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Far East Aquatic Livestock Exporters Hit Hard By COVID-19 Pandemic


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Everything at an almost total standstill in Singapore.

John Dawes

It’s inevitable—wherever we look, we find COVID-19 staring us in the face. Everything and everyone is affected in some way, and the ornamental aquatic industry is no exception.

Keen to learn how the pandemic has been, and still is, affecting our industry, I contacted some of the heavyweight Asian exporters to find out how they were doing. The result was devastating!

Before continuing, I must stress that, from the outset, the situation regarding the COVID-19 epidemic has been “fluid” and constantly changing. For this reason, some of the issues discussed in this report may well have evolved since they were written. 

All the people I contacted reported a huge impact on exports, with sales falling by anything between 50 percent and 90 percent since the crisis began. One exporter even reported that its marine exports were down to zero.

And it’s not just a question of importers not buying livestock. Supply, too, was badly affected. For example, Singapore exports consist, to a large extent, of fish brought in from Malaysian farms, many of which are Singapore-owned. However, as Malaysia imposed a total lockdown on fish movements, this vital supply was cut off at a single stroke, affecting major sellers, such as livebearers (guppies, platies, swordtails and mollies), cichlids and gouramis, among others.

As a result, exporters were forced to seek alternative supplies from countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia and others in the region, but this did not solve the problem, because those countries were also under varying degrees of lockdown and airlines had either suspended all their flights or, at best, reduce them. This, in turn, meant that, as cargo space became ever more limited, freight charges rose, with some of those I contacted reporting exorbitant increases of between 100 percent and 300 percent, depending on location. 

At the peak of the crisis, one major exporter stated: “Exporters are at the mercy of the airlines and freight forwarders. We have to accept the price they quote for each kilo, and when this happens, the importer loses interest in the fish and looks for other alternatives, while the shipper has to suffer.”

The range of species and varieties available directly from Singapore were also greatly reduced when compared to, say, those produced in Malaysia. As one exporter said: “Without the assortment, buyers are not willing to buy,” thus adding to the crisis.

In Sri Lanka, the cut-off of supplies did not apply just to livestock being imported into the country; it also applied to in-country supplies. For instance, on March 16, certain regions in Sri Lanka went into lockdown, while others imposed 24-hour curfews. This meant that fish produced by companies in their own ex-situ farms in certain areas of the country couldn’t be transported to their bases in Colombo.

Fortunately, this major obstacle has, apparently, been at least partly resolved, with the government agreeing to regard fish exports as being an essential service and issuing curfew passes to allow movement of stocks from farms to packing areas and company headquarters near the capital. In Singapore, meanwhile, the country’s Competent Authority, the Animal and Veterinary Service (AVS), has, all along, been liaising with the industry—Singapore Aquarium Fish Exporters’ Association (SAFEA) and the Ornamental Fish Business Cluster (OFBC)—as well as the Malaysian Department of Fisheries, resulting in the sector now also being regarded as an essential service, thus releasing it from certain restrictions.

But again, this doesn’t solve the overall problem, largely because of the domino effect stretching back to the consumers. With countless retail shops being shut in numerous countries and movement restrictions being imposed on individuals, retail sales have been down. Obviously, this has meant that wholesale/distribution has also been negatively impacted, which, in turn, has resulted in importers not buying from their suppliers—the breeders and exporters in source countries.

Add to this the above-mentioned limited cargo space available and the reduced number of flights, plus the increased freight charges, and we have a situation of disastrous proportions. This has not been made any easier by the lack of raw materials for packaging either, which, in itself, has raised prices for these basic essentials among exporters.

Yet despite all these difficulties and obstacles, I was encouraged to read that none of the companies I contacted had laid off any staff or had any intention of doing so. Some personnel were taking their annual leave during the downtime period, while others had chosen to go for unpaid leave, but no one had had to be dismissed. Also encouragingly, the Singapore exporters’ financial “load” was being lightened by the government agreeing to pay part of workers’ wages for April and May. As one of the exporters said: “Laying off of staff is not our priority … our priority is to take care of each individual’s health and safety … we are trying to take care of everyone during this difficult time.”

Away from the direct exporting side, I also contacted the Indonesia Nature Foundation (LINI), which is the focal point of the ever-more-important captive breeding activities regarding the popular and beautiful Banggai cardinalfish (BCF). The region is also the source of some marine fish for the trade.

