A Hong Kong garment boss in Dongguan is testing the water in a new line of business - fish farming.
William Choi and his partners recently spent HK$80 million setting up the Santai Eco Fishery in Chashan. He hopes that the 24,000-square-metre indoor fish farm will capitalise on the steady stream of tainted food scandals on the mainland.
Choi is the second generation of a family-owned garment trading business that once boasted annual sales of HK$1 billion. But industrial reform in the Pearl River Delta has rapidly pushed up wages and his clients in the US have cut orders, forcing Choi to rethink his options.
"Indoor fish farming is a growth business, which will be big enough in the future to cushion the ups and downs in our existing garment trading business," said Choi, founder and chairman of Santai.
The farm could emerge as a niche alternative to Hong Kong, which relies heavily on food imports from across the border. The mainland has been plagued by negative news of food scandals such as restaurants using recycled "gutter oil" and, most recently, rat and fox meat being passed off as lamb.
Choi said the farm, the first of its kind in southern China, raises mainly jade perch, a freshwater fish. He aims to supply Hong Kong with about 350 tonnes this year, selling the brownish black-finned fish to restaurants and supermarkets.
To ensure food safety, salt and a mild disinfectant are the only additives used in the fish farm's eco-system. This enables the catch to be eaten raw as sashimi after meeting the required standard, Choi said.
The fish farm consumes about 5,000 cubic metres of water, enough to fill two standard swimming pools. Of this, 98 per cent of the water is recycled, in line with Beijing's call for businesses to cut down on their consumption of fresh water.
Indoor fish farms first emerged in the United States and Australia and caught on in Malaysia and other parts of Asia in the 1990s.
There are also indoor grouper fisheries in industrial buildings in Aberdeen, on the south of Hong Kong Island. However, very few of these operations have sashimi-level accreditation.
As awareness of food safety grows, Choi said Santai planned to expand the business by setting up a fish-purging and distribution centre in the New Territories.
Indoor fish farms also help to sustain species, he said. According to a study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources last year, about 400 fish species were close to extinction.
Scientists warn that edible fish will be out of stock in 30 to 50 years as trawlers threaten ocean eco-systems.