Seabass Hatcheries Sprout, Easing its Cultivation

By Henrylito D. Tacio

General Santos City,  17 August 2009. If you happen to visit Queensland, Australia, you will encounter people talking about barramundi. This “large-scaled river fish” as what the name literally means, was originally referred to as saratoga. But the new name stuck for marketing reasons during the 1980s, a decision which has aided in raising the profile of the fish significantly.

Scientifically, the fish is called Lates calcarifer. Although it is also called Asian seabass, Australian seabass, and white seabass, it is actually a type of fish called a drum and not really a bass. Black seabass and striped bass are the real bass. The nearly extinct but very popular Chilean seabass is actually a patagonian toothfish, not something you’d order off the menu. Giant seabass are groupers (of which lapu-lapu is a species). But people doing the eating generally don’t care too much about classifications. If it tastes similar, cooks similar, then it is similar and hence these are seabass.

In Australia, the seabass is used to stock freshwater reservoirs as it is very popular for recreational fishing. Here in the Philippines, where the fish is locally known as apahap (other local names include kakap, bulgan, salongsong, katuyot, and matang pusa), it is highly prized in seafood restaurants because of its delectable taste.

“Seabass is a highly sought after fish because of its white meat,” says Rene B. Bocaya, the national sales manager of Finfish Hatcheries, Inc. “It used to be a very popular game fish when its supply was still abundant from the wild. Now, it is mostly cultured.”

Seabass has the potential to contribute to fisheries production in the country as it can be raised in captivity. However, it has one drawback: there is a scarcity of seabass fry/fingerlings, which are available mostly in the wild.

That’s not true today anymore. In Kalibo, Aklan, a seabass satellite hatchery has been established by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) as part of the initiatives to increase the production of the said aquaculture species.

Another good source of seabass seeds is the Finfish Hatcheries, Inc., whose hatchery is located in Lun Masla, Malapatan in Sarangani Province. “We sell only the fingerling size,” says Bocaya, a fishery expert who graduated from Bicol University. “Our price is P6 per inch.”

A prospective fishpond or fish cage operator needs 10,000 pieces per hectare to make the venture profitable. “Fingerlings would be about 15-20 percent of production cost,” Bocaya informs. The expenses would be about P20 per kilo for each marketable fish (nearly half a kilo).

“With good market, seabass can be profitable,” says Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, the executive director of the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development (PCAMRD).

“Restaurants are the primary buyers of seabass,” says Bocaya, who describes seabass as “highly priced fish.” According to Dr. Guerrero, the price for live seabass ranges from P250 to P400 per kilogram, depending on its size (300 to 500 grams). Fresh or frozen ones are sold at P150 to P200 per kilogram.

Raising seabass is a profitable venture, a study conducted by the Brackishwater Aquaculture Center of the University of the Philippines – Visayas in Iloilo found out. Stocking the pond with 1,000 seabass fingerlings with 20,000 juveniles per hectare produced 5,000 kilograms of matured seabass with value of P125,000.00 in six months.

Seabass can tolerate a wide range of salinity from freshwater to full seawater. However, lower salinity promotes better growth. Although a highly carnivorous fish, it can be trained to feed on formulated diets. On wild, seabass feeds on crustaceans, molluscs, and smaller fishes (including its own species); juveniles feed on zooplankton.

The Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC), a research institution based in Iloilo, said that seabass is easy to culture in brackishwater ponds. “It is hardy, and the seedstock can be easily sourced from the hatchery,” it said. “There is a need, however, to include a nursery before the grow-out phase so that seabass can be easily sorted and size-graded to reduce competition to space and food, thus controlling cannibalism.” Survival in the 30-45 day nursery phase can be as high as 96 percent.

Generally, seabass are raised from six to eight months before they can be sold. But before that, raisers have to deal first with diseases and parasites. “These can be prevented with proper evaluation of pond site before the culture stage,” Bocaya says. “Good culture practices such as low stocking densities and regular monitoring of cultured stocks will further prevent future problems.”

Another concern: “Since seabass is a predator fish, sustainability is a concern if it is not managed properly,” Bocaya says. “It can be cultured with other fishes, like the prolific tilapia, it is used as a biological control.”

Most of the seabass raised in the country come from Iloilo and Bacolod. Bocaya reveals, “Production cost ranges from P100 to P120 per kilogram.”

Seabass can be cultured in the aquarium. “It can be entertaining, especially at feeding time since it is a voracious feeder,” Bocaya says. If you like watching fish eating fish, seabass should be the kind of fish you should raise in your aquarium. Unfortunately, “it is not a popular fish for aquarium enthusiasts so there is little money there,” he adds.

In addition, seabass has dull color which also makes it not an attractive aquarium fish. It has large silver scales, which may become darker or lighter, depending on the environment. Not only that, its body can reach up to 1.8 meters long.

Unknowingly, there is an international market for seabass. “United States is one of the biggest export markets of seabass,” Bocaya points out.

With mariculture parks set up by BFAR around the country, “seabass will be the next big thing in the aquaculture industry,” foresees Bocaya. “It is just a matter of showing to the investors the profitability of culturing it. And our company will always be there to serve the fingerling needs of the growers.”

Seabass is also raised in aquaculture in Australia, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Thailand and the United States. One operator in the US reportedly produces up to 800 tons a year from a single facility.