Age of Aquariums

A New Era for Ornamental Fish Farms
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2017 / December

Lynn Su /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Phil Newell


Taiwan was once famous around the world as the “cichlid kingdom,” and in 1986 bred the “blood parrot cichlid,” which for a time was all the rage in the ornamental fish market. However, the global economic downturn in 2008 caused a serious setback to the industry. Nonetheless, ornamental fish and crustaceans are high-value-added products of sophisticated high-tech aquaculture that offer educational and therapeutic qualities and can fit in with modern “lifestyles of health and sustainability” (­LOHAS). According to figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, annual production of ornamental aquatic animals and associated products is worth US$15 billion, making this a star industry that draws international attention. In 2009 Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture incorporated it as a key industry for development in the “Quality Agri­culture Development Program,” thereby creating a new opportunity for the growth of the industry.

 


 

With growing sophistication and professionalism in the aquarium industry, along with the evolution of tastes and consumption patterns over time, the glory days in which consumers favored big fish in big tanks have faded. Today, with the emphasis on ecological ­balance, biodiversity, and designing tank aquascapes with water plants, the “nano tank” now takes pride of place.

Imitating nature, designing value

At Jer Yuan Aqua Design, located in Nan­tou County’s Cao­tun Township, the shop sign reading “aquarium design” rather than the traditional “aquarium shop” gives a hint as to the changes in the industry. Jer Yuan occupies about 200 square meters, and its lavish displays have none of the cramped, chaotic feeling typical of traditional aquarium shops. Walking in from the elegant front yard, you find an atmosphere radically different from the usual negative stereotype of aquarium shops—humid, poorly ventilated, and with an all-pervasive smell of fish. The tanks of ornamental fish and crustaceans and the displays of related equipment and products are interspersed with comfortable seating and aquariums with aquascapes, and there is even a kitchen bar, giving the place a homely feel.

Jer Yuan owner Zhang Rong­zhe opens with this: “I hope that an aquarium will not be just a fish tank, but a piece of furniture that fits into people’s home space, raising the aesthetic ambience. This comment is the best footnote for the aquarium retail sector at the present time. Jer Yuan is by no means the only example of this shift from aquarium shops that merely sell products, to an emphasis on home aesthetics. These new-style aquarium shops are founded on professional knowledge about aquatic animals, but are oriented toward aesthetic design, making leaps forward in terms of the aquatic species on offer, hardware and equipment, and design and aquascaping. For example, Zhang Rong­zhe states that Jer Yuan does not sell standardized, mass-produced large fish tanks, but instead can custom-build aquariums based on different spaces, and on the types of fish the owner hopes to raise.

Zhang, who positions Jer Yuan as a specialist in water plant aquascaping, has gathered together some 300 varieties of ornamental fish and crustaceans, and more than 300 related product lines. In fact, even someone who frequently visits aquarium shops might be astonished on entering the store, with its many glass tanks containing small fish and shrimp for sale, and its aquariums with aquascapes based on water plants, withered leaves and so on, while on the glass the formal names of each species are written in oil paint. “This is because the same species might have different names in the north, center and south of Taiwan.” This way of labeling is very educational.

As for essential peripheral equipment for aquariums, such as lighting, filters and aerators, although traditional peripherals were perfectly serviceable, their appearance left much to be desired. But now they have evolved into refined accessories that can blend into the overall aquascape.

“An aquarium brings nature into the home. You need to imitate the original environment of the aquatic species, according to their natural ecology.” Ecology as king is today’s mainstream. Also, through the influence of the Japanese-style aquascape movement led by Ta­ka­shi ­Amano, designers have moved on from Dutch-style aquascapes that densely fill the whole tank with diverse water plants, and have begun to creatively and flexibly use large amounts of deadwood and stones to make their layouts. Whether in all-water aquariums or part-water, part-land aquariums, you can find styles ranging from deep jungle to serene grassland. They are like moving photographs of nature, and aptly reflect the souls of different aquarium lovers.

