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Baiting the hook to develop Saudi’s aquaculture industry

Aquaculture is part of Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 programme to diversify its economy Unsplash/Gregor Moser
Aquaculture is part of Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 programme to diversify its economy
  • Coastline can accommodate farms for 5 million tonnes of fish
  • 75% of the kingdom’s seafood is currently imported
  • Fish farms can supply domestic market while Saudi shrimp is exported

Aquaculture – farming in water – is the world’s fastest-growing food sector, accounting for more than half of global seafood supply. For Saudi Arabia, eager to bolster its food security and to build non-oil exports, this is an opportunity.

On February 12, Arabian Agricultural Services Company (Arasco) signed an agreement with Neom Food and Cargill, a global agribusiness, to explore how they can work together to support the sustainable expansion of Saudi aquaculture.

“The aquaculture sector has a lot of room for growth in Saudi,” Nasser Abanmi, CEO of Arasco, told AGBI

This is “because it enjoys abundant natural resources along the coastline, which is more than 2,600 km long, and has a capacity to accommodate 5 million tonnes of fish”.

The industry’s development so far has been rapid: 35 years ago, there was no Saudi aquaculture to speak of. By the late 2000s, the kingdom was the world’s largest producer of white shrimp. 

Today the Naqua company operates one of the world’s largest fully integrated marine farms specialising in shrimp and fish production. 

Saudi Arabia’s National Fisheries Development Programme aims to attract $4 billion into the aquaculture sector as part of the Vision 2030 initiative. The kingdom aspires to achieve self-sufficiency in aquaculture protein demand by 2030 – in an environmentally friendly manner.

Saudi firm Naqua operates one of the world's largest fully integrated farms for shrimp. Picture: NaquaNaqua
Saudi firm Naqua operates one of the world’s largest fully integrated farms for shrimp. Picture: Naqua

The aim is to boost total national seafood production to 600,000 tonnes a year through investments in aquaculture projects, feed mills, fish processing plants and other facilities. 

With seafood consumption in Saudi Arabia projected to grow 7.4 percent annually, sustainable aquaculture growth is key to meeting demand and easing pressure on wild fish stocks.

“Aquaculture is a step towards self-sufficiency in the fish wealth of the kingdom,” said Abanmi.  

The supply-demand dynamic looks favourable, according to analysts. Saudi research suggests that the kingdom’s seafood consumption per capita is less than 50 percent of the global average — 11 kg compared to 24 kg. 

“Saudi Arabia, like most of the Middle East, currently has a significant seafood deficit, with about 75 per cent of its seafood imported,” said Rob Fletcher, senior editor of online resource The Fish Site.

“Some 75,000 of the 140,000 tonnes of seafood produced domestically in 2020 was farmed, and this proportion is growing.

“If the local aquaculture industry can help to reduce this deficit, it could also have sustainability benefits by reducing the region’s reliance on seafood imports, a significant proportion of which currently arrive in the country via air freight.” 

Abanmi said Saudi Arabia was conducting studies of endangered species and marine organisms and working to enhance their stocks. This aligns with Neom’s ambition to facilitate the production and supply of sustainable seafood while protecting the marine environment.

The Neom partners bring extensive experience to the venture, Abanmi said. “Each party brings unique capabilities to expand aquaculture capabilities in the kingdom. Cargill has many decades of research and innovation experience in the field of aquaculture.

“Arasco has four decades of experience in developing compound feed solutions for various species, including aqua, as well as a strong manufacturing and supply chain footprint.

“Neom brings with it a strong appetite for innovation and sustainable nation building.” 

A local source of feed, typically the largest expense for fish farmers, is crucial. The partners are likely to look at developing aquafeeds that are less reliant on fishmeal than conventional feeds. 

The three signatories also want best practice guidelines in place before any aquaculture development starts in earnest. 

In 2016, the Global Seafood Alliance signed a memorandum of understanding with the Saudi Aquaculture Society establishing the alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification programme as the national standard for the country’s aquaculture facilities. 

“This is the first time that the BAP certification programme has been a condition of licensing. It shows that Saudi Arabia is committed to growing its aquaculture production responsibly,” said Steven Hedlund, communications manager at the alliance.  

Global fisheries production is set to reach 181 million tonnes by 2022. Picture: Reuters
Global fisheries production is set to reach 181 million tonnes by 2022. Picture: Reuters

Even with these commitments and projects, “self-sufficiency in seafood by 2030 is an extremely ambitious target”, according to Fletcher.

“It is projected that the country’s seafood demand will be 700,000 tonnes a year by then. And, given that capture fisheries landings have stagnated, it will require aquaculture output to increase from 75,000 tonnes in 2020 to over 600,000 tonnes in 2030.

“Achieving such an increase, without damaging coastal ecosystems, will require precision planning, major investments and enlightened legislation.”

Saudi operators remain upbeat. “We are confident that the kingdom’s self-sufficiency targets can be realised by 2030,” said Abanmi. 

Production growth in Saudi Arabia could allow the sector to supply both domestic and international markets.

The likely division of labour will see Saudi Arabia’s shrimp farming sector focus on exports, while fish – both farmed and wild-captured – would be mainly destined for the domestic market.

Fletcher said: “This would suggest that fish will help to address food security within the country, while shrimp will lead the export charge.” 

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