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A night-time walk around Sungai Rengit - and our food system

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

Memory from a few months back while on a short weekend-getaway to Sungai Rengit on the Southern tip of Johor, near the Pengerang oil refinery complex. During a late-night stroll after dinner, we happened to stumble upon the arrival of a fresh catch of seafood by the local fishermen. The fishermen hauled crates after crates of fish from a seemingly small fishing boat along the small wooden jetty to a small shed on land. There, several groups of workers had gathered for a truly remarkable spectacle: They distributed the crates and with impressive efficiency started a sorting frenzy; picking out the 'good' from the 'bad'. While a few food fish were picked out, most of the focus seemed to be on the wild-caught shrimps.

Guess what was the ratio of good to bad?



For every kilo of shrimp and ‘good’ fish, it seemed there were easily >20-30Kg of by-catch or so called "trash fish" (estimated not weighed; but vast majority by volume was trash fish; unlike the 30-50% reported in a recent article here). These trash fish were mostly small, heterogenous fish, partially deformed & damaged from having been in the nets/on boat for too long (despite just being landed, perhaps they were trans-shipped on sea?) that ended up in large plastic crates by the side of the shed.

Apparently what we witnessed was a regular routine - customers for the food fish flocked to the side out of nowhere, picked up bags with the selected catch and disappeared.

Shortly after the sorting was finished, a large lorry pulled up and the trash fish crates were loaded to be brought to the nearby fish farms around the Johor river; typically used for farming seabass / barramundi, a carnivorous marine finfish that's become a favorite staple in Malaysia and Singapore restaurants (and homes), in floating net cage farms (kelongs). Common sight to see meat mincers being used on the kelongs to mince trash fish before throwing it into the open net cages. Side-note: WWF-Malaysia is running a great multi-stakeholder project on sustainable feed using black soldier fly larvae protein as an alternative to this trash fish practice for Asian seabass in Kukup, another cage-farming cluster in Johor.

The workers hauling the crates didn't know the price of the trash fish, but I read elsewhere in a 2016 article that the price back then was 1RM/kg (0.22 USD/kg); which tallies with local fishmeal prices around 4-5 RM/kg now (1.0-1.1 USD/kg; at a 5-to-1 ratio; larger scale, cheaper trash fish cost compensated by drying energy cost to be roughly equal cost on dry matter basis). It's much too cheap; enabled by cheap labor and subsidised inputs, especially diesel and fuels for the fisherman (a staggering 630 million liters of subsidised fuels have been handed out to support almost 52,000 vessels in 2021 in Malaysia alone, see here); not mentioning the massive externalities of damaged ecosystems and emptied oceans that nobody pays for today (in the short-term); except that we all pay for it in the long-term. Recognising that the solution to the problem lies not only in developing alternative ingredients (like insect protein), but also in reviewing unsustainable policies (e.g. fishing quotas and allowed methods that produce tons of by-catch) and subsidies that artificially keep the costs of unsustainable ingredients low, is an important step in creating a level-playing field to compete on both cost and value for sustainable proteins.

Yes, we witnessed first hand what it meant when we hear that farmed fish depletes the ocean of its fish and destroys ecosystems. In this small shed, there it happened very tangibly and in front of our eyes.

And an hour later, nobody would have guessed; actually at nearly the same time, 20 meters away in the food court next door, a shrimp feast was being prepared on the hotplate to the unsuspecting diner, that by eating this quantity of wild-caught shrimp, they would have fished the equivalent of 2-3 large crates of small fish out of the ocean. Both farmed fish as well as wild-caught fish have a hidden (and often high) high fish-in / fish-out ratio and environmental impact.

This experience was a stark reminder that there's often a lot more than meets the eye in our food system.

It’s one more story, which inspired me to embark on the journey of creating scaleable and impactful insect-based nutrition and that makes me proud of the work we’re doing every day at Protenga: transitioning the food system to a sustainable, circular and regenerative one. Because we need to reduce and ultimately stop depleting our ocean, while producing high quality food for humans and pets. Insects are part of the solution. Protenga is proving it every day.

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