Neocaridina takes the world by storm

The aquarium market undergoes a major shift in direction about every ten years. In earlier days the blood parrot cichlid, other cichlids, the red arowana, and the flowerhorn were all popular, while today ornamental shrimp in a range of brilliant colors are winning consumers’ favor. Previously the main type was the crystal red bee shrimp, developed in Japan. Today, however, “five-­elements” shrimps, which come in many colors—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, purple, and white—have the largest market share. And the source of these shrimps is Taiwan.

Taiwan’s largest cluster of businesses in the ornamental aquatic animal industry is to be found in Ping­tung County. Wu Pei-shan, executive secretary of the Ping­tung Ornamental Aquarium Product Association, says that of some 250 ornamental aquatic animal firms in Taiwan, about 200 are in Pingtung.

One of these is Larmax International Co., a leader in the ornamental shrimp business and located in Ping­tung’s Zhu­tian Township. The “five-elements shrimp” developed by Larmax founder Wang Kuo-­chung in fact derive from the Davidi shrimp (Neocaridina davidi), a freshwater species commonly found in Taiwan. Because in its natural environment the normally green-brown Davidi shrimp sometimes will have streaks of red, blue, and numerous other colors, it was previously used to develop the red-colored cherry shrimp (Neocaridina davidi var. ‘Red’). Wang Kuo-­chung has built on the achievements of his predecessors to develop additional new varieties.

From among countless Davidi shrimp, Wang selected strains with color variations to serve as the parent generations for new varieties. Through breeding he cultivated successive generations, continually stabilizing their gene expression. Then, on the basis of the three primary colors, he developed various different hues, so that now in addition to red he has produced shrimp in chocolate brown, orange, yellow, blue, snow-white, and other colors. When you add in the changes of hue on different segments of the shell, he has so far produced more than 20 varieties. Wang has named them “five-elements shrimp,” evoking the five elements of Chinese philosophy (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth) that are considered so important in fengshui.

Larmax sells over a million shrimp annually, accounting for 60% of the global market.

Competing on quality

Wu Pei-shan says frankly, “From 2008, with the effects of the US subprime mortgage crisis and the European debt crisis, for a while ornamental fish from Taiwan seemed to have no future, and fish breeders had hit a bottleneck in terms of what species to raise. But in 2009 cherry shrimps from Taiwan won an award at the International Shrimp Championship at the pet fair in Hanover, Germany, and Larmax made a name for itself with its successful sales of ‘five-elements shrimp.’ These events brought about a renaissance in Taiwan’s ornamental fish industry.”

Chen Wen-ding, chairman of the Northern Ocean Aquarium Center, has been involved in the ornamental aquatic animal industry for more than 30 years, and is himself a microcosm of the sector’s evolution. It all started back in 1965, when Chen’s father established a fish farm in Yong­jing Township, Chang­hua County. Later the farm was relocated to ­Jiaoxi in Yi­lan County to take advantage of the area’s unique hot spring water. Then in 1988 they bought some land in Chao­zhou Township in Ping­tung, where they still operate today. Northern Ocean, which occupies 1.6 hectares, is considered a large fish farm in the ornamental sector, and currently follows an operating model of diverse high-­volume production, with an annual output of some 200,000 fish. Chen’s unusual personal career has enabled him to build relationships with wholesalers in both central and northern Taiwan, with the result that Northern Ocean’s products have been mainly sold in Taiwan’s domestic market. ­Every Monday a 17-ton truck arrives to carry away about 300 crates of product from Northern Ocean and nearby fish farms, taking them north to supply the wholesalers.

By contrast, Long Life Fish Farm, located in Zhutian Township, is a small-scale farm of only 0.4 hectares. Owner Lee Chi-tai targets expert-level hobbyists at the top of the price pyramid. He states that Taiwan’s ornamental fish farms can no longer compete with the low-priced products of farms in Indonesia and Thailand. However, in mature markets like Europe and Japan, consumers value purity of lineage in the animals they buy, emphasizing their place of origin and associated distinctive characteristics. Lee believes this presents a feasible direction for Taiwanese fish farms’ future development. Therefore Long Life does not stress the development of new varieties, but instead specializes in raising Taiwanese species that are relatively rare on the market, using high-quality feed and natural algae, and not adding hormones, so that the fish develop their natural hue. The fish are then sold directly to buyers via social media.

