It’s 6:30 in the morning and I’m bracing myself in the back of a pick-up truck as it jostles its way along a dirt access road. The sun is just beginning to peek over the horizon, readying itself to shed some light on this unique experience seldom seen by outsiders. Around me in every direction stretch the 190 ponds, which are devoted to Blue Archipelago’s award winning product; Pelagos, here in Kerpan, Kedah. This impressive industry is able to harvest a whopping eight to fourteen tons of white shrimp or pannaeus vannamei, per day. Sprawling across more than 300 hectares, which amounts to over three million square meters, its size is indicative of the third largest shrimp farm in Malaysia.
As we near the harvesting site we can hear the generator thumping away to power the pump as it expels water from the harvest pond into a nearby retention reservoir. Blue Archipelago doesn’t cut corners with its harvesting techniques as some have been reported of doing. By pumping out the water of the entire pond during the harvest process, they strive to filter out everything besides the plump shrimp. As the water gradually recedes, numerous workers drag widespread nets through the pond to corral the shrimp into an enclosed area where they are gathered into sacks.
With the risen sun clouds of gnats swarming in a haze disperse and we can clearly see the bundles as they are hoisted up to a lorry. Thousands of shrimp at a time are poured into large tubs of ice for a chill killing, which locks in both freshness and flavour. Once the tanks have been filled the lorry lurches forward to the on-site processing plant.
Each day, one pond goes through the harvesting process, which takes place as early as three in the morning. The cooler the temperature, the better conditions are for keeping the shrimp fresh, so it’s always best to avoid the heat of mid-day. The time it takes for shrimp to mature to harvesting size is about 100 days, which gives each pond two rotations per year. With everything on-site, including the hatchery, grow-out ponds, and the processing facility, Blue Archipelago is able to ensure a quality and freshness that many others are unable to compete with. Instead of needing to transport the shrimp far distances between each stage of the process, they need not travel anymore than a few kilometers and all while on the grounds of their Kerpan location.
Upon harvesting, the shrimp are to be cleaned, graded and packaged. This is where the processing plant comes into play. At the processing facility one can clearly see the attention to detail that Blue Archipelago has put in to their operation. They keep the process as sterile as possible from start to finish. Workers, and even visitors like our team, are required to put on rubber boots, long coats, hairnets, and even medical masks. Only after proceeding through the washing area do we have our first glimpse of the process already underway. The shrimp arrive here within minutes of their extraction from the pond. They are unloaded, ice and all, into the tank where the shrimp are separated from the ice and drawn up out of the water. From there the shrimp begin their journey. They are first sorted according to size using a simple yet ingenious approach in which the shrimp slide down parallel spinning cylinders, which gradually grow further apart. The smaller shrimp fall first and the larger last. Random samples are then taken for quality assurance testing, after which time the shrimp are escorted by conveyor belt to hundreds of trained hands. It takes but a moment for these workers to clean the head from a shrimp using a swift yet precise flick of the hand. This is an important step in the process since the highest demand is for shrimp which have been de-headed yet still have their shell. Blue Archipelago allows the customer to decide the manner in which the shrimp are to be arranged and subsequently frozen. Generally, the shrimp are once again sorted by size before they are portioned into trays, frozen into blocks, and packaged. Included in the same facility is their industrial freezer where the shrimp are kept frozen at -21 degree centigrade. This set up has the capacity to process as much as eight tons, that’s 8,000 kilos, of shrimp from start to finish each day.
Blue Archipelago is determined to offer Pelagos as a superior product to a clientele that demands the highest standard and quality. They pride themselves in being able to supply much of their shrimp to the Japanese who diligently seek out the best product on the market. Having gone through various visits of high scrutiny from their biggest client, it is no surprise that Blue Archipelago is able to boast of such high standards to meet stringent export criteria. It seems to also have adopted the Japanese ‘Kaizen,’ also known as the striving for continuous improvement, which can be seen throughout their hatchery, harvesting and processing operation. It is said that during a survey of the site and facility the Japanese will ask for a cup of hot water, dip a shrimp into it, and taste. Sampling in that manner leaves no room for imperfections and is a testament to the quality of this product.
