While eels are now the star products of Taiwan fisheries, Taiwan tilapias are the future flagship products. Eels have always been a prime export especially to Japan, and their production value has always surprised observers. However, their production value has decreased this year with tests revealing the presence of antibiotic residues and a lower quantity of eels harvested from eel farms. These factors have resulted in decrease in eel quantities, lower output values, and lower these fish growers' incomes.
"Compared to last year, there was a 40 percent decrease in the volume of eel production," said Minister Lee, "so we plan to utilize high-density breeding technology on eel farms, increase eel productions, and eventually enhance the competitive advantages of Taiwan's fishery products."
The COA is naturally concerned about the drug residues and will hold some sessions to educate fishermen on the use of chemicals in fisheries products. "We have called on our fishermen to listen to their consciences and consider the consequences of using such drugs, not just think of earning money," said Minister Lee.
The technology to test for chemicals in fisheries imports has improved. This is one reason why Taiwan's eel exports have recently been in the limelight. The COA thinks food hygiene management should also be enhanced.
"Last year, we established seven or eight drug residue testing stations for fisheries exports to test drug use safety," said Minister Lee, "even though compared with other countries, our track record is still good."
The COA Minister was referring to China's eel exports that recently tested positive for malachite green (a respiratory poison that damages the cell's ability to produce energy that drives vital metabolic processes). Regulations stipulate that live eel exports from China must be tested. "This has helped to increase the trend of our eel exports to Japan," said Minister Lee.
South Korea also exports eels to China but their use of safe chemicals are not as ideal as Taiwan's. "If we could have our eel exports removed from the list of imports that mandate testing, I believe our export prices will rise," he said.
The Taiwan tilapia, also known as the Wuguo fish in Taiwan, has become a popular favorite this year because of the support from the COA for its export. However, Minister Lee clarified that Wuguo fish is not necessarily Taiwan tilapia, but Taiwan tilapia is certainly Wuguo fish.
"Taiwan tilapia is high-quality Wuguo fish," said Minister Lee. "In Taiwan, tilapias grow fast; they could stably adapt to environments that use either advanced breeding technology or fry cultivated without any technology; we have the best tilapia in the world."
"With Taiwan combiningbreeding technology and strong disease resistance, the whole world would recognize the high quality of Taiwan tilapia."
Before 2003, the world's leading tilapia exporter was Taiwan, but after 2004, Taiwan became the second largest exporter of Wuguo fish after China. Minister Lee believed "the reason for this is that China has suitable resources, and also cheap lands and labor." Taiwan tilapia production was 89,000 tons and exports around 50,000 tons.
Competition is normal. China is still the biggest export market for Taiwan tilapias, followed by Thailand and Indonesia. The COA Minister considers tilapia an interesting kind of fish. "They grow best in the tropics," he said. "This is why our Wuguo fish are very competitive."
Taiwan exports tilapias mostly to the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Korea, but Vietnam is fast catching up and they sell at cheaper prices. "We have to be on the alert and adopt a policy that focuses on quality instead of on quantity like China-China cannot compete with such a policy," Minister Lee said.
After joining the WTO, agricultural products and their production process, in principle, have become more competitive. Even though Taiwan tilapia is a flagship agricultural export, how does the COA plan to further boost its competitiveness by upgrading its productivity, management systems, distribution and government incentives?
"First, we plan to upgrade breeding technology and focus on breeds that are of high quality," said Minister Lee. "It is also important to strengthen their resistance to diseases and decrease the use of chemicals by fishermen.
This could help decrease cost and guarantee product safety. Second, we plan to develop specialized breeding areas, raise the effectiveness of breeding technology, and then higher the quality.
In terms of management and distribution, the COA plans to help open up new markets, for example, the Middle East. Understanding the needs of the international market is another step the COA plans to take. Secondly, the COA plans to address issues related to refrigeration technology. Maintaining the freshness of fish products is crucial since this is a demand of two major markets: Chinese-speaking consumers, and America and Europe.
In terms of government advantages, the COA plans to boost preventive measures against diseases and increase guidance on the right use of chemicals. Product shipment safety is another issue the COA will address.
Taiwanese have an old saying that goes back a long way: "If you get used to eating filth, you won't get sick from it," and "Cure an illness, but just strengthen your body if you're not sick." "These are mistaken notions," said Minister Lee, "and we even buy medicine to give to other people as presents."
The COA plans to correct such faulty concepts by educating farmers on the use of chemicals and calling on them to listen to their conscience when it comes to using chemicals, and think of the national interest. Secondly, the COA plans to promote and enhance its advisory functions in order to raise breeding effectiveness. Thirdly, the COA plans to promote HACCP quality control and the establishment of a record system to trace the production and distribution of products. Fourthly, the COA will provide guidance on participation of exporters in international exhibitions such as the Tokyo Food Show, Seoul Food Exhibition, and the Pusan Seafood Show.
"The globalization of our domestic industries, maintaining and strengthening our competitive advantages, and making our fisheries products more competitive in the world market are issues that our government cannot afford to neglect," said Minister Lee.