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  • Analysis

Gulf serves up locally farmed salmon – and better food security

Spinneys
Locally farmed salmon is sold at UAE supermarket chain Spinneys
  • Aquaculture reduces the region’s reliance on imported foods
  • UAE imports 70% of the 200,000 tonnes of fish consumed each year
  • Aquafarm technology creates ‘natural environments’ in indoor tanks
  • Researchers are looking into disease reduction and food sources for fish

From the old man who dredged up a djinn to the boy who netted an emerald, fishermen populate the folk stories of the Arab world. But the dhow fleets of the Gulf no longer provide a lifeline for local economies.

By contrast, aquaculture – the farming of fish, shellfish and aquatic plants – has begun to improve the variety of local seafood on offer.

Unexpected novelties now join old favourites such as hammour on the menu. A browse through the chilled section of a high-end supermarket in Abu Dhabi reveals locally farmed organic salmon retailing at about $50 a kilo.

Not quite as expensive as imported wild salmon from Ireland, but a notable 30 percent mark-up on its farmed Scottish equivalent.

These fillets are among the first harvest of a national food security programme launched by the UAE in late 2018. Aquaculture is a central component of the strategy, with fish identified as one of 18 strategic food items.

Aquafarms now produce about 4,000 tonnes a year of salmon, grouper (or hammour), seabass, bream, kingfish and other species for the local market.

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Feeding time at a Fish Farm facility in the UAE

It is a modest start, accounting for less than 2 percent of the fish consumed annually in the emirates. But production could be raised to 30,000 tonnes by 2030, according to the UN Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), with new technology promising to eradicate many of the environmental fears associated with traditional cage and wild-capture farms. 

“You need economies of scale and you need investment up front – in hatcheries, for example – but this is a region with many assets,” said Lionel Dabbadie, senior aquaculture and fisheries officer at the FAO, which has partnered with the UAE government.

“People eat about half as much fish as the global average and there is quick demographic growth, so you have a huge potential market – and one that pays a good price. You can farm fish in a way that is profitable and far more sustainable compared with imports.” 

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Hatchery at Fish Farm facility in Umm al-Quwain

Hooking investors

The UAE imports more than 70 percent of the 220,000 tonnes of fish it consumes every year.

Abu Dhabi Investment Office’s AED2 billion innovation programme is designed to nibble away at this figure and take pressure off the country’s overfished marine resources.

Newcomers lured by the mix of financial and other incentives in the past year range from aquafarm ventures such as Ocean Harvest to Pure Salmon, a technology-based portfolio investor that has moved its office from Singapore to Abu Dhabi.

They join established players such as Fish Farm, which opened its first hatchery in Umm al-Quwain nearly a decade ago and plans to start construction next year of a wrasse farm. 

Aquaculture might seem like a strange industry for a desert country to prioritise. What has made it possible is technology, notably the recirculating aquaculture systems that Ocean Harvest, Fish Farm and other operators all use – although each has its own proprietary version.

These systems clean and re-use almost all of their process water, enabling some farms to be built inland. The FAO is advising on how solar technology can be integrated into the facilities, cutting energy as well as water demand.

“With technology, we are able to create any environment we want, from the Atlantic or Pacific to the Mediterranean,” Bader Bin Mubarak, chief executive of Fish Farm, told a Dubai Chamber forum in March.

His company’s facilities at Jebel Ali Free Zone have 20-metre-wide tanks mimicking the freshwater rivers, coastal waters and saltwater oceans that represent the natural life cycle of salmon. 

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Fish Farm overview showing tanks, hatchery and water treatment systems

High-tech fish farms

Recirculating aquaculture systems avoid the stresses placed on the marine environment by traditional open-net pen fish farms, from water pollution to the depletion of wild stocks.

Indoors, high-tech systems monitor water quality, temperature, salinity and oxygen levels as well as the health and diet of the fish. Disease and parasites such as lice, the curse of northern European salmon farms, can also be kept at bay.

“Disease is not much of a problem, provided you don’t actually introduce sick fish, but you still need a high level of biosecurity,” said Dabbadie.

“If you look around the region, there are some established farms south of Jeddah which are definitely world leaders in terms of biosecurity.”

Saudi Arabia has been a pioneer of intensive, hi-tech farming since at least the 1980s, when green crop circles bloomed in the Eastern Province and shrimp farms and wild-capture fisheries appeared along the Red Sea coast.

The depletion of fossil water resources led to a rethink of agricultural policy and the abandonment of wheat production, but the fish farms have survived and thrived.

Tilapia, a fast-breeding species native to the Nile, are now raised near Riyadh. The kingdom’s aquafarm output has risen steadily to about 100,000 tonnes a year.

Research focused on farming fish that withstand diseases, heat and saline conditions of the Gulf

Aquaculture research

While the UAE is playing catch-up in terms of scale, it has the advantage of building a modern industry from scratch.

Specialist hatcheries such as the Shaikh Khalifa Marine Research Centre in Umm al-Quwain will produce up to 30 million juvenile fish for local aquafarms, reducing the cost of freighting these “fingerlings” from overseas.

Research is focused on areas such as biotechnology and selective breeding. One aim is to raise cage-farmed fish such as cobia that can better withstand diseases as well as the heat and highly saline conditions of the Gulf.

Another key research topic is diet. Marine farms are notorious for using more fish for feed than they produce, with up to 4 kilograms in for every kilo out.

Researchers are working on insect-based alternatives for farms that use recirculating aquaculture systems, while the Shaikh Khalifa centre already employs photo-bioreactors to grow live food for its hatchlings, notably microalgae. 

Aquaculture promises other spin-offs besides farmed fish. In 2019 Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways flew a commercial flight to Amsterdam using sustainable fuel made from salicornia, a saltwater plant.

Grown on a trial farm in Masdar City, the succulent is also being tested as a possible food source for tilapia.

Humans are partial to it, too. In the UK, it’s commonly known as marsh samphire, while Americans often call it sea asparagus. Food scientists say it may be the basis of the vegan option in future.

On your next visit to a UAE restaurant, you might find it adorning your plate of locally produced salmon.