There are two things to remember when looking for high- class shrimp. The first and most important is the taste, which is highly affected by the kind of water used in the grow-out ponds. For this reason, Blue Archipelago is very proud of their seawater intake system, which stretches 2.8 kilometers out to sea. The only one of its kind in the region, this above water system pumps seawater to the site to fill the 190 ponds. It is the high salinity of the seawater that produces a distinct sweetness characteristic of these shrimp. The second thing to keep in mind is the size. According to client specifications, Blue Archipelago will allow more or less time for the shrimp to grow in the ponds. The more time they are given, the bigger they can become. Along with various packaging options based on the needs of their customers, Blue Archipelago’s Pelagos exemplifies a product aimed at delivering the very best to consumers.
Not only is it the shrimp that are cultivated at Blue Archipelago, but so is a healthy relationship among both their clients and the community around them. One need only look to the plethora of horror stories coming out of China’s food industry sector to see the sometimes-antagonistic relationship between food producers and their clients, not to mention the local people most affected. In a day and age of unconscionable business practices plaguing the food industry across the globe, it’s refreshing to see this large corporation valuing the connection it has with clients and the local community.
To their clients they offer not only a quality product but a service, which is sometimes difficult to deliver. Blue Archipelago strives to stand by their motto, “Seafood You Can Trust,” by enacting a standard operating procedure to ensure traceability through bio-security measures. For instance, during the post-larvae stage the shrimp are quite vulnerable to outside factors. Only the operator is allowed access as eggs from other potentially harmful organisms are strategically filtered out. Essentially, traceability allows customers to track the life cycle of a shrimp all the way back to the hatchery and even to the feeds used for the shrimp. Consisting of fishmeal and soya and by using no antibiotics or artificial growth hormones, these feeds have met with EU standards. This is extremely important to customers, such as those in the United States, who are more and more concerned about food safety and the threat that terrorists could pose to their food supply. To this end they also endeavor to use no chemicals or pesticides, but keep the entire process as natural as possible.
A healthy relationship with the surrounding community is also of the utmost importance. With their neighbours working their own paddy fields next to them it is crucial that Blue Archipelago’s practice is environmentally friendly. If any seawater used in the many ponds ever seeped into the paddy fields it would cause long-lasting damage, so there is literally no room for error. To ensure there are no slip-ups, a retaining wall has been positioned to keep everything in its right place. Also to this end there are no chemicals or pesticides used and all wastewater goes through on-site treatment in retention ponds before it is pumped back into the sea.
In addition to their environment-conscious practices Blue Archipelago also prides itself with hiring almost entirely from the local population. In fact, this is the only industrial scale shrimp farm in Malaysia that hires 95% bumiputra from the surrounding area, which is indeed a rarity with so many companies using foreign workers to cut their manpower costs and maximize their profits. Through this industry, as many as 500 jobs are provided, which offer very competitive wages. Hiring from the surrounding community also localizes capital and helps to strengthen the regional economy.
Blue Archipelago does not take lightly their corporate social responsibility. This industry makes every effort to work with local leadership to channel resources where most needed. They take the initiative in community matters both large and small. From donating a cow for those less-fortunate during Hari Raya Korban to contributing to charity and providing tuition classes, Blue Archipelago Community Alliance (BACA) seeks to help improve the standard of living in the communities they operate from. With the heart of this establishment in the world of aquaculture, they also seek to raise-up the next generation of “aquapreneurs” through training programs and sponsorship. Through this approach they are guaranteeing sustainability not only for the environment, but also for their skilled workers. When many have grown cynical toward business involvement in community development, Blue Archipelago endeavors to prove itself an exception and a world-class seafood company.