In a quiet corner of Jebel Ali, an aquatic indoor farm is bringing the freshwater lakes of Scotland to the UAE.
At Fish Farm, giant tanks filled with water have been naturally treated to mimic the characteristics of some of the world’s biggest oceans, including the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Mediterranean Sea.
Each year, the facility produces 1,000 tonnes of organic fish, from Atlantic salmon to seabass and yellowtail - the gourmet fish commonly used by sushi chefs.
For its chief executive, Bader Mubarak, Fish Farm is a passion project.
"I am a fourth-generation fisherman," he told The National.
“My whole family, from my father to my grandfather to my great-grandfather, has always had a love for fishing.
“When I started this project I took my respect for the ocean up a level.
“This farm is a way of helping the ecosystem of the sea and a way of bringing the best product out of the sea.”
Walking through the dimly lit 5,000-square-metre facility in Jebel Ali, the tanks are brimming with life.
Lighting is low so as not to disturb the fish, and surprisingly, the air smells fresh, not pungent, as some would expect.
Seabass and yellowtail fish are housed in a separate room to the salmon and there is a noticeable drop in temperature from one room to the next.
Salmon move with the current in 14°C tanks while all the other species on site prefer warmer climates of between 23°C and 27°C.
Through a separate doorway is a freshwater room, where baby salmon start their journey from egg to adult.
Much like the larger seawater tanks, this room is designed to mirror the freshwater rivers of Scotland where the salmon first hatch in the wild.
Lively juveniles – silver-grey in colour – launch out of the water and, when a worker throws fish feed into the tanks, a frenzy of splashing erupts.
The farm, which has headquarters in Dubai, has set up four facilities across the country, including caged farming facilities in Dibba Fujairah and Dubai, a hatchery in Umm Al Quwain and the inland farm in Jebel Ali.
The company was established in 2013 to reduce the UAE's dependence on imported produce and support the country's marine industry.
Edmund Broad, business development manager at Fish Farm, said the company buys fish eggs from overseas to be harvested into full-grown produce on site.
The salmon eggs are imported from Scotland and Iceland, the yellowtail from Chile and the seabass from Greece.
“Each fish requires a different environment to thrive so we treat the water to get it just right,” Mr Broad said.
“The seawater is taken from the nearby bay in Jebel Ali, is chilled then gets treated through seven types of filtration.
“If the water is the wrong temperature or has too high or too low levels of salinity, we can change the water using a computer-based system.
“Our engineers in the control room monitor the water constantly, from temperature to levels of oxygen saturation.”
By recycling seawater at regular intervals, the risk of diseases is almost eradicated at the farm. As such, fish mortality rates are extremely low.
From egg to fully grown, Mr Board said the salmon takes about 21 months to mature, the seabass 18 months and the yellowtail about 12 months.
In terms of weight, the seabass can reach up to 1kg, the salmon up to about 5kg and the yellowtail upwards of 14kg.
“We grade and separate the fish every two or three months so the tanks don’t get overcrowded,” Mr Broad said.
“We keep them in tanks according to their size, so small stay together, medium, then large.
“In any one tank you can fit up to 8,000 salmon, 12,000 seabass and 1,000 yellowtail.
“I jokingly refer to the yellowtail as a mini whale because it is a much bigger species than anything else we are harvesting here.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the demand for local, fresh fish was rife because the food import market was hugely affected by travel restrictions.
Fish Farm sold out of salmon as a result of demand and it put a huge focus on future expansion plans.
“Fish Farm is by far the biggest farm of its kind in the UAE but it is still very small according to the demand we are seeing,” Mr Mubarak said.
“The market is much bigger than what we are currently producing so there is huge opportunity to expand and we will be doing so within the next few years.
“We sold all our salmon to the retail market during lockdown.
"The challenges of food security that were exposed by the pandemic lit a touch paper in the leadership and in the food security ministry to radically speed up development of domestic food production.”
Nigel Lewis, technical director at the farm, said thanks to its recirculating aquaculture system, it has been able to grow happy and healthy fish.
"They thrive and grow well in our systems without the need for any pharmaceutical or chemical intervention," he said.
"Even the filtration system is a natural biofilter consisting of naturally colonising good bacteria.
"The Fish Farm RAS project is unique in every possible way, from sourcing and successfully transporting juveniles from as far afield as Chile and Scotland to Dubai.
"We grow species to market size and make a significant contribution to reducing the UAE’s dependence on imported fish and the National Food Security initiative."