First ASC-certified sustainable shrimp farm in Malaysia

Shrimp holds the distinction of being the most traded seafood worldwide in terms of volume, contributing a staggering US$32 billion to annual global trade. Due to a lack of awareness about sustainability, some current shrimp farming practices in the industry are causing significant harm to the environment.

This includes ecological damage and water pollution, which in turn contribute to social and health disparities, while also exacerbating climate change. Sadly, the issues of sustainability have not received the attention they truly deserve among today’s shrimp farmers.

Sankina Aquaculture is taking the lead by becoming the first in Malaysia to adopt the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) standards. 

Sankina’s decision to pursue this certification reflects its commitment to sustainable and responsible aquaculture practices. It also embraces technological advancements in its operations, further revolutionizing conventional shrimp farms.

During an interview with Maritime Fairtrade, the Managing Director of Sankina Aquaculture Jenny Ou, emphasized their commitment to conducting meaningful business. 

Ou stated” “At our company, we believe that integrating purpose into our daily operations distinguishes us from merely conducting business for the sake of it. It fundamentally transforms the very essence of our company, making it more meaningful, impactful, and personally fulfilling for everyone involved.”

A glimpse into the operations of Sankina Aquaculture’s outdoor shrimp farming facility in Tawau, Sabah. Photo credit: Sankina Aquaculture.

Seed of sustainability was planted

In 2010, Sankina embarked on a new venture by establishing a small shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei) farm. It acquired farms that had previously cultivated tiger prawns (Penaeus monodon) but had to close down due to disease outbreaks. In order to enforce biosecurity and good aquaculture practices, Sankina made the necessary modifications and restructuring of its farm infrastructure.

From 2010 to 2016, Sankina focused solely on shrimp cultivation. However, during this period, it encountered a challenge.

“As shrimp farmers, we faced limited market opportunities and struggled to find potential buyers for our product locally. The final food products were not being priced in a way that met the financial needs of the farmers, leading to an imbalance in the industry,” Ou said. “These prices were notably low and exerted considerable pressure on the farmers involved.”

This circumstance encouraged Sankina to take a leap and started its own factory in 2016. Since then, they have been exporting products to various destinations, both locally and internationally. 

Ou added: “We’ve successfully built our initial customer base. These customers used to purchase tiger prawns from the Tawau area in the past. They’re aware that the prawns from Tawau are of good quality. 

“However, a disease outbreak caused by unsustainable practices had halted tiger prawn farming and trade in this specific region.

“The strong desire of our customers to continue purchasing from us played a key role in our decision to stay in business. Their support motivated us to further explore and implement sustainable practices.”

The unwavering loyalty and strong desire of customers to continue purchasing from Sankina Aquaculture have been driving factors for Sankina to commit to producing good quality and sustainable products. Photo credit: Sankina Aquaculture

Journey to pursue ASC certification

“In 2018, our customers began suggesting and inspiring us to pursue ASC certification. This was driven by the growing global trend and demand for sustainable seafood,” Ou said.

Precisely, in Japan, all seafood suppliers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were required to obtain the ASC certification. This certification enhances their credibility as suppliers by demonstrating their compliance with regulations and their commitment to sustainable aquaculture practices.

When asked about the challenges faced in the application process, Ou responded that Sankina was presented with multiple challenges.

Transparency and traceability

Locating a transparent supplier of top-notch shrimp feed locally can be a quite challenging task. This is because there is a need to trace the fish and ingredients used in their meal back to their source. In Sankina’s case, it had to rely on importing the feed from overseas to meet their requirements up to now.

Due to the proprietary nature of business formulas and supplier details, it was not easy for suppliers to disclose information about the ingredients in their products. This includes details such as the sources of the ingredients, percentage composition, and the content included in the feed. 

“We conduct quarterly internal mock recalls, during which we randomly trace back to all our suppliers. This practice helps us validate the information provided and maintain the highest standards of trustworthiness,” Ou added.

Shortcoming in SOPs

Sankina’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) adheres to the regulations set by the Malaysian Fishery Department, particularly in relation to their myGAP certification. While this certification ensures that farmers follow excellent aquaculture practices, it does not cover certain areas such as environmental concerns and social aspects. 

Therefore, Sankina participated in WWF-Malaysia’s Aquaculture Improvement Program. This program provided guidance and support to improve its SOPs in relation to environmental and social factors, as well as raise awareness of sustainable practices.

