SINGAPORE: Fried, boiled or steamed, Singaporeans consume well over a million fishballs every day.
But if you haven’t noticed, fishball prices have been steadily rising over the years - in supermarkets for example, fishballs are now 30 per cent more expensive compared to some 10 years ago.
This is primarily due to the rise in the prices of yellow-tail fish, which is commonly used to make fishballs. And yellow-tail fish, or to be more precise the yellow-tail redbelly fusilier, makes arguably the best type of fishballs.
Most yellow-tail fish sold in Singapore are wild-caught in neighbouring Indonesian waters.
Ferry Susanto, a yellow-tail supplier from Indonesia, pointed out that over the last five years, the selling price of his yellow-tail fish has risen by some 50 per cent to about S$3.20 per kilogram now.
“Many of the (yellow-tail) fish have been caught,” he added. “The supply of the fish is reducing, so the price of the fish is increasing.”
But are consumers in Singapore paying more for fishballs these days simply because of a dwindling supply of the yellow-tail fish or is there more to it? Programme For Food’s Sake! finds out.
YELLOW-TAIL THE BEST
In 2014, Douglas Ng of The Fishball Story opened his first fishball noodle hawker stall but he struggled at selling his noodles for only S$3 because his operational costs, including making fishballs and buying the raw materials for them, were too high.
“I didn’t know how to make a business out of it. I put the cost into consideration and increased the price (by S$0.50). And my business was affected. There was a drop of 30 to 40 per cent. That’s a lot,” he recounted.
Still, Douglas insists on using only high-quality pure fish meat. He said that his fishballs contain mostly yellow-tail fish (which costs about S$11 a kilogram), some salt and water, unlike some other hawkers who opt for cheaper fish to “have a better (profit) margin”.
His fishballs also do not contain starch, which makes them more expensive too.
Another factor that makes his fishballs more expensive? Making fishballs from scratch, which takes about four hours per day.
“You need to wake up very early to prepare the fish, fillet the fish, mince the meat and then make it into the paste. After that, you need to form it. So the whole process is about four hours. It’s very labour intensive,” he added.
DoDo brand, one of the largest suppliers of fishballs in Singapore, has transformed the much-loved fishball into a multi-million dollar enterprise. Their factories make some two million fishballs every day.
Fayy Lim, the deputy chief operating officer (product development) of DoDo Fishball, said they have upped the price of their fishballs in the last two years due to an increase in raw material prices and utility costs, which has risen more than 20 per cent since five years ago.
“And with increasing demand for higher quality products and better food safety management systems, all these processes we put in place require costs (which are) incurred on our part, which is something consumers have not been able to see,” she added.
But their biggest cost component is the raw material – the yellow-tail fish.
Their fishballs contain at least 50 per cent meat, which is more than the 40 per cent minimum required by Singapore’s food regulations, said Fayy.
“Yellow-tail fish is still the best raw material to get the traditional fishball texture and taste that our Singapore consumers like,” she explained. “And yellow-tail from what I know, is wild-caught. So far there is no farm for yellow-tail fish yet.”
Yellow-tail fish is found in abundance in Indonesia’s beautiful Bangka Belitung islands, which are Singapore’s main supplier of yellow-tail.
But local fishermen have complained that it is harder to catch this fish these days.
Captain Meon, who uses a traditional fish trap called bubu, said that it is due to competition from fishermen from other parts of Indonesia going after the same haul.
WATCH: Goodbye to cheap fishballs? (Dur 3:17)
“Every year, there’s more competition and less catch … Our catch is divided. Back then, there were only 20 fishermen but now there are 50 of them fishing around for the same thing,” he said. “But they are not the only competition. The boats from outside make us, small fishermen, uneasy.”
By “boats from outside”, Meon is referring to foreign boats that are illegally catching seafood in Indonesian waters.
For many years, Indonesian fishermen suffered great losses as their fish harvest dwindled while foreign boats sold their ill-gotten catch from Indonesian waters below market price.
Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, said that illegal, unregulated fishing has affected their economy, fisheries and also depleted fish stock.
So in 2014, Indonesia declared a war against poachers - it deployed an ambitious fisheries enforcement programme which includes frequent sea patrols, seizing illegal fishing vessels and banning the use of trawling nets.
Since then, Indonesia has seized some 10,000 illegal fishing vessels from China, Taiwan, Thailand, and the Philippines.
And now that the poachers are hunted and punished, fishermen like Meon can command a better price for their catch - another reason why consumers are seeing the prices of yellow-tail go up.
“The price has gone up by fivefold. Back then, it was around 10,000 rupiah (S$1) but now it’s 50,000 rupiah per kilogram,” said Meon.
The demand for the fish, in part to make fishballs, has kept prices high, but it turns out there is another factor at play.
SEAFOOD HUB NO MORE
Chua Bao Chong from Kah Huat Song Kee Fish Agent, one of the main seafood suppliers in Singapore, said that Singapore used to be the hub for seafood.
This means all seafood exports to the region and beyond had to pass through Singapore’s ports to reach their eventual markets, which resulted in discounted prices for consumers here.
But as other regional ports catch up, seafood exporters are now by-passing Singapore and shipping to their customers directly. This means Singapore no longer holds the bargaining power of a distributor.
“Countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, they used to transport to Singapore but now they can go directly to any other country, ”he explained. “Now … the seafood range (in Singapore) has become smaller.”
As Singapore’s market is too small to dictate prices, consumers here are finally paying the true price of what it takes to attract regional fishermen to ship their seafood here.
Watch this episode of For Food's Sake! here: