Small fish, big dreams

No 3, Vol.9 , August  - September 2015

It’s quite a fuss at 7 a.m. on Hon Ro harbour in Nha Trang. Mr Dinh Van Bay’s boat has just come back after six hours of pulling his net at sea. Mr Bay urges his men to shake the anchovies from the net to give them to the dry-fish export businesses. They hang the net and used cloth-wrapped bats to beat the fish stuck on it down into big bamboo baskets and then take them ashore. Unlike seasonal fishes, you can fish for anchovy the whole year round, Mr Bay said. Yet the best time to do it is from February to August. On a lucky night, he can catch nearly a ton of anchovy. In bad weather, he may get only 50 kg.

The fish and the trucks of processing facilities came to shore at the same time. Following Mr Bay’s instructions, I came to Mr Mai Thanh Quyen’s fish-steaming shop at Cua Be fish bazaar in Vinh Truong Commune. It smelled fishy all around. In the shop, about 40 workers were busy cleaning and steaming the fish. Tons of fresh fish are always coming and they have to be processed right away to retain freshness and sweet taste.

According to Ms Dao Thi Phuong, to have good quality, the fish has to be very fresh, cleaned carefully, steamed moderately, dried quickly, and kept in good storage. As it arrives, they put a single layer of fish on a gridiron, dip into water and shake it softly to avoid crushing the fish. Then the gridirons are put in an autoclave for three to five minutes to steam. Then the gridirons are loaded on a wheelbarrow to be transported out to ‘tan’. By the afternoon, the fish is already crispy dry.

Mr Mai Thanh Quyen said his family has been doing this for nearly 20 years. Before that, his family was in fish sauce business, like most others in Vinh Truong. Realizing that steam fish business could bring extra income and create jobs for others, he invested boldly and made new connections. Now his Hanh Quyen steamed-anchovy-for-export business is a robust name, known near and far. ‘Actually this business is not much more profitable than fish sauce-making, but it creates many more jobs for the locals. Beside this one, our family has five other facilities, each gives job to about 30 workers with an income of over VND100,000/day/person.’
‘Nowadays the steam fish facilities pay VND25,000 - VND30,000/kg for anchovy, much higher than the fish sauce businesses. Just catch 500 kg a time, you get over 10 million. But sometimes the export is stalled, and you can only bring the fish to the bazaar or to the fish sauce-making shops. Sometimes the loss is too great and I prefer to stay home, not going out to the sea,’ Mr Dinh Van Bay said.
Dried steamed anchovy is exported mostly to Taiwan and China, but the price is not stable. ‘Low yield, high price, high yield, low price, fish business has this dilemma too. The usual price for our finished product is $7/kg, but sometimes they press it down to just $2/kg,’ Mr Mai Thanh Quyen said.
Stable output is a dream of the steamed fish shop owners.

Text by Vinh Thanh and photos by Tran Hai Binh
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