Producing mainly koi (colored varieties of the Amur carp, Cryprinus rubrofuscus), the Luxe Fancy Carp (Koi) Farm has similarly followed the path of upmarket production. Owner ­Huang Yi-wen explains: “A koi should have a large head, broad shoulders, and a thick caudal area. The texture of the colors should be like an oil painting, full and dense. The patterns on the back should be symmetrical both front to back and left to right, with changes at intervals, so that seen from above it looks like a painting.” Koi at the farm undergo a preliminary selection 60 days after the eggs are hatched, then a second screening 50 days later, when they are divided into several classes by quality—competition grade, AA, A, and B. At the end of this process only 20% of the original fish fry are left. ­Huang Yi-wen observes, “In the domestic market few people keep competition-grade koi, but there are plenty of buyers for the AA and A grades.” Also, Luxe is located close to Kao­hsiung, and many senior citizens from the city choose to buy property in Ping­tung for their retirement. Besides gardening, they also install ponds to raise koi. Luxe’s reputation for high quality attracts many consumers to come in person to the farm to buy.

Although the immediate future looks good for the ornamental aquatic animal industry, invariably the profits brought by following the crowd and producing popular product lines are short-lived. If an enterprise wants to last long in an industry, besides starting from basics and assuring product quality, other critical elements include how to make the best use of their existing facilities and human resources, devise suitable marketing strategies, and find an appropriate business model. The ability of Taiwan’s ornamental aquatic animal industry to break out into global markets will in the end depend on the perseverance and wisdom of each producer.    

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觀賞水族產業回春

文‧蘇俐穎 圖‧林格立

台灣曾是揚名國際的「慈鯛王國」,並在1986年配種雜交出觀賞水族市場上風騷一時的血鸚鵡。然而,2008年以後,由於全球經濟不景氣,產業亦受拖累。不過,觀賞水族具高附加價值、高技術需求等精緻農業的特質,並且兼具樂活、療癒、教育等功能。據聯合國糧食及農業組織(Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,簡稱FAO)統計,全球觀賞水族及周邊產業年產值高達150億美元,是國際矚目的明星產業,2009年行政院農業委員會亦將其劃入「精緻農業健康卓越方案」之重點發展產業,為產業點燃新的契機。

 


 

隨著產業技術邁向精緻化、專業化,加上時代審美與消費型態的演變,早年消費者偏好以大型水族箱飼養中、大型魚類的光景已經式微,如今,強調生態平衡、物種多樣性、水草造景設計的小型缸才正當道。

仿擬自然,設計加值

當我們走入位於南投草屯的「哲園水族設計」,從店招的「水族設計」而非傳統的「水族館」,便可依稀感受到產業變化的端倪。佔地約60坪的哲園,闊綽的空間陳設,絲毫沒有傳統水族館常見的侷促與雜亂,除了戶外坐擁一方庭院,走入室內,更一掃對水族館濕度高、通風不佳、魚味瀰漫的負面印象,雅座與造景魚缸、水族與周邊商品相互錯落,另還安排了廚房吧台,居家感油然而生。

「除了飼養魚、蝦以外,我對居家陳設也很有興趣。」老闆張榮哲如此開場,「我希望魚缸不只是魚缸,而是一件能融入居家空間的傢俱,可以藉此提昇客人的美感。」這段話,正是當前水族零售業的最佳註腳。從只提供商品買賣的「水族館」到強調居家美學「水族設計」,哲園並非唯一個案,這類新型態的水族館,從水族專業出發,卻以美學設計的方向邁進,在水族種類、硬體設備、造景佈置等不同層面,都有跳躍式的演繹。以哲園為例,張榮哲表示,店內不販售制式量產的大型魚缸,而針對不同空間、希望飼養的魚種,為顧客作訂製;除大型缸以外,另有融合水陸缸概念,可視為居家裝飾的小型生態缸,可作為公寓、單身租屋族在有限空間的美化裝飾使用。

作為一間定位在水草造景專業的店家,張榮哲搜羅了300種左右的觀賞魚、蝦,以及300種以上的品項。事實上,即便是常逛水族館的客人,走進哲園,也可能會大為吃驚,眼前一格格玻璃箱中待價而沽的小型魚、蝦,缸內可見水草、枯葉等造景,張榮哲說明:「有作造景,魚隻比較放鬆,顯色也會比較漂亮。」而玻璃上一一以油漆筆寫上正式的物種名稱,「因為同一種物種,在北中南就可能有3種不同的名字。」饒富教育意味,簡直可比正式的展覽館。

