The inaugural export of Cambodian iridescent shark catfish to China has again been delayed, and is now expected to take place as soon as next month, as the only authorised exporter takes care of some final formalities, according to Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries spokeswoman Im Rachna.

The fish, also known by its scientific name Pangasianodon hypophthalmus and sometimes referred to as simply “iridescent shark” despite not being a shark, is one of the Kingdom’s more cultivated shark catfish varieties.

It is known in Khmer as “pra thom” and is one of the members of the “pra” shark-catfish category that can describe many – but not all – species of the Pangasius (P) genus (“po” types such as P larnaudii and P sanitwongsei being notable counterexamples) or other genera in the Pangasiidae family such as Helicophagus and Pangasianodon, but not Pseudolais.

Trial export

To date, the ministry’s Fisheries Administration (FiA) and Chinese Customs have authorised three fish farms – in Kandal and Kampong Thom provinces, and in northern Phnom Penh’s Prek Pnov district – and one processing enterprise-cum-exporter – Hun Ty Co Ltd – to produce and handle the batches of “pra” shark catfish destined for China, Rachna confirmed.

This four-item list has remained unchanged since the beginning of the year, even before a formal agreement on the associated export requirements was signed in March.

Rachna said that supply to the processing enterprise has been slower than anticipated, underlining that the three farms have yet to develop a suitable production system.

In turn, she said, the enterprise is only capable of producing about one tonne of export-ready fish per day, but has churned out a mere 15 tonnes, which she affirmed is about enough for a 20-foot container for a first trial shipment to China.

“The company is completing export procedures, and this includes inspections of samples of processed product to be exported, to ensure high quality and safety in line with export requirements,” Rachna said, adding that the firm expects to finish the process by next month.

“The exporter cannot substantiate the level of demand to come from the Chinese market yet – the company will first need to make a trial export to build confidence in the quality [of the product],” she said.

‘In the near future’

At a ceremony marking the beginning of work to revamp the 95.27km National Road 41 on December 26, Prime Minister Hun Sen voiced confidence that the inaugural batch of “pra” fish would be exported directly to China “in the near future”, noting that the East Asian country is Cambodia’s biggest trading partner.

The premier called on producers to properly handle the fish to be shipped to China, and ensure high sanitary standards.

According to the FiA, aquaculture production rose by 30.25 per cent from 307,408 tonnes in 2019 to 400,400 tonnes in 2020, but dipped 13.0 per cent to 348,350 tonnes last year.

The Cambodian Aquaculturist Association is eager for the commencement of locally-raised iridescent shark catfish exports to China, which its president Sok Raden is optimistic will solve the bulk of the market problems weighing on farmers, as well as bring aquaculture up to higher standards and encourage the adoption of innovative technologies and practices.