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Tuna industry tackles quality issues

Update: August, 24/2014 - 19:32
Wave of change: Vietnamese fishermen and Japanese experts observe the first batch of tuna being caught and preserved using advanced fishing technology in Binh Dinh Province.

Exports of tuna, one of Viet Nam's major seafood products, grew by 51.2 per cent over the past five years. However, many Vietnamese fishermen still lack the catching and processing skills that would improve product quality and therefore value. The central coastal province of Binh Dinh is changing these habits by training fishermen in modern techniques. Cong Thanh reports.

Cao Thi Kim Lan, director of the Binh Dinh fishery joint stock company (Bidifisco), expressed disappointment over the results of a tuna auction at the Osaka central wholesale market, where only one of four yellow fin tuna (thunnus albacares) she had brought from Viet Nam qualified for processing as sashimi. The other fish ended up being sold as fillets at a much lower price.

This means that less than a third of the Vietnamese fishermen's tuna catch from the central region of the Viet Nam sea could meet the standards that will merit the highest possible price.

"I felt disappointment over the debut auction at Japan's biggest tuna market. Moreover, Japanese experts and dealers at the market told me that the quality of tuna from the Viet Nam sea was not as good as that of other countries, such as Australia, Japan and Indonesia," Lan recalled.

"Tuna from Viet Nam have thinner loins and weaker muscle fibres compared with those from other countries and from the provinces of Japan. Also, the skills of Vietnamese fishermen and their traditional fishing method remain backward," she noted, adding that until recently, tuna from Viet Nam was little-known in Japan's market.

 

Modern technique: This composite-hulled fishing boat with updated equipment and facilities is used to catch and preserve high-quality tuna. — Photo vov.vn

Change

But this changed in early August, when Vietnamese fishermen from the central coastal province of Binh Dinh found a reason to celebrate, as 10 tuna caught with new and updated fishing technique were auctioned off to the highest bidder for VND240,000 (US$11.5) a kilogram at the Osaka central wholesale market.

"We were told that two of 10 tuna exported to Japan by air in late July were bought for VND420,000 ($20) and VND400,000 ($19) per kilo, respectively. Only one was bought for VND50,000 ($2.4) because of its poor quality," the Bidifisco director said.

"It's the first time ever that tuna from Binh Dinh has fetched the highest possible price at Japan's biggest tuna market," she added.

Lan explained that as a result, fishermen decided to undergo three months of training on new fishing techniqueand skills with the help of the Japanese Kato Company.

Nguyen Que, 33, owner and captain of a five-boat fishing fleet from Binh Dinh's Tam Quan District, expressed eagerness for the second catch as his first 25-day trip last July earned VND170 million ($8,000), a VND50 million increase from that of last year's catch using old fishing method.

"Our work has paid off," Que remarked. "We used to render the fish unconscious 20 seconds after hauling them up to deck and leave them out to dry before keeping them under refrigeration, but this makes the tuna flabby and reduces their quality. We don't use the old style (of fishing) anymore."

Que said his fleet's 20-member crew received training from Japanese experts on the use of new fishing tools as well as new refrigeration and transshipping techniques and practices.

"We acknowledge that the new approach to catching tuna helps create products of better export quality and value. Our product could be marketable and competitive abroad if we do this the right way," he said.

"We knew how to catch tuna with a wheel, but not by manual fishing like we used to. This was also the first training session I have experienced during my entire 15-year career in fishing, the trade I inherited from my father," he said.

He also pointed out that the tuna must be exported within 10 days after it was caught.

Masakazu Shoga, who had invested in the training of the Binh Dinh fishermen, noted that local fishers had been using outdated fishing techniques.

"It's time to change now. The old fishing tradition results in poor quality tuna. The fish is often killed by local fishermen before being preserved in poor quality refrigeration systems on month-long fishing trips," Shoga said.

"Sashimi-grade tuna always fetches the highest price, but it requires the use of strict safety measures for it to meet standards and be sold in the Japanese market," he added.

Local support

Binh Dinh authorities have mapped out a strategy for producing quality tuna exports.

Tran Thi Thu Ha, vice chairwoman of the Binh Dinh Provincial People's Committee, said that local government support would help make this happen.

"We will finance the upgrade of fishermen's fleets and training on techniques for catching and preserving tuna that meets international standards. This will increase the value of their products and improve their living standards," Ha said at a central coastal region's seafood meeting.

"We will try our best to raise the quality of the province's tuna exports to the Osaka market. Sashimi-grade tuna exports will make the province competitive in the world market," she added.

No great catch: The conventional way of catching and preserving tuna results in poor quality tuna. — VNA Photo Thanh Long

The vice-chairwoman noted that the province has reached an agreement for long-term bilateral co-operation with Japanese partners in the catching, preserving, export, sale and marketing of quality tuna to world markets.