而作為魚缸套組不可或缺的照明、維生系統等周邊配備,傳統的器材雖堪稱實用,外觀造型卻差強人意,如今則進化成可以融入整體造景的別緻配件。尤其由日本水草造景大師天野尚所創辦的水族設備品牌ADA,以其極簡的線條與不鏽鋼髮絲紋、玻璃材質著稱,更深深風靡了消費者。

「水族箱等同是把大自然搬到家裡,物種原生的環境是什麼樣子,就按照自然生態模擬出來。」以生態為宗,是今日的主流,張榮哲補充:「好比說,如果要養紅貓、苦花魚等溪魚,就會盡量選擇類似鵝卵石造型的石材。」也由於受到天野尚領銜的日式水族造景風格的影響,從過去強調水草多樣性,整缸澎拜的荷蘭式造景,到開始大量活用枯木、石頭作佈局,不論一般型魚缸或者半水半陸的水陸缸,幽謐的叢林風、舒徐的草原風……看上去就像一幀幀流動的大自然寫真,也恰如其分地反映出不同水族愛好者的心靈風景。

五行到位,台灣米蝦風靡全球

約莫10年便會有一次大轉向的水族市場,從早年流行的血鸚鵡、慈鯛、紅龍、花羅漢,到近年,以色彩紛呈的觀賞蝦最受消費者青睞。早年以日本人開發的水晶蝦為主,如今,帶有紅橙黃綠藍靛紫白等多元顏色的五行蝦,市佔率最高,而品種育成的源頭,便在台灣。

讓我們走進位於屏東的觀賞水族產業聚落。屏東縣觀賞水族生產協會總幹事吳佩珊表示,台灣觀賞水族廠商約莫250家,其中約200家都在屏東。這些廠商主要聚集於大武山以南的長治、鹽埔、內埔、竹田、新埤、潮州等地。這是由於屏東位於低緯的熱帶,氣候終年溫暖,加上地理環境特殊,每逢雨季,豐沛的降水足以讓長治、鹽埔、竹田等部份地區的水井自動泉湧而出,加上水質又屬硬水,尤其適合飼養慈鯛科的熱帶魚,因此逐漸吸引業者到此投資,形成獨特的產業景觀。

其中,執觀賞蝦牛耳的「拉瑪國際」,便坐落在竹田境內。由拉瑪國際董事長王國中所開發出來的「五行蝦」,實際上便是源自台灣水溝中常見的黑殼蝦(米蝦),由於黑殼蝦在天然的環境下偶爾便會夾雜紅、藍等若干色彩,因此早年便有「龍宮水族」的黃文琪、「長生魚場」的李濟臺,投入研發出紅色的玫瑰蝦、極火蝦等品種,王國中再從前人的成果向上挺進。

他「慧眼獨具」從成千上萬的黑殼蝦中挑出顏色變異的品種作為新品種的親代,藉由交配培養出子代,不斷穩定基因表現,再根據三原色的原理作色彩變化,目前已由紅色延伸出巧克力色、橙色、黃色、藍色、雪白色……等顏色,加上不同顏色在蝦殼分段上的變化,共計開發出二十餘種品項。王國中將其命名為「五行蝦」,呼應中國人在風水上強調的金木水火土。

王國中另指出,蝦類弱肉強食的特性,虛弱、瀕死的蝦往往會被同類吃掉,無須再費心清理屍體;蝦類又屬於雜食性生物,無需過多餌料,可靠吃藻類過活,飼養上比魚更容易。並且,蝦類的廣溫性,在長途運輸的低溫環境下即會進行休眠,代謝降低,排泄物也減少,耗損程度也比觀賞魚低。對於消費者與生產者,均有諸多優勢,難怪引起風潮。

