Is salmon farming in the UAE just an implausible dream?

Some far-fetched ideas have proved feasible, but Peter Hellyer suggests those who want to grow salmon in the Gulf have chosen the wrong species of fish.

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Over the years, I’ve heard of many ideas for new projects that seem, at first glance, to be utterly impractical. If they’re technically feasible, but enormously expensive, they can still be done. As we have seen with the world’s largest artificial port, at Jebel Ali, there are occasions when such expenditure can prove to be perfectly viable.

Some other schemes raise an eyebrow – often because they seem to overlook other constraints, like geography and the environment.

A few years ago, there was a short-lived covering of snow on the UAE’s highest peak and talk began about creating the first ski resort in the Arabian peninsula. I couldn’t help thinking that it didn’t make much sense. How often have we had natural snowfall here in the last hundred years? A couple of times? Another project, for a covered ski-slope on Jebel Hafeet, also seemed impractical.

Quite apart from the engineering task of carving great chunks out of the mountainside, degrading this important geological feature, the cost of construction and of maintaining suitable temperatures in the covered structure would surely be economically unfeasible and run contrary to any stated government policy of energy conservation. I’m glad we’ve heard little of these two schemes recently.

My sceptical eyebrow is raised at the moment because of the plan by local fish-farming enterprise Asmak to launch salmon farming here. According to the announcements late last year, the first fish should arrive in the shops by midsummer.

I’m in favour of fish farming. Stocks of commercially important fish species like the hammour in the Arabian Gulf are declining. If they can successfully be raised in fish farms, that’s to be welcomed. The same applies to other tropical fish, whether marine species like sea bream or freshwater species like tilapia. But salmon? They’re used to cold water and cool temperatures. They grow perfectly well, with the right management, in colder waters off the coasts of Ireland, Scotland, Norway, Chile and Canada, but that cannot be done here.

Asmak’s scheme involves the creation of onshore ponds, in a closed environment, where they plan to circulate and cool seawater to 13°C That’s not going to be cheap, particularly during the summer, when sea temperature can rise as high as 30°C. Off the coast of Ireland, by comparison, summer sea temperatures rarely exceed 15°C. Sea temperatures are lower still off northern Scotland and Norway, prime locations for salmon farming.

If the cooling system breaks down, even for an hour or two, the salmon will die very quickly. There’s also been little mention, so far, of the need to reduce the salinity of the Gulf’s seawater. Over the last 30 years, thanks in part to the impact of desalination plants, the Gulf’s salinity, on average, has risen to 47,000 ppm, compared to normal salinity in open oceans of 36,000 ppm.

Substantial supplies of fresh water – or, rather, desalinated water – are going to be required to dilute the cooled seawater. What is going to be the source for that? The country’s capacity for desalination and the associated power generation is already under great strain. Can we cope?

And then, of course, while it may be possible to grow salmon locally, the feed, thousands of tonnes of it, will presumably have to be imported from major producers overseas, at great expense.

A friend of mine with 40 years experience in salmon farming in Ireland, in offshore cages, tells me that he still faces problems with disease and nutrition, in much more suitable climatic and water conditions. He describes the idea of salmon-farming here as “just a dream”.

It makes good sense to farm hammour and similar warm water species. But I can’t help wondering whether the idea of producing salmon is a step too far, not just in terms of cost but also in terms of the challenge of overcoming local conditions. The trend in salmon farming worldwide is towards energy-efficient organic farming. That certainly won’t be the case here.

I note, while writing this column, that it’s being published on April 1. No, it’s not an April Fool’s Day joke. As we’re all well aware, though, the announcing of impractical ideas, like skiing in the Hajar Mountains, aren’t confined to a single day: they happen all year round. I look forward to hearing how successfully Asmak have dealt with the remarkable challenge they have set themselves.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture