Interviewed by Kwong Kok Onn
Prof. Ng Wing Keong is the Professor of Aquaculture Nutrition at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). He started the Fish Nutrition Laboratory in 1997 and heads a research programme with the purpose of improving our knowledge on nutrient utilisation by aquatic organisms. Prof. Ng conducts research in assessment of novel protein and lipid sources in aquaculture feeds to enhance the financial and environmental sustainability of aquaculture practices. He has published numerous articles in the field of aquaculture nutrition and has been elected to the editorial board of many international and South East Asian journals. Prof. Ng also serves as a consultant to several international aquaculture facilities and aquaculture feed companies.
Prof. Ng joined USM after a postdoctoral fellowship at the Mississippi State University. Prof. Ng was also a visiting scientist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, UK, and the University of Tasmania and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, both in Australia, with the Commonwealth Fellowship and Endeavor Fellowship, respectively.
Q1: Can you tell us about your experience in research and aquaculture?
I obtained my Bachelor of Science degree on Aquatic Biology from Universiti Sains Malaysia. Thereafter, I completed my Master’s degree in aquaculture at the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand, and a PhD in nutrition at the University of California, Davis, in America. My research interests include aquaculture nutrition, feed technology, palm oil use in aquaculture feeds, microbial biotechnology, aquaculture systems, ornamental fish, shrimp culture, fish physiology and coastal ecosystems. My prior and ongoing projects include work on various tropical and temperate aquaculture species: for example, tilapia, catfishes, carps, groupers, black sea bream, salmonids, sturgeon, ornamental fish, freshwater prawns, marine shrimp and seaweeds. To date, I have edited four books, including an internationally acclaimed book published by CRC Press (Taylor & Francis Group, USA) which is currently acknowledged to be a world standard reference for studies on fish oil substitution and replacement of lipid sources in aquaculture feedsa. I have published more than 115 papers in many journals and magazines and more than 70 conference papers, the majority of which are at the international level. My reputation as an effective international advisor has resulted in numerous contracts with well-known corporations and international facilities. Many of these companies are publicly listed and their business involves the aquaculture or feed additives industry.
a A major ingredient used in the making of aquaculture feeds is fish oil, which is sourced from small marine pelagic fish and is a limited fisheries resource. Apart from acting as a source of energy and essential fatty acids, it is often used to coat extruded feed pellets to enhance the palatability and attractiveness of the feed. Marine fish oils are one of the main ingredients used as feed fat sources. For a good reference on the subject, please refer to Turchini et al. (2010).
Q2: One of your main research areas involves the use of palm oil as a novel lipid source in aquaculture feeds. Can you tell us about this?
The price of imported feed ingredients used in aquaculture feeds in many developing countries in Asia is continually rising because of a higher world demand and foreign currency exchange fluctuations. Studies on the utilisation of palm oil in aquaculture feeds started during the mid-1990s, and USM began studying it in 1998. The use of palm oil was targeted for research when I joined USM. Furthermore, palm oil is a well-known natural resource from Malaysia and is available locally.
Palm oil can replace fish oil in aquaculture feed for several fish species without detrimental effects in their growth, feed utilisation efficiency, survival and flesh quality. Palm oil has many advantages compared to other plant oil, as it can improve the growth performance of certain fish species such as the African catfish. To date, palm oil has also been studied as a feed source for tilapia, catfish, carps, Atlantic salmon, rainbow trout, and prawns. Furthermore, since palm oil is the top produced oil in the world, it has a lower production cost and a more competitive price. Thus, the use of palm oil to replace lipid sources in aquaculture feeds has been successful. However, the high melting point of palm oil may present a problem when used in the diets of cold water fish species. For these species, the water temperature during winter is relatively low, and we found that this lowers the fat and fatty acid digestibility in rainbow trout and Atlantic salmon when fed high levels of dietary palm oil. Nevertheless, growth performance was not reduced even at 100 % substitution of added fish oil. The lowered fat digestibility was partly because of the higher resistance of dietary triglycerides to digestion. Future research will explore the use of emulsifiers and palm free fatty acids to aid digestion of this fat source at lower water temperatures. Another innovation from the Fish Nutrition Laboratory was the discovery that fish, for example tilapia and catfish, can act as biological agents for extracting left over palm oil adsorbed onto spent bleaching clays (SBC)b.
b Spent beach clays are waste products from the crude palm oil (CPO) refining industry and are a big cost to the industry to have it discarded appropriately. The use of aquaculture fish to extract the remaining oil in SBC is a good way of changing waste into wealth and is predicted to help the palm oil, aquaculture industries, and the environment.
