Fish farming has its pros and cons

Fish farming can help to counter dwindling fish reserves, cultivators say.

The aquaculture industry in UAE is growing as the number of fish in the Arabian Gulf is dwindling. Andrew Henderson / The National
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ABU DHABI // As the number of fish remaining in the Arabian Gulf dwindles, entrepreneurs around the region say the answer may lie in new forms of fish farming.

In January, Oman opened an aquaculture centre to offer support to fish farms. By the end of this year, Qatar plans to launch a state-run project on its southern coast to grow gilthead sea bream and European sea bass. Saudi Arabia has multiple commercial shrimp farming operations.

In the UAE, too, the industry is beginning to grow. The country's only large-scale commercial operation, Mubarak Fisheries, produces around 400 tonnes of fish a year, and plans to double that next year.

It farms sea bream, sea bass, hammour and other fish in net cages off the Dibba shore. And, according to its general manager, Tountas Panagiotis, its fish are better than those caught wild.

"Imported fish, by the time it hits the market, is already three days old, and sold up to seven days old," he added. "Our fish goes to the market fresh daily."

The fishery runs a hatchery which provides both small-scale fish farmers and the government-run Marine Resources Research Centre with fingerlings, which it releases to replenish stock.

The Marine Resources Research Centre also runs a farming operation, which this year aims to raise 140,000 fingerlings of species including hammour, silvery black porgy, rabbit fish, and black sea bream.

It farms them in open cages, then releases the young fish into mangroves and lagoons, where there is plenty of food and protection.

These efforts will hardly restock exhausted supplies. More than 63 per cent of global supplies are overfished, according to a 2009 study in the journal Science.

In the UAE, the numbers of hammour, spangled emperor fish, known in Arabic as shaari, the painted sweetlips (fersh) and the golden trevally (zuraidi), fell by 80 per cent between 1978 and 2001-2002.

There are limits, though, on what can be farmed here. Not only does the UAE lack fresh water supplies, the Arabian Gulf is too salty for many common commercial species to thrive.

Instead, says Alessandro Lovatelli, fisheries resources officer for aquaculture at the Regional Commission for Fisheries - part of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation - open-water operations typically have to grow locally endemic species.

Even then, the water along the shoreline of the western Gulf is shallow, limiting the scale of operation that can be run without causing unacceptable pollution with fish waste.

That, according to Jean-Yves Mevel, a manager for an aquaculture project from Al Bayan Holding Company in Saudi Arabia, presents challenges around Abu Dhabi and Bahrain.

Some species do manage to thrive. Tilapia are successfully grown in open cages in Oman.

"I'm not saying it cannot be done," says Mr Lovatelli. "Species of sea bream that are appreciated by people here can be cultured."

Exotic species bring with them a risk, though. Any damage to the cages could introduce them into local waters, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Foreign species run the risk of disrupting the local ecosystem, such as zebra mussels did when introduced to lakes in the US and Canada in the late 1980s, damaging harbours, boats and water treatment plants.

In any case, the fish feed has to be brought in, mostly from Saudi Arabia and Europe - so while the UAE would be less reliant on imported fish, that dependence would only be replaced by another.

Open-water farms are vulnerable, too, to external environmental threats, such as the "red tide" algal bloom that devastated marine life in the Gulf of Oman in the winter of 2008-09.

The worst impact was felt in the waters around Dibba, where the number of fish fell by more than two-thirds, and the overall biomass of fish fell to just seven per cent of what it had been.

Dibba's fish farm, Asmak, which had been operating since 1999 and was churning out some 1,200 tonnes of product a year, all but shut down, and has not recovered.