Environmental aspect 

Jenny Ou and her team had engaged in some rather interesting activities. 

She said: “We have implemented a daily practice of sending our staff into the field to physically count birds and capture photographs of trees. This is done to monitor the impact of our aquaculture practices on the natural habitat. It’s interesting to discover that the mangroves conservation area (near Sankina’s reservoir) was attracting migratory birds. 

“Although some members in the company may not have initially understood the purpose of this activity, increasing awareness and education about the positive impacts of natural boundaries are helping them to recognize the significance of this initiative.

“During the audit, the focus was on ensuring that any substances discharged into the river or ocean did not have a negative impact on the environment. To conduct testing, we rowed boats to the middle of the oceans as per the auditor’s request to collect water samples from a specific location. 

“Moreover, as part of our inland farming practices, we prioritize preventing erosion and salinization. To ensure this, we regularly send staff to gather soil from our neighbors’ property (a coconut farm) located across our farm.”

Sankina Aquaculture initiated a mangrove restoration project and planted seedlings for it. Photo credit: Sankina Aquaculture.

Social aspect

Sankina’s workforce comprises individuals with diverse educational backgrounds, including many who may not have higher education. As a result, Sankina made it a priority to provide comprehensive training to all employees. 

For example, teaching them about their labor rights and daily safety practices, Sankina discovered that many things assumed to be common knowledge were actually unfamiliar to their general workers.

Some of the workers have extensive experience in shrimp cultivation, surpassing Sankina’s expertise. Their many years of hands-on experience brought a level of resistance towards adopting unfamiliar methods. 

Therefore, Sankina has to effectively communicate with them and ensure that workers are willing to embrace new techniques and practice what has been implemented.

Outbreak of COVID-19

The preparation for ASC certification began as early as 2018, and Sankina was fully prepared to submit its application in 2019. It eagerly awaited the audit to complete the certification process. Unfortunately, the outbreak of COVID-19 impacted its progression and caused a significant delay. 

“Due to the unavailability of auditors in Malaysia to conduct environmental audits for ASC, we had to wait for foreign auditors to travel and carry out the necessary assessments,” Ou explained. “This finally took place in 2022.”

The employees of Sankina Aquaculture actively engaged in a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) event. Photo credit: Sankina Aquaculture

What’s next

From the economic standpoint, preserving the value of its products is a top priority for Sankina. It strives to support its partner farms by setting and achieving competitive pricing targets. Ensuring that farmers receive fair compensation for their efforts in producing goods.

Another goal is to enhance farm production by implementing more cost-efficient farming methods. Specifically, Sankina is focused on optimizing aquaculture practices by exploring lower energy machinery options and alternative sources. 

This approach aims to improve overall costs and sustainability while promoting transparency in its operations. Technologies such as outdoor recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS), blockchain, solar-powered paddle wheels, oxygen generators, and insect protein as an alternative fish meal source are all currently being researched and developed in Sankina.

In terms of environmental efforts, Sankina’s focus remains on expanding the restoration of mangroves. Its plan for the future involves transforming the area into a mangrove park or nursery for the Tawau community. This initiative will help promote and raise awareness about mangrove restoration and planting.

Sankina Aquaculture plan to convert the area into a mangrove park or nursery, which will greatly benefit the Tawau community. Photo credit: Sankina Aquaculture

Additionally, Sakina has a desire to establish a closed-loop system within the farm. Inspired by the South American model on upcycling the organic waste, Sankina plans to produce organic fertilizers in-house to feed seaweed production. Meanwhile, the farm will be introducing a biofilter system. This system incorporates fish and molluscs to complete the filtration cycle.

Sankina is fostering a strong sustainability community by emphasizing the social aspect. It is bringing together shrimp farmers who share common values and goals, providing a platform where they can collaboratively tackle challenges and strive towards a more sustainable future.

Through this collective effort, Sankina hopes to make significant progress in promoting responsible shrimp farming practices and raising awareness about the importance of the triple bottom line within the industry.

Top photo credit: WWF-Malaysia. Representatives of WWF-Malaysia, the Department of Fisheries Sabah, and the Sabah Forestry Department were present during the ASC certification award ceremony for Sankina Aquaculture. Jenny Ou, managing director of Sankina Aquaculture (center). 

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