Raising bangus for fry, export

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Sunday, May 9, 2010

BANGUS has always been the most important species cultured in the Philippines. Sleek and silvery, beloved because of its mild, sweet flesh, and its melt-in the-mouth belly fat, it fish is a favorite Filipino fish.

Today, the Philippines is one of the top bangus producers in the world, along with Indonesia and Taiwan. It has been exporting bangus to other countries like the United States, England, Canada, and Japan.

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The Alcantara Group of Companies, also simply known as Alsons, recognizes this well. "We have observed there is a significant market for value-added export bangus products among Filipinos living or working abroad," said Ramon M. Macaraig, Alson's vice president for research and development.

"The people may be able to pay higher values for the convenience of receiving flavored and deboned bangus products."

The company processes bangus into various products, including smoked, frozen and deboned; split, marinated and deboned; fresh frozen deboned; bangus fillet from big size; bangus belly (from big size); baby bangus split and marinated; baby bangus smoked and deboned; bottled bangus sardines style in corn oil; flavored products that include relleno, tocino and spicy. It also sells a lot of fresh frozen whole bangus in the local as well as export markets.

Some 70 percent of the processed products are exported to the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia and Guam. No wonder, the Alcantara Group is easily the biggest exporter of bangus products in the Philippines carrying the Sarangani brand.

The bangus project is just one of the businesses under the umbrella of the Alcantara Group of Companies that include a cattle ranch, pummel, and banana plantations. The bangus project started soon after a partnership in shrimp production with Dole Philippines broke up.

Dole took over solo management of the 205-hectare prawn farm in Alabel, Sarangani, while the Alcantaras converted a 28-hectare portion of their ranch into bangus ponds. The bangus project was so successful that they had to look for additional areas for bangus production.

In 1996, the Finfish Hatcheries Inc. (FHI) started operations as part of the business integration program of Alcantara’s agribusiness unit. Today, it has now 360 hectares of bangus pond grow-out module, 60,000 cubic meters of sea cage grow-out module, a bangus hatchery module, a fish processing module, and a seafood marketing module.

Historically, bangus fry abound in the country. Due to the destruction of natural habitats brought about by the extensive conversion of mangrove areas to fishponds, destructive fishing methods (like dynamite fishing), and environmental degradation (deforestation and siltation), among others, the supply dwindled.

"Being able to supply a major portion of the Philippine bangus fry nationwide demand was an opportunity we recognized as a secondary objective initially," said Macaraig. Its main objective was to produce both chilled products from ponds and cages and value-added bangus products from its processing plant consistently that the unreliable supply of bangus fry and fingerlings for the grow-out phase of the business could not assure.

The Alcantara Group has achieved both objectives. Today, it harvests about 18 tons of bangus every day and exports most of these in processed form to other countries. Simultaneously, through the FHI, it produces 120 million bangus fry every month.

But that is going ahead of the story. Macaraig says the challenges FHI faced during the early days were not production but marketing. In just six months of the first year of operation, it was able to achieve its target of 120 million bangus fry.

In 1997, the price of wild-caught fry ranged from P0.80 to P1.50 per piece during the year. The highest demand was from February to June when farmers would be seeding the fry banks. The wild fry supply season would be from mid-April to mid-August. The natural spawning of the milkfish spawners (sabalo) is principally governed by water temperature.

In the beginning, the introduction of the FHI fry in the bangus industry was met with skepticism by growers as to whether a hatchery-bred fry can be as good as the wild-caught fry coming from nature. This stigma was even bolstered by significant number of deformities in fry received by the industry from the first bangus hatcheries organized by the Iloilo-based Southeast Asia Fisheries Development Center (Seafdec).

FHI did the difficult task of developing a branded bangus fry product, called Sarangani Fry, that will meet the quality needs of the market. The hard work paid off.

Today, FHI produces fry with very, very, rare incidence of deformities like scoliosis and open operculum as a result of good rearing and balanced nutrition in the rearing ponds. It makes bangus fry available the whole year round, using the Sarangani Fry as the brand with a logo and a signature carton container.

Other innovations include packing in plastic bags for at least a 24-hour period from bagging to bag opening; sizing the fry so that fry of relatively the same size are packed in a bag; giving testimonials as to how big the bangus from FHI can grow in the shortest possible time; and explaining to growers that the Sarangani Fry bag does not contain the predators, normally seined with the wild caught fry, that prey on the fry and lead to a fingerling survival rate of only 50 percent.

Today, more Filipino growers are seeding their ponds with Sarangani Fry, which can be had anytime of the year. "We have developed a marketing structure where there are major dealers in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao,"

Macaraig says: "We maintain sales offices in Makati, Bacolod, Iloilo, and at the head office in Alabel, Sarangani. The fry is received by sales personnel from these offices and delivered to the clients."

Macaraig reports that Sarangani Fry now supplies more than 40 percent of total national demand placed at about 2.5 billion bangus fry per year.

"Aquaculture in the Philippines will continue to improve as needs for food and livelihood opportunities are enhanced by the growing population," Macaraig stressed.

Raising bangus fry export

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