She added that under this agreement, the province was maintaining a five-boat tuna fishing fleet that was making use of Japanese expertise.

"Fishermen have invested in refrigeration technique because they could make larger profits and receive full support from local authorities and businesses in ensuring strict regulations on quality control and sanitation," Ha said.

Binh Dinh produces between 180,000 and 200,000 tonnes of fish per year, of them 10,000 tonnes of tuna, but most of the tuna was previously processed and exported as fillets at low prices.

"Fishermen in the province have gradually improved their fishing skills, resulting in a larger catch of higher quality. However, the quality and price of the tuna was reduced by low-quality manual fishing and conservation during month-long trips," claimed Le Huu Loc, chairman of the Provincial People's Committee.

"The province has achieved a breakthrough in making the tuna fishing industry a source of key seafood exports in coming years. Our collaboration with Japanese partners enabled us to gain access to the Japanese market," he remarked.

He noted that the province has granted VND1.5 billion ($71,430) for a pilot project that provides five fishing boats with updated equipment and facilities for quality tuna fishing.

The authorities also assigned Bidifisco, a major tuna exporter in Binh Dinh, to assist in the upgrade of the boats.

The province has 700 deep-sea fishing boats, of which 500 are qualified for catching seafood for export.

Bidifisco director, Lan said the price for tuna processed as fillets was just VND75,000 per kilo, but it could be sold at double the price if it was of sashimi grade.

"We often offer a 20 per cent purchase price that is higher than the minimum input price in the market. They (fishermen) could get more if their produce is auctioned at the highest possible price in the Osaka market," Lan said.

"This means that we buy tuna for VND84,000 per kilo, or at a higher rate than the current price of around VND70,000. It's our support policy to encourage fishermen to engage in regular and continuous fishing," she explained.

"Fishermen always worry about unstable market prices following a bumper harvest. However, we give them a hand to ensure a good input price," she said.

Lan added that fishermen would then benefit from the best price for tuna at the Osaka central market auction.

"If tuna caught by local fishermen is bought for $8-10, they will also be paid higher at the auction. This will encourage them to make every effort to produce the best quality tuna and improve their skills and techniques to meet international standards," she remarked.

"Of course, we will receive full policy support and priority from the province in assisting fishermen," she added.

Bidifisco exports 8,000 tonnes, or 60 per cent, of the province's seafood to the Japanese, US and European markets that bring in $40 million in total profits, $18 million of them from tuna.

Crucial steps

Meanwhile, Yanmar Company of Japan has launched a project for developing composite-hulled tuna fishing ships that have the latest equipment and technology for catching and preserving tuna in Khanh Hoa Province and for processing later on in the provinces of Binh Dinh and Phu Yen.

Yukio Kikuchi, Yanmar project director in Viet Nam, said poor post-harvest technology and skills in tuna fishing and refrigeration had adversely affected the country's tuna exports.

"Tuna exports from Viet Nam earn $560 million per year, but the figure could reach $1.5 billion," Kikuchi said during a seminar on tuna fishing in Binh Dinh.

"We hope Viet Nam's tuna price will increase from $2 to $9 per kilo after fishermen are equipped with new facilities and skills," he said.

Net increase: When auctioned off, Binh Dinh tuna will increase in value. — VNS Photos Ly Kha

Kikuchi added that the project would also enable Viet Nam to be certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which manages a sustainable seafood certification and labelling programme based on scientific fishing standards and best practice guidelines.

Yanmar has planned to build 180 composite fishing ships for joint stock tuna fishing companies, where fishermen would be allowed to buy a 100 per cent share of the ship's value.

Vu Dinh Dap, chairman of the Viet Nam Tuna Association, said the tuna fishing industry in the country was still small, and knowledge of sustainable fishing remained limited.

"Viet Nam now has more than 3,500 tuna fishing ships with 35,000 workers. Estimates show the country has 600,000 tonnes of tuna reserves, and fishermen could catch 200,000 tonnes annually," Dap said.

"We should build a value chain that includes fishing, processing and purchasing in order to develop tuna fishing as a key industry," he stated.

A pilot project that aims to manage 50 per cent of total fishing boats and control the loss after fishing by under 10 per cent will be implemented in Binh Dinh, Phu Yen and Khanh Hoa.

In 2013, Viet Nam exported to 112 markets with a turn-over of $526 million. However, the country has to compete against strong opponents in the world market.

Dap pointed out that the development of a quality standard fleet for tuna fishing with trained fishermen was the only way to improve the industry.

Ship captain Que said he has recognised the importance of upgrading the capacity of the country's tuna fisheries.

"A crew member and I could improve our income by catching and processing better quality tuna with new techniques. We hope that Viet Nam's tuna industry will come up with competitive products at the Osaka central market," Que said.

"We will build a fleet for tuna fishing and a trademark for Viet Nam's tuna in the world," he added. — VNS

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