In Vietnam small-scale hatchery operators can rent one or two rearing tanks from a building owner to produce small numbers of fry or PL shrimp over relatively short periods of time. It’s simple, versatile and it works.
Recently I visited the 2013 Asia-Pacific Aquaculture Exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and in the days before the event I had the opportunity to visit a few small hatcheries in the area of Vung Táu, around 100km east of HCM City.
A few aspects of these visits were particularly interesting to me, especially as they contrasted with my western model of aquaculture businesses in terms of scale, infrastructure and specialization.
I know that there are Vietnamese hatcheries that are as sophisticated and complex as typical western hatcheries and with large infrastructures and specialized staff that result in high productivity and large outputs of fry or PLs, but the model that interested me was the traditional, very flexible and versatile hatchery operation I visited for the first time on this trip.
The Rent-a-Hatchery model
Probably the most interesting aspect of this hatchery model is the separation between ownership of the fixed assets (buildings and tanks) and the company that operates the hatchery. In the Hải Đăng area near Vũng Tàu City there are rows of small buildings with two to eight concrete tanks plus some smaller fiberglass tanks that are available for rent to whomever wishes to produce fry.
Depending on a person’s targets, he or she can rent one or more rooms for a period of a few months to a few years and start producing fish fry or shrimp post-larvae. The hatchery business brings in whatever other equipment it needs, such as water and air pumps or filters, the necessary staff, and starts its hatchery operation.
Production takes as long as the rounds of stocking and pre-growing require and once the budgeted sales are achieved the infrastructure is returned to its owner and the business closes or goes into hibernation. There are no readily apparent seasons in Vietnam (or in other equatorial parts of the world for that matter); water temperatures are high and stable all year round, fish and shrimp spawn continuously and grow-out production has no real cycles apart from possible market-imposed cycles. If production goes well and fry are in demand then the farmer may want to extend his lease and increase production, but if disease or poor prices come along and the value of fry or the profitability of the business goes down then the farmer will simply stop production and give the space back to its owner. I can’t imagine a more flexible way to run a hatchery!
Of course there are limitations to this hatchery business model and these have to do with the permanent infrastructure and continuous operations required for some processes in a typical hatchery. For example, in traditional western systems keeping broodstock requires tanks all-year-round, water and filtration systems, someone to feed the fish and maintain tanks, etc. Algae or rotifers are often kept in hatcheries in the form of master cultures that serve to inoculate new cultures when the season starts and algal production cycles often start months before eggs are stocked. How are these issues dealt with in the rent-a-hatchery model?
The answer is mixed; most of the time they are outsourced; other times nature gives a hand! For example, when Mr. Hà, a hatchery specialist who rented some of the rooms I visited, needs grouper eggs he makes arrangements with some of the many cage farm owners in the region. He goes to a farm that has grouper broodstock and collects a few bags of eggs by skimming the surface of the water in the cages. A price is agreed and the eggs are shipped to the hatchery and stocked.
Rotifers can sometimes be purchased from companies that specialize in rotifer production; alternatively they can be collected with a fine net and a walk around a eutrophic pond! However strange this may sound I have also seen this done for the production of marine fish larvae for research purposes…
The main advantage of the rent-a-hatchery model in Vietnam is that it allows individuals that have some training in larval rearing in shrimp or fish species (mainly the marine species that are more complex to produce) to put their know-how into action without the need to do large, long-term investments in infrastructure. It also matches the small-scale on-growing farms that constitute the vast majority of producers in the region, producers that buy small batches of a few tens of thousands of fry and that also prefer to manage productions with limited budgets.
There are disadvantages however, and these have to do with the stability and performance of their production. In my short visit it was not possible to get much feedback on performance in terms of survivals from egg to fry, but the idea I got was that it is very variable. Issues of technology, mainly nutrition, and pathology, linked to poor hygiene and low bio-security of the shared facilities is problematic.
It also appeared to me that owing to the small size of these businesses, suppliers of feeds or equipment spend little effort in terms of technical support with these clients; indeed, these small companies are on their own when it comes to solving most problems.
Also, the variety of species and protocols used by these hatcheries make it complex for suppliers or consultants to come up with ready-made solutions to production problems. For example, when I visited his hatchery Mr. Hà mentioned a problem he was having with grouper larval rearing, specifically a phase before the end of weaning where he was having high mortalities. He mentioned having tried a number of enrichments and weaning diets but had never been able to solve the problem satisfactorily. It was clear that he had very little support and that luck played a major role in the production of grouper fry in that particular hatchery…
The rent-a-hatchery business model will remain important in Asia. It actually embodies much of the economic model of the region: entrepreneurial, small-scale, versatile and very competitive. And while the trend to increase production volumes and get stable quality standards is forcing the consolidation of some companies, small hatcheries will play a key role in the industry for some time to come.
With this in mind suppliers to this industry should adapt to their customers’ needs instead of pressing customers to adapt to them. By this I mean that equipment suppliers should develop solutions that will be mid-way between western hatchery businesses and the ornamentals industry – for example, medium-sized UV or skimmers and portable solutions for water treatment or fish processing. Feed and nutrition suppliers could offer ready kits with protocols for different species, packed in an easy-to-use-way and covering a number of small production cycles (for example, units of 100,000 fry).
Consultants should focus more on this sector as there are many producers, and overall they represent a large volume of production that is in special need of technical and business support. These are just some ideas that could have win-win results for all sides and contribute to improved aquaculture production in volume and quality in the region.