A trial export of 40 tonnes of iridescent shark catfish to China expected this month has again been delayed, until mid-September, as the only authorised exporter struggles to process the batch, according to a senior official at the agriculture ministry’s Fisheries Administration (FiA).

This inaugural shipment would mark Cambodia’s first formal aquaculture export. 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.

Khov Kuong, deputy director of the FiA’s Department of Fisheries Post-Harvest Technologies and Quality Control (DFPTQ), told The Post on August 29 that Hun Ty Co Ltd, the sole company awarded the right to process the shark catfish for export to China, has churned out a mere six tonnes in “just over a month”.

Although the firm receives guidance from Chinese experts and its facilities are equipped with semi-automated systems, the new and inexperienced staff are slowing down processing to about an average of “one tonne” on days of operation, as opposed to the five tonnes originally planned, he said.

“Our local workers are not yet proficient or experienced in the job, and it’ll take another one or two months for them to become familiar with all the tasks,” Kuong said, adding that both the FiA and Hun Ty would be all set to export the shark catfish once the 40 tonnes were processed.

Affirming that there are no other foreseeable obstacles to the maiden export, Kuong said the FiA was pushing the company to expedite the work.

He shared that the shark catfish is sourced from Yon Sovannarith Pra Fish Farm – one of the three farms authorised to raise and supply the fish for export to China.

Um Chan Chamnan, the administrative director of Yon Sovannarith Pra Fish Farm, which is located in northern Phnom Penh’s Prek Pnov district, confirmed that Hun Ty has bought just six tonnes of shark catfish from his farm.

He said that the company resumed buying the fish on August 25 after a pause to “recruit professional staff”, and is now working to ensure that daily purchases reach one tonne.

According to Chan Chamnan, Hun Ty requires shark catfish that weigh 0.9-1.1kg, all of which must be kept alive to preserve the freshness and quality of the meat.

The inaugural export of iridescent shark catfish is expected to provide substantial impetus for the aquaculture sector, as the government strives to maintain annual production growth at about 20 per cent, through the Strategic Planning Framework for Fisheries 2015-2024.

For reference, aquaculture production rose 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, according to the FiA.