2017 / 12月
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。
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.