In the summer of 2016, Cherry Wei and her colleagues at Guangxi Hiseaton Foods Co Ltd arrived in Brunei to start new fishery business, setting up Hiseaton Fisheries Sdn Bhd. This was a response to the invitation of Brunei government. "Earlier in the December of 2015, Dato Dr. Ali, who was then the Minister of Primary Resources & Tourism, warmly invited us to develop fishery in Brunei, when Hiseaton was investigating about Brunei's aquaculture circumstance," said Cherry Wei, CEO of Hiseaton Fisheries Sdn Bhd.
Development of fishery and aquaculture is an important part of Brunei's long-term development plan "2035 Vision". Brunei hopes to develop the non-oil & gas economy in the face of falling price of oil. Nurafiqah, an employee of the hatchery department of Hiseaton said: "The goal of my work is to support the Bruneian government's policy of economic diversification, to shift away from the dominant oil and gas industry, expedite the growth of local aquaculture and reduce the reliance on imports of fingerlings."
Her words suggest that one of the main difficulties for aquaculture in Brunei is the insufficiency of domestic supply of fingerlings. In the past, fingerlings used for aquaculture were all imported. Not only was the cost high and the supply unstable, but the survival rate of the fingerling was also low, which caused considerable difficulties for the development of Brunei's aquaculture. "We are making efforts to develop a sustainable aquaculture in Brunei," said Wei.
"If there is no continuous and stable supply of high-quality fingerlings, there will be no basis for breeding and seafood processing afterwards." Wei threw herself in the preparation of aquaculture equipment, recruitment of breeding staffs and other arrangements, with daily sleep of no more than 5 hours.
Currently, Hiseaton is the only company in Brunei that has realized the sustainable breeding and production of goldeneye perch (barramundi). At present, the first filial generation of the broodstock of barramundis have weighed more than 5 kilograms. It is expected that the second generation of broodstock can be bred in 2022.
As the pioneer of aquaculture in Brunei, Hiseaton's path forward is not entirely smooth. Maziyah, a local employee said, "We have learned that some local people are still using cyanide and explosive method for catching fish, which can cause a lot of loss and destroy our fish habitat and ecosystem." The company manages to establish a virtuous cycle of aquaculture instead, by arranging a schedule for nurturing and harvesting fingerlings monthly.
Hiseaton's exploration had started to yield some results when it was affected by COVID-19. At the early stage of the outbreak, some foreign employees left Brunei, either out of the fear of the uncertainty of the disease or due to worries about the expiration of visas. Since most breeding technicians were foreign employees, some tasks were delayed because there were not enough workers.
The other problem was the restriction of importation and exportation during the pandemic. Some farming equipment and raw materials mainly rely on imports, which were limited during the pandemic and could not be supplied in time. On the other hand, since the market in Brunei was small, many aquatic products relied on exports. After the outbreak, cold chain logistics was severely hindered, which resulted in the overstock of products in warehouses. Soaring price of transportation, as well as the loss caused by the delayed harvesting of some farmed fish due to the shortage of manpower, resulted in the higher prices of exported products and less competitiveness in overseas markets.
Luckily, with the pandemic gradually coming under control, the government introduced policies to support the extension of foreign workers' visas; as a result, some employees have returned to Brunei.
Since Hiseaton entered the Brunei market, the price of seafood has been kept in line with that of the original market in Brunei, even during the pandemic. "We have overcome difficulties and increased supply to meet the market demand in Brunei. This is our social responsibility during such a special time," said Wei.
Facing difficulties, Wei and staff from different countries including China, Brunei, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Philippines did not flinch. "It is a great cooperation between countries for a sustainable fishery ecology in Brunei," said Wei. "We contacted local fishermen and aquaculture companies to further understand the status quo of Brunei's fisheries. Accordingly, we introduced advanced ideas, technology and equipment of aquaculture. We try to find the common ground between the two sides, and jointly promote the development of marine industry in Brunei."