Dr. Gayatri Reksodihardjo-Lilley, LINI’s director-founder, told me that the aquarium fishers in Les village, North Bali, had “not collected reef fish for the aquarium trade since the beginning of March, and there are no orders anymore from the exporters.” The situation is such that LINI and a group of supporters have been contributing funds for basic needs, such as rice, cooking oil, liquid soap, etc., to help these fishers get by until they can start collecting again.

The LINI Aquaculture and Training Centre, where much of the BCF breeding activity is based, has continued to open, and staff and volunteers from the community have gone in to feed the fish and perform maintenance activities. However, with visits by students and others from outside the region being canceled, it “may face a shortage of financial means to cover our operational costs.”

Nonetheless, with demand for the BCF having pretty much disappeared for the moment, LINI and its community partners and field staff “continue to work in the remote places in Banggai … deploying artificial reefs to enhance the BCF habitat.”

With flights practically nonexistent and freight charges escalating, the export situation from the Banggai region currently looks bleak. One exporter, for example, was shipping only once a week at the time of writing, and only to Japan and Canada, since all his other clients had stopped buying.

Overall, therefore, the COVID-19 pandemic has been, and still is, affecting every link in the supply chain, from hobbyists to commercial breeders and exporters. At long last, though, there are encouraging signs that the end of the crisis is beginning to come into view. But even if everything were to be magically resolved tomorrow, the COVID-19 legacy will be with us for a long time. It is likely to take years before full normality is restored … that is, if it ever is restored to its pre-COVID-19 state.


Open COVID-19 Letters

In a somewhat unexpected move, some U.S. senators and representatives—perhaps taking advantage of the COVID-19 epidemic and exploiting it to advance their agendas—wrote to the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) requesting the prohibition of the international live wildlife trade to counteract the global threat posed by COVID-19. 

In an immediate, detailed, well-constructed and well-informed response, the industry sent out two important open letters:

  • One was led by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) and signed by: Mike Bober, president and CEO of PIJAC; Steve King, CEO of the American Pet Products Association (APPA); Vic Mason, president of the World Pet Association (WPA); Celeste Powers, president of the Pet Industry Distributors Association (PIDA); Kevin Erickson, president of the Marine Aquarium Societies of North America (MASNA); Phil Goss, president of the United States Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK); Robin M. Turner, executive director of the Animal Transportation Association (ATA); and Patti Strand, president of the National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA)
  • The other was instigated by the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Organisation (OATA) and was supported by the European Pet Organisation (EPO), PIJAC Canada, PIJAC, Ornamental Fish International (OFI), Reptile and Exotic Pet Trade Association (REPTA), Sustainable Users Network (SUN–UK), Asociación Española de la Industria y el Comercio del Sector Animal de Compañía (AEDPAC–Spain), Norwegian Pet Trade Association (NZB), Dieren Benodigdheden en Voelers (DIBEVO–Netherlands), Syndicat Professionnels des Métiers et Services de l’Animal Familier (PRODAF–France), Association of Austrian Pet Traders (WKO) and Zentralverband Zoologischer Fachbetriebe Deutschlands e. V. (ZZF–Germany).

Acknowledgements

I would like to extend my most sincere thanks to the following for their valuable assistance with, and contribution to, this report:

  • Lim Chai Luan (South Island Aquarium, Singapore, internal auditor of the Singapore Aquarium Fish Exporters’ Association)
  • Lim Meng Huat (Apollo Aquarium, Singapore, chairman of the Ornamental Fish Business Cluster)
  • William Chew (Sanyo Aquarium, Singapore, vice chairman of the Singapore Aquarium Fish Exporters’ Association)
  • Andy Yap (Qian Hu Fish Farm Trading, Singapore, Chinese secretary of the Singapore Aquarium Fish Exporters’ Association)
  • Vibhu Perera (chairman of Lumbini Aquaria International, Sri Lanka)
  • Gayatri Reksodihardjo-Lilley (director-founder of the Indonesia Nature Foundation, LINI)
  • I am also grateful to PIJAC, OATA and OFI for access to their documentation relating to the COVID-19 epidemic.

John Dawes is an international ornamental aquatic industry consultant. He has written and/or edited more than 50 books and has contributed more than 4,000 articles to hobby, trade and academic publications. He is the editor of the OFI Journal and a consultant to AquaRealm, the trade show that took place June 2017 in Singapore. 

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