In Vietnam, large-scale fish farmers look to capture a piece of the fast-growing market for sustainable fish. As Sam Eaton reports, making it work isn’t easy.

Scaling up

Vietnamese fish farms search for eco-friendly formula

    This farm near the Cambodian border belongs to Tran Van Tach. Small farms now account for just one-tenth of Vietnam’s supply of pangasius, a form of catfish. Tran Van Tach uses a more integrated approach to aquaculture, flooding his rice fields with the fertile pond effluent.


    Tran Van Tach one of the few small-scale fish farmers in Vietnam. But rising costs are forcing him to abandon aquaculture and return to rice farming.


    Industrial-scale fish farms, like the one shown in this model, dominate Vietnam’s export-oriented aquaculture industry.


    Duong Ngoc Minh, president of Hung Vuong Corporation, says farmed pangasius will be an important source of cheap, healthy fish as the world’s wild fisheries continue to decline.


    Hung Vuong Corp. will pour nearly 300 thousand tons of feed into its fishponds this year.


    Hung Vuong Corp. is Vietnam’s largest pangasius producer and expects to raise 200 thousand tons of fish this year. 


    Workers at Hung Vuong Corp. transfer live fish by boat from the company’s 2 square miles of ponds to its processing plant.


    These pangasius farms have been called the single most intensive commercial food production system on the planet. 


    Hung Vuong is a vertically integrated operation, controlling everything from feed production to export.


    In order to produce the white fillets the market demands, huge amounts of water are used. It is one of the environmental tradeoffs of operating on such a large scale. 


    At fish markets in the Mekong Delta, pangasius is the cheapest fish. But there is little demand for it in other parts of the country. Instead, Vietnam exports more than 90 percent of the pangasius it produces.


    The majority of Vietnam’s pangasius is exported to major retailers in Europe and the U.S. 


Tess Vigeland of Marketplace: Wild-caught fish from the world’s oceans, rivers and lakes are one of the most environmentally friendly sources of animal protein on the planet. They’re also far tastier than most of the farmed fish you’ll find in the store.

But today, just about half of the seafood we consume isn’t wild – it comes from aquaculture, otherwise known as fish farms. And while it still beats out other forms of meat when it comes to converting feed into flesh, it’s hardly trouble-free.

Today on our series “Food for 9 Billion,” Sam Eaton takes us to Vietnam, where aquaculture farmers are searching for new ways to create a more sustainable fish farm for the future.

Reporter Sam Eaton: In the 1960s, Vietnam’s late communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, encouraged the rural poor to dig fishponds as a way to boost their nutrition. The small ponds were integrated into family farms, where fish fed on agricultural waste until they became food themselves. The farmers then drained the ponds and fertilized their fields with the sludge before starting the cycle all over again – never buying a single bag of feed or fertilizer.

Today’s model couldn’t be more different. This is the sound of feeding time at a catfish farm in the Mekong River Delta. Workers bang the floorboards on a raft and then pour 50-pound bags of commercial fish pellets, which consist mostly of imported soy meal, into the water. The surface of the pond explodes with fish so dense, it looks like you can walk across them.

Fortunes are being made raising these native catfish, called pangasius, on an industrial scale. And entrepreneurs like 56-year-old Duong Ngoc Minh are the new tycoons.

Duong Ngoc Minh: For me, this is about legacy. And the legacy I want to leave for future generations is the development of this aquaculture business.

Reporter: In a single decade, Minh has built an aquaculture empire. Today, his pangasius farm, called Hung Vuong Corporation, is Vietnam’s largest, with nearly 2 square miles of fishponds. Minh also owns his entire supply chain, from the feed mill all the way to processing and packaging. This year, he expects to produce 200,000 tons of frozen fish fillets, most of which will be sold as catfish in Europe and the U.S.

But for Minh, that legacy he speaks of is about more than just numbers.

Minh: I think in the future, farmed fish such as pangasius will take a special role in supplying food for the world, especially as wild fish continue to decline.

Reporter: And he’s not the only one who thinks so. Jose Villalon, who heads the World Wildlife Fund’s aquaculture program, says pangasius may be the perfect factory fish. It grows fast. It can breathe air through its mouth if things get too crowded. And, unlike carnivorous fish like salmon, it thrives on a mostly vegetarian diet.

Jose Villalon: When you look at ponds like this, and you see the production output of them and you see how the fish are feeding efficiently, this is going to be how the future will receive its marine protein.

