For three weeks in July and August, Meros senior analyst Hiroki Seki dove into the Vietnamese seafood industry, moving from Phu Quoc Island, the largest island in Vietnam and a part of Kien Giang province, to Rach Gia, the capital city of Kien Giang province, to Ho Chi Minh City, interviewing seafood experts, visiting fish markets and discussing the growing market for premium fresh fish. This research is all part of an on-going pilot project funded by JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) to increase the incomes of fishermen and reduce food-loss by improving the freshness of the fish sold in Phu Quoc. The project is led by three fishery companies from Japan’s Yamaguchi Prefecture, the westernmost tip of Japan’s main island. The three companies, Yutaka, Fujimitsu and Nishi-F, aim to introduce Japanese technologies for maintaining fresh fish quality into Phu Quoc’s main seafood market, and Meros is supporting by investigating the regional market demand for fresh seafood among seafood end users in Phu Quoc, Rach Gia and Ho Chi Minh.

Seafood today is mostly sold at markets on the streets in Phu Quoc and is rarely sold at supermarkets. Seafood is sold by fishmongers who sell many kinds of locally sourced seafood such as horse mackerel, squid and octopus. These markets are visited by not only by general consumers but also buyers from the local restaurants. Therefore, the markets can get extremely crowded during busy times of day.

Fishmongers selling fish on the streets of Phu Quoc.

Two challenges dominated the struggle to maintain seafood freshness along the supply chain in Phu Quoc

1. After the seafood is caught, proper refrigeration measures are not taken on the boat, causing an immediate decrease in quality

2. After seafood is landed, the freshness deteriorates during the distribution process before reaching the end-users due to inadequate refrigeration.

As a result of these cold chain weaknesses, much of the seafood arriving at the Phu Quoc market does not end up sold for human consumption, but instead ends up as feed for farmed fish or discarded. To address these challenge, we are conducting a pilot project between January 2022 to August 2024 to introduce several Japanese technologies that may be able to increase incomes of the fishermen as well as decrease food-loss and maintain good prices for high quality fresh seafood.

Specifically, we are:

1. Manufacturing and installing a machine to produce slurry ice at the port in Phu Quoc

Slurry ice is a sherbet-like ice that can penetrate the fish, cooling its body temperature quickly. The machine was designed by Japanese companies Remice and Yutaka and manufactured in Japan. It will soon be shipped and installed at Phu Quoc port.

2. Converting existing ships’ wooden tanks to FRP fish tanks

FRP (fiber-reinforced plastic) fish tanks have a higher tolerance to heat than wooden fish tanks.

3. Bringing cold storage boxes from Japan

These boxes are made of styrofoam with a special coating and have enhanced heat-resistance. By putting the rem ice inside these boxes, fish can be transported from the harbor to end-users without a decrease in freshness.

Here is an example of bonito kept fresh using slurry ice in Amami Oshima, an island in Japan.

Over the next months, our partners will monitor the boats, like those pictures below, which installed FRP fish tanks filled with slurry ice to see whether this has improved the freshness of fish compared with fish caught by conventional methods. We also use the cold storage boxes to see whether the fish can maintain freshness all the way to the end users, such as restaurants and supermarkets.

But to make these cold chain investments sustainable long-term, it is critical to know- is there really demand from Vietnamese end users for fresher fish?

This was Meros mission. We investigated the interest in fresh fish among Vietnamese end users through interviews and visits with over 30 restaurants, hotels, and fish processing companies in Phu Quoc, Rach Gia, and Ho Chi Minh City.

And indeed, we found out that there’s very high demand for fresher fish, driven both by the growing hotel and restaurant industry, as well as the fish processing industry.

Development on Phu Quoc island is advancing rapidly, with many luxury hotels and an increasing number of tourists coming to enjoy its beaches and seafood delicacies. Hotels and restaurants are seeking fresher fish to meet the demand of tourists who are willing and interested in paying for premium seafood.

In Rach Gia, there are many fish processing companies and they too are looking for fresher fish. In particular they process squid in a large volumes into ready-to-eat forms, mainly for export. They are looking for fresher squid in order to produce higher quality products that they can sell at higher prices.

In Ho Chi Minh City, with rising incomes and a boom in Japanese cuisine, the demand for raw fish dishes like sashimi and sushi continues to grow. While Vietnamese consumers can already eat raw fish dishes at many restaurants in Ho Chih Minh City, this fish is often imported from overseas, such as salmon from Norway.

We visited a Japanese restaurant in Rach Gia that serves a variety of sushi and sashimi, mostly sourced from overseas. Japanese cuisine such as sashimi and sushi is increasingly popular in Vietnam, and demand for raw seafood ingredients sourced from Vietnam is growing

The pilot fishing expeditions in Phu Quoc using the new technologies are expected to be completed by the end of this year. If we can demonstrate capacity to maintain greater freshness in domestically caught seafood compared to conventionally caught seafood, along with strong market demand for fresh seafood at restaurants, hotels and processors, similar initiatives may begin in other regions of Vietnam. If all goes well, in the near future, it might be possible to enjoy delicious sashimi and sushi from domestic Vietnamese fish in many restaurants and hotels across the country.

We were so appreciative to the dozens of Vietnamese seafood end-users who shared their views and experience, including a fish freezer manufacturer in Ho Chi Minh City (left) and the chef of a Japanese restaurant in Phu Quoc (right).

If you are interested in learning more out this project or Meros’ wide range of other experience in Vietnam and in global seafood and fisheries, please don’t hesitate to reach out!