UAE - Aqua farms to feed the planet

Fish farmers met in Dubai this week to explain how the industry, though occasionally hindered by politics, has come of age.
April 9, 2015

Fish farmers met in Dubai this week to explain how the industry, though occasionally hindered by politics, has come of age.

Since the 1990s, aquaculture has boomed, with an average annual growth of more than 8 per cent, according to the intergovernmental Committee on World Food Security.

Tabuk Fisheries sells half of its Mediterranean fish within Saudi Arabia, and the rest across the Middle East. The UAE is its largest market outside the kingdom, though it also distributes to Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt.

Its fish may weigh on average 400 grams, but Tabuk sells almost 60 tonnes per month in the UAE alone.

The company, which started production in 2009, will this year produce 1,400 tonnes and aims to increase this to 10,000 tonnes by 2020.

“The problem now is the fingerlings – because we haven’t produced them yet. We have to import them from outside, and there is a low production.”

Fingerlings, or young fish the size of a finger, have to be imported from nearby, because “you can’t ship small one-gram fish from Australia, Taiwan or the US to here”, he says with a laugh.

Tabuk imports them from Greece, Turkey, Italy and Cyprus, so it takes just half a day for the juvenile fish to travel from their hatcheries to the Saudi farm.

Meanwhile, it has more than 100 employees tending to 120 cages, segregated into four lines with 500 metres in-between.

It is a large investment to set up an aquaculture project, but is also, Mr Al Ammari explains, profitable. Demand is high – perhaps a little too high.

“Of course, the gap is so big,” he says, “None of us can do it alone, but throughout the world I think about 90 million tonnes per year are being produced by farming, and probably, in about 20 years, you’ll see all the sea shores full of cages.”

In 2012, of the 158 million tonnes of fish produced worldwide, more than 90 million were produced by capture fisheries, while 65 million were produced through aquaculture. About 136 million tonnes were consumed by humans.

More than one billion people now depend on fish for animal protein, according to the non-profit research organisation, WorldFish. During the 21st century, however, overfishing pushed more than 85 per cent of the world’s fisheries to, or beyond, their biological limits.

The Arabian Gulf saw its number of fish fall by almost 90 per cent from 1975 to 2011, due to an almost five-fold increase in fishing. Fortunately, fish reared through farms convert more of their feed into body mass than terrestrial animals.

While it takes 61 kilograms of grain to produce 1kg of beef, 1kg of farmed fish requires just 13kg.

Capital requirement is just one of many obstacles the aquaculture industry faces.

Iran, a country with a 2,500-year history of fish farming, knows this too well. Modern fish farming began in the Caspian Sea in 1922 and, in 1936, the country began importing a cold water species for the first time – the rainbow trout.

“Cage aquaculture has become a dominant national plan, and is going to be developed largely in both the northern and southern coastal areas,” says Mehdi Soltani, professor and director of the Centre of Excellence of Aquatic Animal Health at the University of Tehran.

In 2000, Iranian fishermen captured 98,000 metric tonnes of fish in the Caspian Sea and 260,500 tonnes from the Arabian Gulf, while 36,500 tonnes was produced through aquaculture.

Last year, however, the country produced 170,000 tonnes of Chinese carp and 122,000 tonnes of rainbow trout. Similarly, the country’s shrimp culture industry has boomed — from 210 tonnes in 1996, to 22,000 tonnes in 2014.

Two years ago though, disaster struck: 20,000 tonnes of trout died from viral haemorrhagic septicaemia, a deadly infectious disease. White spot syndrome also killed about 1,000 tonnes of culture shrimps in 2002.

Iran has since introduced a new species of shrimp, believed to be more resistant, as well as a surveillance system for shrimp cultures and hatchery centres.

Health management systems are just one area of research the country needs to pursue, says Mr Soltani. Iran has a long list of valuable native species across its 800km Caspian Sea and 1,200km Arabian Gulf coastlines, as well as the large Forat, Karun and Dejlah rivers. “But we haven’t started to seriously use them,” says Mr Soltani.

Despite an abundance of young graduates and cheap labour, the country still has not been able to use aquacultural engineering to develop modern equipment.

Mr Soltani hopes modern technology could improve physical and environmental conditions, such as water quality, through recirculation systems, which provide a high level of control, or aquaponics – a food production system that creates symbiotic environments of aquatic life and plants.

Research into vaccines, probiotics and immunostimulants would also help combat disease and produce healthier fish.

The country has had to be resourceful with its exports. Last year, Russia banned food imports from the United States, Canada, Australia and some European states. Iran was more than happy to sell 30 tonnes of shrimp to the Russians, though it also hopes to boost its fisheries exports by almost 5 per cent in five years, following a successful nuclear deal with P5+1.

While annual domestic demand for fish has grown to 10.2kg per capita, caviar production has shrunk from about 60 tonnes in 2003 to 3 tonnes of farmed caviar today. The number of sturgeon in major basins is believed to have declined by 70 per cent over the last century.

However, the director of the International Sturgeon Research Institute hopes that the country’s farmed caviar production will grow to 100 tonnes by 2025, equalling 12.6 per cent of its yearly crude oil revenue. The country began breeding sturgeon in the 1970s, and annually produces about 20 million sturgeon fingerlings.

Fish now provides three billion people with almost a fifth of their animal protein intake.

In Nigeria, it is double – a promising reason to invest in aquaculture, according to Adeweumi Adejoke, from Ekiti State University in Nigeria.

[Source: Hareth Al Bustani, The National. Read article]