What is underground aquafarming and how can it benefit the UAE?

Average annual fish consumption in Emirates per capita about 4kg higher than global average

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As fish populations across the globe face growing pressures from an increasingly industrialised fishing industry, aquafarming is sometimes regarded as a more sustainable way to satisfy demand.

An expert in fisheries conservation has suggested the UAE could take a new approach to the sector by creating facilities underground to alleviate the heating effect of the country’s extreme climate.

Abundant sunlight would allow energy-intensive aquafarms to be run sustainably using solar power, said Prof Michel Kaiser, chief scientist and professor of fisheries conservation at the Lyell Centre at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, which also has a Dubai campus.

Prof Kaiser spoke to The National about aquafarming in the UAE before he takes part this month in 'What will we eat?', a summit at Expo 2020 Dubai.

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It makes logical sense to put these facilities underground to control temperature
Prof Michel Kaiser, Heriot-Watt University

“The latest technology will see us take the production of marine species on to land,” he said.

“It makes logical sense to put these facilities underground to control temperature. They tend to be quite energy-intensive. You have plentiful supply of sun, so these could be powered by solar energy.

“As soon as you move away from the coastal areas, you have lots of land available to be used in the desert.”

The UAE already has an aquaculture sector, including Al Jaraf Fisheries, which farms shrimp and various fish in the waters at Bal Rumaid Island near Abu Dhabi.

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Another company, Fish Farm, rears fish in cages off the coast of Dibba in Fujairah, has a hatchery in Umm Al Quwain and an inland farm at Jebel Ali, where salmon are reared.

The industry has developed here at a time when overfishing in the sea is becoming a growing environmental and food security concern.

Research released in 2019 indicated that nearly all of the Arabian Gulf and the waters off the UAE’s east coast were among the 10 per cent of the world’s sea area most at risk from overfishing.

Average per capita annual fish consumption in the UAE is 25.3 kilograms, officials say, about 4kg higher than the global average, and with the country’s population continuing to grow, demand for fish could increase.

Concerns about overfishing in the Arabian Gulf are echoed on a global scale, with the United Nations saying last year that 90 per cent of big fish populations were depleted.

Figures from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation quoted by the journal Nature indicate that, in 2018, aquafarming produced 82.1 million tonnes of animals – including fish and shrimp – worldwide, compared to 97 million tonnes for wild fisheries.

Forecasts indicate aquaculture could grow by one third by the end of this decade and will overtake catches from the wild.

Bivalve molluscs, such as mussels and oysters, which filter plant material from the water, are sometimes described as more sustainable when grown in aquaculture than, for example, salmon, which are typically fed fish caught in the wild, although the efficiency of such systems has improved considerably.

While aquaculture in the UAE is used to provide food, and in doing so may alleviate pressure on wild populations, Prof Kaiser said it could also contribute to the conservation of marine species through the rearing and releasing of fish.

“Most people haven’t talked about it in terms of its role contributing to conservation. I think there’s a significant role it could play,” he said.

Similar work can take place with coral and last year Abu Dhabi announced a plan to rehabilitate more than a million colonies of coral through replanting.

Prof Kaiser said heat-tolerant species in the Gulf may be suitable for also repopulating reefs in other parts of the world where temperatures are increasing.

“The coral species that you have are already functioning at the upper limit of seawater temperatures,” he said.

“If the Gulf region corals are more tolerant, they could be more relevant if used in restoration. The Gulf region could be helping out other regions by transporting offshoots.”

The 'What will we eat?' summit takes place on February 17 at the UK pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. Among those giving speeches will be George Eustice, the UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, while Prof Kaiser will take part in a panel discussion on 'How to feed the world without destroying the planet'.

Updated: February 08, 2022, 2:02 AM
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