Sri Lankan Meeting Offers Insight Into Industry Challenges
It’s amazing how far the ornamental aquatic industry has advanced over the past 50 to 60 years. It is to be expected, but every once in awhile, we come across an apparently minor document or anecdote that knocks matters into spectacular perspective.
One such incident occurred to a colleague of mine, Paul Bakuwel, secretary general of Ornamental Fish International (OFI), at a conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in February. He came across a telegram that was sent out on June 18, 1940, by a now-disappeared Singapore exporter of ornamental fish, Teo Way Yong, to importer Abdul Ally Modsbhoy, based in Colombo.
In it, we see that a total of 396 fish were shipped out from Singapore on the vessel SS Penang Maru. The invoice listed a total of just eight species, the main ones being angelfish (140 specimens in two jars) and platies (140 specimens in one jar). Since, in those days, few ships carried ornamental fish on board, Abdul was asked to give the chief boatswain a bonus on delivery.
I don’t know how long the fish took to complete the trip from Singapore to Colombo, or how many survived the journey. I retell the story merely to demonstrate just how challenging the process of exporting fish has been from the earliest days. Things are quite different today, but we are still facing challenges, exemplified by those highlighted and discussed at the above-mentioned Sri Lanka conference and—perhaps most important—during the numerous conversations that occurred “off conference.”
Although up-to-date statistics (i.e., 2016) are not available yet, we know that the export value of Sri Lankan ornamental fish has been increasing steadily, especially over the past decade or so. For example, in 2011, the value of exports stood at $10 million, with the fish coming from around 45 exporters. In 2013, this figure recorded a growth of around 23 percent compared to 2012, a trend that, perhaps with a slightly lower growth rate, is being maintained. Sri Lanka’s main customers are the U.S., Japan, the U.K., Germany and France, but there are also emerging markets, such as Qatar and Canada.
Sri Lanka is experiencing a slightly better expansion rate than some other exporting countries, something that will likely be influenced by the government’s keen interest in, and support for, the ornamental aquatic sector.
The Sri Lankan authorities’ support for the industry has a long history. I remember, for example, that on one of my Sri Lankan visits more than 20 years ago, the leader of the Opposition Party, with whom I had a very interesting meeting, emphasized his party’s commitment to the industry. Interestingly, he subsequently became president of the country and proceeded to provide the support he had promised at our earlier meeting. There’s perhaps a lesson to be learned by other exporting countries and regions.
On a less positive note, the Sri Lankan meeting raised many of the concerns that virtually all other exporting countries are experiencing. One of the top worries relates to undercutting, which, in turn, leads to falling prices. Sri Lankan guppy prices, for example, have dropped from what they were many years back—around the 26-cent mark—to as low as 10- to 12-cents today.
According to OFI president Shane Willis, established exporters are being put under “price pressure” by small, fringe exporters that buy cheap, poor-quality fish and sell them at discounted rates.
“These exporters generally have no facility or knowledge of packing and quality control, often resulting in disastrous consequences on arrival,” Willis said. “The main concern that the larger exporters have [and not just Sri Lankan ones] is that these small exporters give the industry a bad name and make it difficult for the established companies to maintain sustainable pricing.”
To this end, Willis—through OFI—urges everyone to think carefully about whom they do business with.
Other concerns raised in Sri Lanka, but provide a valuable insight into the wider ornamental aquatic community, included sustainability, animal welfare, technology options to address these challenges and other related matters. However, far from seeing these issues as problems, the general mood within the industry is that they should be seen as opportunities to continue with the ongoing development programs already underway.
Among these, training and capacity building are of fundamental importance in developing and maintaining the necessary tools with which to face the challenges. Huge strides also are being made on the conservation side, with the slogan, ‘Buy a Fish, Save a Tree/Reef,’ becoming ever-more central in the evolution of the wild-caught sector.
Industry gatherings such as the Sri Lanka conference and the forthcoming Aquarama in Guangzhou, China, and AquaRealm in Singapore trade events will provide further forums for discussion, updating and networking, and will be fully supported by the international community.
We have come a long way since the 1940 shipment, and we have overcome numerous challenges, but many still remain and will continue to do so in the future. Sri Lanka provided valuable insights and generated a basis for further thought and attention, something that today’s industry wholeheartedly embraces.
I would like to extend my thanks to Shane Willis and Paul Bakuwel, president and general secretary of OFI, respectively, for sharing their thoughts with me.