Reporter: Intensive systems like this can feed a lot of people, but there’s also the potential for things to go terribly wrong. Rivers get polluted. Diseases run rampant. Forests and wetlands get bulldozed into new ponds.

This is why Jose Villalon and WWF are here in Vietnam working with big producers like Minh. They hope to create a new model for industrial-scale fish farms that puts the planet on equal footing with profits.

Villalon: Right now, we’re at this transition where aquaculture’s being produced in traditional ways, and it’s not yet being asked to be responsible.

Reporter: But Villalon says it will be, as aquaculture is projected to double by the middle of the century. And for the WWF, being responsible means following the environmental standard it helped create. It’s called the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. And in order to become certified, pangasius farms have to do things like stock their ponds with fewer fish to reduce disease outbreaks and treat wastewater in sedimentation ponds before dumping it back into the river.

But there are about half a dozen other certification schemes in Vietnam as well, all competing for the same business. And the jury is still out as to whether these voluntary standards will actually translate into real environmental gains.

Roel Bosma: The standards are what I would call set without evidence.

Reporter: Roel Bosma is an aquaculture researcher with the Netherlands’ Wageningen University. He says the certification standards being touted by environmental groups set the bar way too low.

In a government lab outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Bosma and his Vietnamese colleagues are searching for ways to make fishponds completely waste-free. They’re experimenting with new feeds that make fish feces more solid, so they can be easily be removed and the water reused.

Bosma: You can smell it different, huh? You don’t smell it when you’re around, but when it’s concentrated, you smell the difference.

Reporter: The fact that this fragrant brew gets dumped back into the Mekong River, instead of being used as fertilizer for crops or as food for other fish, drives Bosma crazy. He says it’s a basic lesson in efficiency even the original farmers understood.

Bosma: Farming systems in the past, they were mixed systems, where the residues, the waste of one animal or component of the system, were reused by another component of the system.

Reporter: Bosma says by treating the pond as a natural system rather than a factory, farmers can reduce both their waste and their need for costly soy-based feed, which has an entire set of environmental implications of its own. But he says this ecological approach is also labor-intensive, making the model much more suited to smaller farms. The problem is, only a few are left.

As recently as five years ago, small-scale farmers produced the majority of the country’s pangasius. But today, after a wave of consolidation, they account for less than 10 percent – a number that’s likely to fall even lower in the coming years.

Tran Van Tach has about 5 acres of pangasius ponds in a remote village near the Cambodian border, and he says this year’s harvest will be his last.

Tran Van Tach: I already discussed it with my wife to change the business. Maybe after harvesting the fish this time, we change everything back to rice. Maybe we’ll have just the rice field again.

Reporter: Tach stands to lose more than a quarter of a million dollars because of rising feed and labor costs. Like the industrial-scale farm I visited earlier, Tach’s fish are also destined for foreign markets. But he says for him, the cost of complying with the new certification standards his buyers demand means the difference between a profit and going deep into the red.

Tach: If I want to sell my fish, I have to follow the international standard, even though as a small farmer, I have a harder time meeting the requirements. I have no choice but to follow them.

Reporter: With the loss of Vietnam’s smaller fish farms, the country may also be losing its best chance of adopting Roel Bosma’s more ecological approach to aquaculture. Tach, for example, floods his rice fields with pond effluent instead of dumping it back into the river, fertilizing and watering his crop with the waste.

And before the pressure to adopt environmental standards like WWF’s, many pangasius farmers used homemade feeds that included farm byproducts like rice bran and vegetables. They even used ground-up golden snails, a pest in their rice fields, as a source of protein.

These practices may be more sustainable, environmentally and economically, than importing huge amounts of soy meal to feed the fish. But they would never pass the strict food safety standards required by big retailers in Europe and the U.S., where most Vietnamese pangasius ends up.

Which raises another key question in the search for a sustainable aquaculture model: Who’s it for?

At a small fish market in the Mekong Delta, pangasius is one of the cheapest fish you can buy. But there’s virtually no demand for it in other parts of the country. So as the pangasius tycoons like Duong Ngoc Minh focus on feeding the rich world in a more sustainable way, maybe the small producers, with their integrated farms, can focus on feeding the people who need protein the most: the world’s poorest.

In southern Vietnam, I’m Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

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Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist based in Los Angeles.  His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.