From a net-lined hole in the floor of a wooden wellboat, silvery catch from the enormous ponds of Hung Vuong Corporation's farm are scooped into large blue buckets by workers.
Their quarry—pangasius, also known as Asian catfish—represents one of the fastest growing types of aquaculture (seafood farming) in the world. The company's Phu Tuc farm reveals what a big business its production has become for this small country—and what measures are needed to ensure it operates safely and cleanly.
The blue buckets make their way to the processing center, a cavernous white room where workers cut the fish into white fillets. This farm, which harvests enough whole fish to produce 4,500 tons of fillets every year, has recently been certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), attesting to its robust environmental standards.
These guidelines are a result of a three-year effort led by WWF to convene industry stakeholders in order to develop standards for responsible aquaculture. Farmed seafood is a rapidly growing industry and will represent a major source of protein in the worlds future food supply.
Great promise, great pressures
Vietnam is the source of more than 90 percent of the world's pangasius exports, which have increased 50-fold in the last decade. The majority of this pangasius is farmed in 23 square miles of ponds across nine provinces of the Mekong River Delta—a critically important freshwater habitat. In 2011, the regions farmed pangasius production amounted to 600,000 tons.
This intensive, high-volume production system is very efficient, a workable commercial method providing protein to a growing world population that experts estimate could reach 9 billion by 2050.
"If we are going to have aquaculture play a significant role in feeding a growing population on a finite planet, we need to get it right," says Jose Villalon, WWFs vice president of Aquaculture. "And by that I mean, helping the industry produce more with less and doing it in an environmentally responsible way."
The industry's explosive growth puts pressure on the environment, especially where it is insufficiently regulated. The establishment of new farms can damage or destroy sensitive habitat and divert or pollute water. Escaped farmed pangasius can compete with wild fish, throwing ecosystems out of balance.
Wild fish also suffer when their food sources are co-opted to make pangasius feed. Additionally, the health problems that plague pangasius farms often lead to the inappropriate use of veterinary medicines and chemicals, which can negatively impact wild fish stocks, the environment and human health.
Pangasius producers as conservation allies
The Vietnamese pangasius industry has taken up these standards voluntarily and vigorously. The Vietnamese government and the country's exporter association have made a commitment to certify 100 percent of the countrys farmed pangasius by 2015, with half of that to be subject to rigorous ASC certification.
WWF is working with 18 Vietnamese pangasius farms, including Hung Vuong's Phu Tuc farm, to help them comply with ASC standards. Once certified, these farms will collectively certify 9% of Vietnam's exports helping meet Vietnam's commit to pursue ASC certification.
Hung Vuong's owner, Duong Ngoc Minh, believes imposing strict environmental standards is an investment in the future.
Food for the world
Indeed, with global fish consumption expected to exceed beef, pork, and chicken, it is imperative that farmed seafood is produced responsibly. The certification agreement in Vietnam is a model for how both government and industry can ensure that is the case in the future.
For Hung Vuong, that future is already here. The company will produce 200,000 tons of frozen pangasius fillets in 2012. Most of these fillets will be sold as catfish in Europe and the U.S., and now a growing percentage will be certified to environmental standards in anticipation of the 2015 goal.
For Minh, this legacy is more than just a thriving business. "I think in the future, farmed fish such as pangasius will take a special role in supplying food for the world, especially as wild fish continue to decline," he says.