在2017年9月推出的品種「天空藍」,目前A極品1尾的零售價格落在2美元,王國中說:「1尾觀賞蝦若是能賣到1美元,就已經很迷人啦!」可見其身價不斐,吳佩珊補充:「公定外銷的保麗龍箱(60公分×30公分×45公分),1箱大概可以裝100隻血鸚鵡,1隻利潤不過台幣10元,但同樣的體積,可以放4,000隻觀賞蝦。」拉瑪國際目前年銷售量達百萬隻以上,佔觀賞蝦市場六成以上,足見產值之驚人。

深耕技術眉角,力闢獨家市場

吳佩珊不諱言地指出:「2008年以後,受到美國次級房貸以及歐債危機的影響,加上魚場在飼養品種上也發展到了瓶頸,一度讓台灣觀賞魚看不到未來性,然而,台灣米蝦在2009年德國漢諾威寵物博覽會獲獎,拉瑪國際應用五行行銷成功作出名氣,因此讓台灣觀賞魚產業因此回春。」根據行政院農委會漁業署統計,2016年台灣觀賞水族及相關產業年產值約36.7億台幣。

  然而,雖然觀賞水族產業入門門檻遠比一般的水產養殖產業低上許多,但由於技術封閉的特質,往往叫外人霧裡看花,貿然投入往往因為供銷失衡,最終鎩羽而歸。吳佩珊說:「每一種屬性的魚種,都有特殊的生產與育成方式,包含魚隻的養成、育成,設備的維護等,都有很多技術層面的眉角在,只有實際投入技術面親自作業才會知道。」她語重心長地說:「每一個前輩,都是用死魚換取讓魚活下來的經驗,每一個新人入行都要經過這道門檻。」

「北海水族培養中心」負責人陳文錠,投入觀賞水族產業三十餘年,本身就有如產業流變的縮影。從1965年陳文錠的父親在彰化永靖設立魚場開始,而後因宜蘭獨有的溫泉水資源,遷場至礁溪,直到1988年在潮州購地投資,一路經營至今。佔地約1.6公頃的北海屬於大型魚場,目前以多元量產為主要經營模式,年產量約20萬尾,由於陳文錠特殊的個人經歷,掌握中、北部盤商通路人脈,因此北海的商品主要以銷售島內市場為主,每週一都有一輛17噸的卡車到此集貨,載著北海以及鄰近魚場約300箱的貨,往北送至盤商手中。

至於位在竹田的「長生魚場」,作為一間規模僅0.4公頃的小型魚場,負責人李濟臺直接鎖定金字塔頂端的專業級玩家。李濟臺表示,台灣魚場已無法與印尼、泰國魚場的低價產品競爭,而在歐洲、日本的成熟市場,消費者重視魚隻品系的純粹性,強調產地與其相應的特徵表現,這應是未來魚場可行的發展方向。因此,長生魚場雖不強調研發新品種,卻專門飼養市場上較稀有的台灣品種,使用高品質的飼料、天然藻類,以不添加荷爾蒙的方式,將魚隻養到自然發色,再藉由社群媒體直接銷售到買家手中。

以生產錦鯉為主的「六榮銘鯉場」,同樣走上精緻化生產的路。負責人黃益文介紹:「好的錦鯉,講求頭大、肩膀寬、尾筒粗;顏色的質地像油畫,厚度飽滿;背部上的花紋前後左右對稱、段落有變化,俯瞰就像一幅畫。」場內的錦鯉在出生60天後即進行第一次初挑,再過50天後再進行第二階段篩選,依品質分為比賽級、雙A級、A級與B級,最後只留下魚苗的20%。黃益文觀察:「國內市場比賽級的少人在玩,但雙A、A級買家卻很多。」且由於地緣上毗鄰高雄,不少從都市退休的銀髮族到屏東置產養老,蒔花弄草之餘,也開鑿土塘飼養錦鯉,六榮以其高品質的口碑,吸引不少終端消費者親自上門採購。

雖然觀賞水族市場前景看俏,但一味跟風生產當紅品系,帶來的收益往往只是曇花一現。一間企業想在產業裡面走得長遠,除了從根本做起,為生產品質把關,如何善用既有的硬體設施、人力資源,並且提出適切的銷售的策略,找到合適的經營模式,才是攸關生存的根本考驗。台灣觀賞水族能否在全球市場中突破重圍、再下一城,端看各漁家所展現的毅力與智慧。                 

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