Q3: Why did you choose Aquaculture, and specifically, Aquaculture Nutrition as your specialty?
I obtained my Bachelor of Science in Aquatic Biology from Universiti Sains Malaysia, as I have always been interested in water. I always found aquaculture nutrition to be special, as the work combines laboratory work with field work.
Q4: Why did you choose Universiti Sains Malaysia as your institute of research?
Applications for academic posts in the United States were competitive, and I was not interested in doing more post-doctoral work there. I submitted several applications in Malaysia, and Universiti Sains Malaysia was the first university to respond. I was a former graduate from USM and I also like Penang. These reasons, coupled with USM’s reputation as an outstanding University that was chosen by the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education to administer the Accelerated Programme for Excellence under its auspices, were the main reasons I chose USM as my favoured place of research.
Q5: You are an Editor for the 2010 CRC Press book entitled “Fish oil Replacement and Alternative Lipid Sources in Aquaculture Feeds”. Can you tell us more about the book?
During my visit to Tasmania (Australia) in 2009, I was contacted by Giovanni M. Turchini from Deakin University School of Life and Environmental Sciences (Warrnambool, Australia), and Douglas Redford Tocher from the University of Stirling, Stirlingshire (Scotland, UK), to write a review article on the replacement of fish oil with alternative sources. However, I felt that a review will not fully cover the comprehensive subject of fish oil replacement due to the limited page numbers involved. I therefore had the idea of compiling a book on the subject, with contributions from international experts. The book provides a global perspective on the production, rationale, and uses of fish oils, vegetable oils, and animal fats in regards to the aquaculture and aquaculture feed industries. Following the release of the book, there has been a huge surge in interest, with scientists turning to replacement of lipid and protein sources in aquaculture feeds as a research area.
Q6: We noticed that you are on the Editorial Board of “Reviews in Aquaculture”, a high impact factor Fisheries and Aquaculture journal, ranked second on the ISI Fisheries category. Can you tell us about how you got elected onto the Editorial Board?
I was contacted by Prof. Sena De Silva (Deakin University, Australia), a leading researcher in fish nutrition and aquaculture, who had invited me to be on the board. In addition to “Reviews in Aquaculture”, I have been asked to be an editor for numerous other journals, but I only accept offers from reputable ones.
Q7: You wrote an article entitled “The current status and future prospects for the aquaculture industry in Malaysia”, published in Volume 40 of the journal “World Aquaculture”. How do you see the future of aquaculture in Malaysia?
These are very exciting, although challenging times for the sector. The sector has tremendous opportunities for future growth because of positive governmental policies. This industry reported annual growths of around 10 % in the years between 1993 and 2007. In the near future, with combined efforts from both the government and private industry, Malaysia can become a big aquaculture producer in the world (World Aquaculture, 2009).
Q8: What do you feel are the characteristics that make a good scientist?
A good scientist should have excellent training and technical skills. Hands-on experience is important, as this kind of skill can be passed on to other researchers, especially in the academic line. Furthermore, it is necessary to stress the importance of professional work ethics, as integrity in research is paramount. Moreover, integrity is a notion of compatibility of deeds, principles, techniques, measures, standards, expectations, and results. If we gradually build up our professional and scientific reputation, people in the scientific community will know that they can trust our research. Moreover, the ability to communicate our research findings is vital. Having a high quality of research is extremely important, but equally important is the ability to present that information in a clear and interesting way.
Q9: Do you have any advice for postgraduate students pursuing a future in research in aquaculture?
It is necessary for students to pick up technical, laboratory and field skills, as these skills can be used anywhere in the world. Furthermore, it is also important to learn other techniques and hard skills. With regards to soft skills, the ability to work effectively with co-researchers and colleagues is very important, especially in a laboratory environment. Although an overseas education can help in this area, students who graduated locally can also make the effort, particularly since many universities in Malaysia now have international students.
 Ng, W. K. (2009). The current status and future prospects for the aquaculture industry in Malaysia. World Aquaculture, 40(3):26-30.
 Turchini, G. M., Ng, W. K., & Torcher, D. R. (2010). Fish Oil Replacement and Alternative Lipid Sources in Aquaculture Feeds. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press
The author would like to gratefully acknowledge Prof. Ng Wing Keong for his valuable time and generosity in providing the material for this article, and Dr. Leela Rajamani for her contributions as well. This interview was conducted by Kwong Kok Onn, who is a Masters student at the Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies (CEMACS). His field of study is on the use of probiotics to optimise the larval culture of mud crab. Mr. Kwong can be reached on [email protected].
This article first appeared in the Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 11. Check out other articles in Issue 11 by downloading the PDF version for free here: Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 11 (PDF version)