In recent years, traceability has grown in importance as a health and environmental concern among society at large. Businesses now tout the provenance of their products with an obsession once limited to wine.
Coffee roasters often flaunt single-origin beans, whereas their fruit-peddling counterparts put source orchards front and centre in advertising campaigns. Sustainability occupies the core of the issue as buyers become increasingly aware of the negative footprint they leave behind.
Goh Soo Chin is only too familiar with the subject pervading public consciousness. As the operation manager of GST Group, he is deeply involved in the company’s efforts to transform its practices for the better.
Established by Dato’ Goh Cheng Liang, it found humble beginnings as a family-owned enterprise supplying fresh seafood to Penang’s hotels and restaurants from its base in Bukit Tambun. Fast forward to the present and GST Group now commands a range of facilities that allows it control over the entire production line.
Its headquarters – which doubles up as a seafood processing plant – in the Simpang Ampat Industrial Zone churns out 2,000 tonnes of goods for export according to international safety and quality standards. A hatchery in Batu Kawan cultivates fish fries from eggs collected from existing broodstock farms. The fries mature into fingerlings in one of 45 growout ponds on the 20-hectare premises before either being sold to third-party farms or transferred to the 10,000 sea cages in Pulau Aman, Pulau Jerejak, and Pulau Pangkor.
GST Group had already taken steps in the right direction by obtaining Friend of the Sea certification, which recognises that its products hail from sustainable fisheries and aquaculture. Fish carrying the label have been available for purchase at supermarkets nationwide since 2012.
However, Goh noted that more could be done. In 2015, the company entered into a partnership with WWF Malaysia to implement the Aquaculture Improvement Programme (AIP) at its Pulau Jerejak floating fish farm.
Situated some 10 minutes by boat from the Penang Island jetty, the 320 sea cages are linked by narrow, wooden planks in grid form. Each cage houses one fish species, with a total of seven bred on-site. These include the emperor snapper, red snapper, John’s snapper, barramundi, golden pomfret, pearl grouper, and giant grouper.
The barramundi are especially valued as the fastest movers, raking in revenue in as little as six months to two years with the United States, Europe, and Australia being the primary shipping destinations. The giant grouper on the other hand fetches the highest price. Tipping the scales at up to 30 kg, these gargantuan fish are destined for Hong Kong, where they are prized as both a delicacy and auspicious pet.
Supervisor Leang Wei Chi leads a small team of workers who live on the platform for prolonged periods and oversee the day-to-day running of the farm. Their tasklist comprises feeding, transferring and harvesting the fish, as well as minding the nets.
Through the AIP, the farm has seen marked changes since its inception. As per the standards of the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), there is zero usage of trash fish as feed and no forced labour with good water quality and proper record-keeping in place. In fact, GST Group has a commercial fish feed factory that supplies pellets to its own farms.
Soo Chin envisions promising potential for the programme to boost the company’s bottomline. GST Group currently benefits from the knowledge support lent by WWF, who additionally provide publicity to participants through events, social media, and the mainstream press. It has moreover received Chain of Custody certification from the Marine Stewardship Council, with ASC certification being the ultimate goal. Known as the world’s leading certification and labelling programme for ethically farmed seafood, ASC recognition would posit GST Group as a local frontrunner in the sustainable seafood industry and open up more lucrative markets to sell to.
While end-users may laud the company’s endeavour to achieve such validation, reception has been cool among B2B customers. Price remains the main point of contention, with many preferring to stick with the lowest costs rather than forking out for sustainable fare. Hence, GST Group has maintained its rates even for certified products in order to compete.
GST Group also faces an uphill task in convincing fellow members of the Aquaculture Operators Association of Penang (PENKUA) to take up the cause. Their biggest hang-up is the usage of pellets, which demand a hefty investment. Trash fish is still the majority choice of feed. The usage of these low-grade catches has caught flak among conservationists for its bottom-trawling method that traps juvenile fish of more valuable species and thereby adversely impacts fisheries.
Nevertheless, Soo Chin sees the tides turning in favour of responsible seafood. Malaysians are the biggest consumers of fish in Southeast Asia as it forms more than two-thirds of the total animal protein consumed per capita. With a rising population at odds with depleting ocean stock, sustainable aquaculture will soon have to pick up the slack in meeting demand.