IT’S hard not to profit from the seafood business in Sabah. The abundance, variety and quality have earned the industry a “blue-ribbon” reputation.
The state capital, for instance, boasts more than 10 seafood restaurants that enjoy their fair share of exposure in television shows, travel advisories, magazines, blogs and by word of mouth.
Google the likes of Portview, Ocean, Welcome, Sri Mutiara, Suang Tain, Dowish, Golden, Gayang, Salut, Windbell and Kampung Nelayan; the results will definitely point to Sabah seafood restaurants.
But success, according to the operators, comes with a lot of work, diligence and innovative ideas.
Keeping their supplies fresh and alive in tanks, introducing new recipes and adding value to their products have kept the competition going.
The manager of Welcome Seafood Restaurant, known only as Lee, says the customers comprise local and foreign tourists.
“Compared with where they come from, our prices here are cheaper and we get our supply straight from our tanks. To the locals here, it may seem expensive, but not to outsiders.
“We also go to great lengths to maintain the quality of our supply,” he says, revealing that live seafood is kept for up to three days.
Patrons pay between RM30 and RM200 per meal, depending on the order.
Premium products, such as prawns, range from RM30 per kg to RM30 per piece, or lobsters from between RM120 and RM480 per kg.
Fish cost between RM80 and RM200 per kg. There are also other exotic seafood, such as molluscs, coconut crabs, slipper lobsters, mantis prawns, abalone and scallops.
Seafood supplier Billy Tan says the bigger restaurants could easily earn up to RM50,000 per day or more on exceptional days.
“But bear in mind the cost of running their operations are quite high, too.”
There are 130 members under the Sabah Restaurants Fellowship Association, an umbrella body that looks after the welfare of eateries and seafood restaurant operators.
The more popular seafood restaurants have about 100 tables on the premises and a minimum of 80 employees to cook, prepare, wash and serve customers, as well as an army of part-time workers to serve during functions, such as corporate gatherings, tour groups or weddings.
On a daily basis, most operators run two shifts — lunch and dinner. But it’s not only the restaurant operators who profit from the industry.
The seafood industry also generates good income for fishermen, seafood farm owners, boatmen, suppliers, transporters and retailers.
The ports and wet markets in Sabah are also popular destinations for those looking for fresh seafood.
At the Kota Kinabalu wet market, fishmonger Jamil Abdul Rahim says he earns at least RM1,000 a day selling fish from Kudat.
“We sell fish to locals and travellers who wish to bring it back to their hometown by flight or by road.”
He says travellers from Peninsular Malaysia, Brunei and Sarawak normally pay an additional RM25 to have their products packed in polystyrene boxes filled with ice to keep the seafood fresh.
Adjacent to the market is a fish landing jetty, where fishermen unload their catch.
Alif Amirul, a worker at a frozen seafood company, said patrons arrive as early as 1am to buy the produce.
“They come here because of the quality and cheaper prices. People can buy a wide variety here, but they must compete with wholesalers, fishmongers, restaurant chefs and others to get the best produce.”
Aris Ahmad from Pulau Gaya, who uses the hook-and-line method to catch fish, says he only sells his catch to a seafood supplier in Lido.
He says his client wants certain types of fish which must weigh a minimum of 800 grammes.
Snappers, trevallies, mackerels, barracudas or garoupas are the pick of his towkay , who will pay between RM12 and RM20 per kg for them.
“The other types of fish are for my own consumption. I can’t complain because it helps me put food on the table and send my children to school,” said Aris, who also works as a part-time boatman.