By Alvin Ung
Decades ago, long before Lai Sead Ping founded a fish farm that grows tilapia based on the highest ethical standards, he hatched a plan to deceive his parents.
At the age of fifteen, Lai performed dismally for his Form Three assessment exam in secondary school. Lai’s father, a tractor operator, kindly offered to teach his son how to drive a tractor. But Lai dreamed of university. So, one day, he walked into the department of education in Seremban, forged his parents’ signature, and got himself transferred from a vernacular Chinese school into a national school – so that he could immerse himself in the Malay language.
“I was so desperate to study Malay that I cheated my parents,” Lai said. After owning up to his deception, Lai set himself a new goal: to create an optimal study environment in his crowded house with eight children. He moved into an abandoned room at the back of the house, painted the room, and studied day and night. Two years later, he aced his Form Five results, enrolled in university, graduated in civil engineering, and started his own construction company. In 2007, he sold his majority stake and co-founded a fish farm called Trapia Malaysia Sdn Bhd.
“Looking back, I learned that if I had continued to live and study in the same environment, I would not have made it,” Lai told me in an interview, as he reflected on life as a teenager. “I needed a new school, a new language, and a new room to myself. A change in the environment really changed who I became.”
Lai Sead Ping Director Of Trapia Malaysia
This principle of focusing on the environment has become a top priority for Lai as he partnered with GenoMar, the Norwegian majority shareholder, to develop Trapia into the largest fish farm in Malaysia in less than seven years.
“We produce tilapia to the highest environmental standards,” Lai said. This focus on social responsibility is a necessary competitive advantage to set apart Trapia from its global competitors.
Just in the past decade, tilapia has become the second-most cultivated fish in the world, after carp, ever since Americans and Europeans have acquired the taste for this hitherto-unknown fish that originated from Africa. Tilapia is high in protein and low in fat. Dubbed as “aquatic chicken,” tilapia is the most popular farmed fish in the United States; China is the largest tilapia producer.
With the growing popularity of tilapia comes the problem of unregulated and unsustainable tilapia farming. In poorer countries, huge numbers of fish have been bred in cages in natural lakes, causing pollution that have killed off native plants and fish. Seafood Watch, a U.S. based seafood advisory list, has categorized tilapia from China as “to be avoided.” Even in Malaysia, tilapia has a mixed reputation of being a filthy “longkang” fish.
“Most Malaysians are not concerned about how the fish are farmed. They just want the fish to be fresh. They want to see the chef scooping the fish out of the tank, but they’re not so concerned about how the fish got there,” Lai said.
Tilapia from Tasik Temenggor being transferred to Trapia’s factory in Parit Buntar
While tilapia is a low-value fish, Trapia’s responsibly farmed products are aimed at tilapia purchasers at the top end of the business from USA and EU who look for fresh and frozen fillets. Thanks in large part to GenoMar, a leading life science aquaculture company which owns 85% of Trapia, Trapia’s managers obsess about the entire life-cycle of the tilapia, from egg to fillet. At every step, they design the best possible environment for the fish; and they ensure that their farming practices are conducive for the surrounding environment.
For example, Trapia’s fish fry come from a pedigree called GenoMar Supreme Tilapia, which has undergone 23 generations of selective breeding for texture, disease resistance and speed in growth. The eggs are harvested by hand in a spring-fed hatchery in the rural village of Kampung Bongor.
The cages and nets for the nursery and fish farm float in the manmade Tasik Temenggor, one of the most pristine bodies of water in Malaysia, at the edge of a rainforest in Northern Perak. The cages are designed to prevent the fish from escaping and squeezing out native freshwater species such as Kelah, Tenggalan and Baung. Trapia uses a “LiftUp” waste removal system to remove feces and dead fish, thus reducing pollution to the lake.
One of Trapia’s many cages on Tasik Temenggor
On a daily basis, Ramon Perez, a veterinarian and expert on fish health from Spain, monitors the water temperature and oxygen levels. The techniques for feeding, vaccinating, harvesting and processing the fish have been adapted from Norway’s aquaculture and salmon farming techniques.
Trapia’s approach in Malaysia is a high risk, high reward approach, say other fish industry experts. The advent of breeding fish on a massive scale means that tilapia is no longer a disease-resistance species. Streptococcal disease can wipe out tens of thousands of fish in one go, causing heavy economic losses. Trapia has not been exempt from such challenges. U.S. scientists believe that diseases may well be the number one threat for the future of this industry – and they suggest that vaccination, and not antibiotics, may offer the most promising approach.
On a sunny Wednesday morning in May, Perez brought me to a mobile vaccination unit on the lake where fish are pumped from the lake onto a “greeting table” to be counted individually and vaccinated by hand using a vaccine pistol. Everyday, a team of nine people vaccinate 40,000 to 50,000 fish against streptococcus to improve fish health. “No one else in Malaysia does vaccination of tilapia,” Perez said.
Trapia’s efforts have been recognized by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), a certification program co-founded by the WWF in 2011 to evaluate and promote the best environmental and social standards in aquaculture. Late last year, ASC inspectors went to audit Trapia’s hatchery, nursery, cages and factory. They also visited the lake and interviewed nearby villagers. Trapia’s products were certified by the ASC as “responsibly farmed” in December 2012.
“We ensure that the fish grow in the lake with minimum or negative impact to the environment,” said Olav Jamtøy, CEO of Trapia and parent company GenoMar, who added that Trapia was the first and only aquaculture company in Malaysia – and second in Asia – to receive the ASC accreditation.
“Our goal is to ensure all our products are traceable. When you buy our tilapia, you can trace the product’s history, food documentation, growth conditions – all the way back to the farm and hatchery. We have full documentation for everything,” Jamtøy said.
Spencer Evans, Trapia’s Canadian-born farm manager, told me that he has seen challenges in oversupply of salmon – driving prices of salmon to record lows – during his 25 years of experience in fish farming. If there’s an oversupply in the tilapia market, “it’s the companies that position themselves in the best markets with the best products that are going to survive,” Evans said.
After my two-day visit to Trapia, something “clicked” for me when I stumbled upon the auditors’ 30-page report and checklist on Trapia on ASC’s website. Written in a scientific and dispassionate manner, it dawned on me how much effort and focus you must possess to feed the world in a responsible way. I went to the fish farm hoping I’d get to eat some of their export-bound premium fillets, but I came away with a newfound respect for what it takes to develop world-class products while caring for the environment.
It turns out that Trapia’s approach – in pursuing environmental sustainability and international accreditation – serves as a case study for Malaysia’s aquaculture industry, government officials told me.
“At the end of the day, we want to develop fully certified export products for the big markets in the US, Europe, Japan and China,” said Dr. Fadhlullah Suhaimi Abdul Malek, the NKEA director at PEMANDU. “In the aquaculture business, the markets do not allow entry of such goods unless the goods are certified. A sizeable business such as Trapia generates jobs, investments and even creates opportunities for small-time farmers to export to international markets.”
So it turns out that Lai’s teenage lesson – where he learned to remake himself by changing his environment – is a principle that continues to ripples outward to impact Trapia’s staff and broader stakeholders.
“By creating a sustainable environment for our fish, we have managed to introduce a Malaysian product to the best seafood distributors in international markets,” Lai said. “When we sell the Trapia brand, people see that it’s the product of Malaysia. We’re proudest of that.”