Travellers flying into Ipoh will never fail to notice, as the plane approaches, the numerous white patches of sand with abandoned ponds dotting the landscape below: a testimony that the Kinta Valley was once the largest producer of tin in the world. The ponds may look peaceful and serene but they are far from being abandoned. Instead they are teeming with economic activities, and outstanding among them is the thriving aquaculture industry.
The aquaculture industry, which is generating a turn-over of revenue estimated at well over RM120 million annually, is divided into ornamental fish and freshwater fish for consumption.
Ninety per cent of the ornamental fish is exported mainly through Singapore. The types of ornamental fish bred are mainly Gold Fish, Koi and tropical fish, while the types of freshwater food fish reared is mainly Tilapia, Haruan, Catfish, Carp and also Jelawat or Sultan Fish. Tilapia is most common because it is easily adaptable to the environment.
Thirty per cent of the fish for consumption is exported to Singapore and Indonesia and the rest distributed to wholesalers in Selangor, Malacca, Johor and Kedah.
Facing An Uncertain Future
Underneath this thriving industry, an air of uncertainty is emerging over the allocation of land to the operators for a continuation of the industry.
Most of them had started during the depression caused by the collapse of the tin mining industry in mid 1980. Those who did not go abroad to work toiled the ex-mining land, growing vegetables and rearing ducks, chicken and fish.
The then State Government, then under Tan Sri Ramli Ngah Talib, sympathised with them and allowed them to work on the land to which they have no claim. So, aquaculture which started on an ad hoc basis had grown into a big industry by the turn of the 21st century.
Now, Perak is the biggest aquaculture producer in the country contributing 25% of output with a value of RM2.28 billion from marine fish, aquaculture, ornamental fish and food processing activities. The total revenue from ornamental fish throughout the state last year was RM82.3 million.
Perak Strong Potential for Growth
Even the director of the State Fisheries Department, Haji Sani Mohd Isa, admits that the aquaculture industry does have a strong potential for growth. The department is very positive about the fish industry in the Kinta Valley and had proposed the setting up of an Aquaculture Industrial Zone in the Kampar District.
Their recommendation is based on the fact that the presence of disused mining ponds makes them a natural choice for an aquaculture industry. Additionally the presence of limestone in the environment contributes to better water quality which enables a healthier ornamental fish crop.
The operators realising that they could make a living off the land, applied for Temporary Occupation License of the land on which they had been squatting.
Sadly, the over 900 operators in the Kinta Valley are still in a dilemma. They are unable to get titles for their land despite repeatedly submitting their applications.
Ornamental Fish Farming
Ornamental fish farmer Yeong Tai Sai, 55, has been breeding ornamental fish at his 3.5 acre farm at Sungei Itek in Gopeng since 1993. Yeong only cultivates the Oranda type of Gold Fish.
Yeong feeds his Gold Fish with pellet fish meal and laments that it is the costliest part of his operation. Over the years his investments have amounted to over RM150,000.
At the time of sale the fish are quarantined and segregated to grades A and B with grade A going for export. All fish being exported are given a compulsory Biosecurity test by the Fisheries Department and certified. Yeong sells an average of 2,000 pieces of his Gold Fish weekly.
Fish for Consumption
Chan Chee Keong from Gopeng rears red Tilapia on his six-acre farm which consists of five ponds. Each pond is capable of producing an average of 12,000 fish with a gross weight of seven tons in each pond. Each harvest takes place every six months thus enabling two harvests per pond per year for total annual sales of 70 tons per year.
Chan’s farm has electricity to run the water aerators. Chan also employs one worker to mix the fish meal, feed the fish daily and maintain the farm. His initial investment for the first year was over RM100,000.
Both Chan and Yeong share a similar concern. They are squatting on the land though both had applied to the state for land titles repeatedly, but the result has been negative so far.
Unfortunately for Yeong part of his land has been acquired by a company, Safura House of Diamond Sdn Bhd, to initiate the state’s Proper Village Planning Programme despite his having toiled the farm for close to 20 years.
The aquaculture operators are represented by two associations – the Perak Aquaculture Association and the Perak Freshwater Fish Breeders Association. According to Tan Thian Mun, past chairman of the Perak Aquaculture Association and current adviser to the Freshwater Fish Breeders Association, there are approximately 500 ornamental fish operators and 400 freshwater fish breeders located in the Kinta Valley and Bidor. Only a few of them have received their land titles.
According to Tan the sale of freshwater fish has grown by 30% over the last three years. The possibility for the operators to improve their productivity is good but would involve more investments which none of the operators are willing to do for fear their land could be taken back on short notice at any time.
The positive potential of the industry in the Kinta Valley has prompted Teja Assemblyman Chang Lih Kang to urge the state government to issue land titles to the farmers and not to property developers, while MCA President Datuk Seri Dr. Chua Soi Lek said that the state, by not issuing the land titles, would be “losing out on revenue”.
The plight of the aquaculture operators might have sunk in as Menteri Besar Dato’ Seri Zambry Abdul Kadir announced recently, after a meeting with the State Agricultural Development Corporation (SADC), that the body would be restructured to enable the state to be a “comprehensive food-producing state” and that aquaculture was a “strategic industry”.
More importantly though, when asked if he would look into giving out land titles, Zambry replied, “yes that is part of it”.
For the operators who have waited for 20 years, a general statement like that is cause for optimism.