Joep Staarman's barramundi fish farm, Kuhlbarra, is the only fish farm located in the southern waters of Singapore. Its two sites are a 40-minute boat ride away from Singapore, one next to Pulau Semakau and the other near Raffles Lighthouse. The farm produces about 500 to 600 tonnes of fish a year — half of it sold locally to restaurants, airlines and households, and the balance exported to Australia, the US and Hong Kong.
You’d been in Singapore for four years with Marine Harvest, one of the biggest fish farming companies in the world. Why did you decide to strike out on your own in 2008?
I’d been in Singapore for four years by then and was overseeing [operations in the] Asia-Pacific [region]. We had yellowtail farms in Japan and barramundi farms in Australia, and were also looking at doing barramundi in Singapore. [When I left that job,] I asked my family if we should go back to Holland, where I’m from, Japan, where I was based before Singapore, or stay here? My three daughters, who were in high school then, said, “I don’t know about you, but we’re staying here.” (Laughs) It’s a good reason to stay. And because fish farms are what I know how to do, I decided to set one up here.
Why Singapore though?
[At Marine Harvest] we’d already planned to set up a fish farm in Singapore. We had the barramundi farms in Australia and noticed that it isn’t the optimal place to grow this fish. Four months out of the year, the temperature is too low and the fish don’t grow. In Singapore, the temperature is the same all year round, and there are no natural disasters like typhoons or tsunamis. So Singapore is an ideal place to farm this fish. After I left Marine Harvest, I asked them if they’d mind if I do this, and they said go ahead. [So I continued talks for the farm] and told [our partners]: “First, you were talking to the biggest fish farming company in the world who wanted to set up the fish farm in Singapore. Now you’re talking to the smallest fish farming company in the world!” (Guffaws) But don’t worry, it’s still the same people.” So with a bunch of ex-colleagues, we set this up.
We live in a time when fish is moving from being hunted to being farmed. These days, no one asks if it’s a wild chicken or a farmed chicken ’cos all chickens are now farmed. The same is now happening with fish. The question is: which fish is the cow or the chicken or pork of the fish world, that is, the main produce. For the fish world, the big ones are shrimp, salmon and tilapia, which is a freshwater fish. But we think that there needs to be another white sea fish besides tilapia. In America, they call tilapia the ketchup carrier — there’s no taste, [so you need to put] ketchup. (Laughs) It’s also growing in freshwater. Sooner or later, freshwater is going to be one of the most expensive commodities in the world. So we think there has to be a seawater white fish. Salmon is a seawater fish but it’s pink and you can’t eat it too often before getting sick of it. So we think barramundi can be the white fish that is farmed. Currently, all the white fish, like cod, is still caught. Barramundi, like salmon, grows to 4 or 5kg, which means you can have a piece of fillet — you don’t actually have to eat it with the bones or the head. You can also grow it in large cages, so the production cost is not too high and you can offer it at a reasonable price.
What’s a typical workday like for you?
Sometimes I get wet, sometimes I stay dry! I head to the farm three times a week, just basically looking around, seeing and talking to the guys working there, ask them how’s it going, what we have to do.
Fun stuff you get to do on the job?
Driving the boat is the most fun for me! If I had to set up the farm just to be allowed to drive the boat, I’d do it. (Laughs) We also host farm visits with our business partners and customers. Most people haven’t seen a farm like that in Singapore with the floating big cages in the middle of the sea, or how we harvest the fish the same way most commercial farms around the world do it.
How much fish do you eat weekly?
About twice a week. I also go to different restaurants with different cuisines to try out our own fish. At least once a week, I’ll make a chowder with our fish. I make it for my wife and me only, since my daughters are all living overseas now.
What hopes do you have for Singapore’s farming sector?
What I’d like for the Singapore community is for farmers to be proud to say they are farmers. Not agricultural technicians and all that. To be a farmer, you need to know everything about the business, from research, representing the company, the agricultural banking system, etc. You need to know the details of so much stuff, it’s unbelievable. You don’t have to do everything yourself, but you need to understand it or you won’t know who to ask for help when you need it. To be a farmer is one of the hardest jobs in the world. But it’s also one of the nicest jobs in the world. You do the total value chain from nothing. I hope Singaporean farmers can be proud of that.