and vegetables. They even used ground up golden snails, a pest in their rice fields, as a source of protein.

These practices may be more sustainable, environmentally and economically, than importing huge amounts of soy meal to feed the fish. But they would never pass the strict food safety standards required by big retailers in Europe and the U.S., where most Vietnamese pangasius ends up.

Which raises another key question in the search for a sustainable aquaculture model: Who's it for?

At a small fish market in the Mekong Delta, pangasius is one of the cheapest fish you can buy. But there's virtually no demand for it in other parts of the country. So as the pangasius tycoons like Duong Ngoc Minh focus on feeding the rich world in more sustainable way, maybe the small producers, with their integrated farms, can focus on feeding the people who need protein the most: The world's poorest.

In southern Vietnam, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.
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The question of who is eating it is a good one. As the article notes, much of it is exported. And much of it is imported into the US--some legally, and some not. Pangasius is one of the most common fish fraudulently substituted for grouper, snapper, and other more valuable fish on the US market:
http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2009/May/09-enrd-490.html
http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2010/January/10-enrd-100.html
http://www.justice.gov/usao/nj/Press/files/pdffiles/2010/geor0120%20rel.pdf

This is a great story since neighboring countries, Thailand and Laos, have been in the news. Burma too. Looking at all the ice in the video clip that is needed to keep the harvest (or catch) from spoiling makes me think of the drying of seafood (with heat from sun, fire, smoke). It has been improved with advanced membrane technology and also freeze drying. Even though I do prefer the Catfish I ate growing up in Louisiana, the fish powder (FPi) would be great for fortifying pasta noodles and/or bread for hungry people world-around.

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