Fish farmer Philip Lim, 53, wanted to prove a point: That fish caught in the plankton bloom last February did not die from a lack of oxygen but from the toxin released by the harmful algae in the water.
He took 500 fish to his farm at the East Johor Straits and put them in three separate areas; he aerated the first set, aerated and put copper sulphate (to kill bacteria) in the second and seawater in the last.
His instinct was spot on. Only a handful of those who had seawater survived. Lim was vindicated.
“When you aerate the water, you break the cell of the algae and that would release toxin. Then your fishes die. I try telling everyone about it but no one would listen,” he said with an air of resignation.
A spokesman for Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA) told The Independent Singapore the plankton bloom was due to “high temperatures and low tides resulting in a plankton bloom in the East Johor Straits.”
Yet a report by the Tropical Marine Science Institute at the National University of Singapore in 2009 confirmed the presence of harmful algae blooms in the Johor Straits even then.
The report said that “toxic bloom-forming species are a causative organism for shellfish poisoning… and they can cause significant damage in coastal areas.”
Lim has been telling AVA about the harmful algae in the East Johor Straits since the first plankton bloom in 2009 that saw the loss of 400,000 fishes.
He showed his makeshift system to detect the presence of harmful algae, which he said was ignored. [PHOTO: Lim, 53, in his speedboat as he visits other fish farmers.]
Five years and 160 tonnes of dead fish later, AVA went into damage control mode. They offered to pay 70 per cent of the cost to restock the fish farms.
But AVA also said to TODAY, no marine biotoxins were detected in the waters and that made Lim furious.
Four months have passed since then. Lim still speaks harshly of the AVA, like the water around his floating fish farm that threatens to throw us aboard every two minutes.
“Money [the grants and subsidies] cannot keep fishes alive in these waters.”
“I want the AVA to work with us. The ecosystem in this area is ruined. I suspect it is due to the reclamation work going on.”
“[AVA] needs to work with the fish farmers and restore the water here. No one knows for certain when is the next plankton bloom.
“AVA spends too much resources telling us fish farmers how to cut down cost and how to produce more fishes.
“But AVA does not have a sustainable plan to deal with the harmful algae. What is their plan when the next harmful algae bloom happens?
“If AVA doesn’t help us restore the water and monitor this plankton bloom, don’t talk about fish farming, don’t talk about sustainability, all the fishes will die.”
AVA’s spokesperson responded that, “there is no fool proof method or system which is able to forecast the occurrence of a plankton or algae bloom. However, we look out for signs and trigger points, such as unusual weather patterns and poor water exchange between the high and low tides.”
AVA has installed monitoring system at some coastal fish farms and according to their reports there is no plankton bloom since February.
[PHOTO: Many of the fish farms at the East Johor Straits have been in operation for decades.]
In his early 20s, Lim was a commercial diver. He says his ‘kampong roots’ from his childhood in Kim Chuan village drew him back to fish farming.
10 years ago, he started his first fish farm.
Now everyone in the area knows Philip Lim. He is the Chairman of Singapore Marine Aquaculture Cooperative. His intent- to help fish farmers make a decent living, to keep the old, small-time fish farmers going.
“We have unspoken rules among the fish farmers. We look out for one another, and we do not lock our doors.
It’s not easy being a fish farmer, he says. “The fishes in Malaysia will always be cheaper than ours, and the middleman is always pressing down the prices.”
But 40-odd fishing farms still float on these waters.
“There are fish farmers here who do not even own a house on land. They have lived their entire lives here. Some of them are already 80 years old.”
His friend, 57, who does not want to be named says, “I am catching crabs to sustain my farm. During the plankton bloom this year, I lost a ‘semi-detached house’ worth of profit in these waters.”
Another farmer who only wants to be known as Gregory, 64, says, “AVA need to take some responsibility, don’t just give us money. They need to analyse these waters and find a solution to the plankton bloom.”
Gregory’s solution is to isolate his fishes in large canvases away from the seawater. He took the AVA grant after the February’s disaster. It’s better than nothing, he says.
But Lim has stayed away from the grants.
I asks him why, “If I take AVA’s grant, I would not have been allowed to speak to you.”