A sea of potential: Aquaculture is on the rise and can help enhance food security

Fishing in Abu Dhabi is set for a period of transition. Once one of the emirate’s major industries before the discovery of oil, like many other traditional activities it has faced a long decline over the past four decades. However, the next few years hold promise of a turnaround for the industry, which should see a period of major reorganisation. While demand for fish continues to rise, the sector is slowly moving away from a traditional structure, with fish farming (also known as aquaculture) assuming a greater importance.

In Abu Dhabi, where roughly two-thirds of the UAE’s territorial waters lie, the fisheries sector is regulated by Law 23 of 1999, which specifies the Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency ( subsequently renamed the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi, EAD) as the industry regulator. The fisheries law emphasises the role of conservation and stock management.

CHANGES OVER TIME: According to figures from the federal Ministry of Environment and Water, the total number of fishing boats in the UAE rose from 1065 in 1976 to 5692 in 2009, with some 6300 Emiratis engaged in the fishing industry in the latter year.

The number of Emiratis employed in fishing has been falling for some time. The population of the UAE is increasingly urbanised, and with better education and career opportunities, many of the younger generation are choosing not to enter the sector.

The general pay structure, which is dependent on the catch and therefore highly variable, is another disincentive for nationals to enter the business, and remuneration remains lower than many other industries. As such, many fishermen are now expatriates, often from South Asia, although by law the nowkhadha – or skipper – must be a UAE national, and must be present on board whenever the boat puts out to sea. Moreover, given the prominent role it plays in the nation’s heritage and identity, fishing enjoys a status that goes beyond its commercial importance.

Across the Gulf region, a combination of environmental degradation and overfishing has caused fish stocks to fall to just 20% of 1970s levels, according to figures from the EAD. In the case of hamour (a white fish used extensively in the traditional cuisine of the Gulf), stocks now stand at just 10% of 1970s levels.

The population of the region has soared, with the UAE alone rising from around 200,000 inhabitants at independence in 1971 to over 8m, according to estimates from the National Bureau of Statistics. Demand for fish has risen in tandem. According to government figures, total fish consumption in the UAE stood at around 209,000 tonnes in 2011, up from 194,000 tonnes in 2010. The UAE’s total catch was 80,000 tonnes in 2011, up slightly on 79,610 tonnes in 2010, but still well below the 100,400 tonnes of 2006.

The difference between demand and supply is met by imports, which totalled 152,000 tonnes in 2011. Nevertheless, the UAE also exports a significant proportion of its catch, some 23,000 tonnes in 2011, compared to 18,000 tonnes in 2010.

For Abu Dhabi in particular, the emirate caught 3922 tonnes of fish worth Dh69.4m ($18.9m) in 2011, compared with 6556 tonnes worth Dh127m ($34.6m) in 2010, according to the Statistics Centre – Abu Dhabi (SCAD). In March 2012 local press put the total value of Gulf fisheries at over Dh1bn ($272m), with UAE consumption estimated at between 70 to 100 tonnes a year, averaging some 33 kg per capita.

MEETING DEMAND: Population growth and rising affluence mean demand for fish is projected to grow at around 8% a year up to 2030, reaching 900,000 tonnes by that year for the UAE, according to estimates based on historic market trends. However, the recent rise in food prices has prompted Abu Dhabi to look to enhance its food security by producing more of its food at home, particularly perishable commodities like vegetables and livestock. The emirate’s desert environment means that there is necessarily a trade-off between food security and water security. As such, developing aquaculture is particularly attractive, since unlike other types of agriculture, fish farming imposes no strain on precious freshwater resources. By using only seawater at onshore facilities and recycling this water, the impact on the environment can be minimised. Over the longer term, a move to meeting most consumption through farmed fish will also relieve pressure on wild stocks, allowing them to recover. In November 2012, the EAD held discussions with Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA), the emirate’s food safety and security regulator, and other stakeholders to map out strategies to develop fish farming, including drawing up a list of several species that are suited to both aquaculture and the UAE’s marine conditions.

FISH FARMS: One of the main players is International Fish Farming Holding, branded as Asmak, a public company founded in 1999. The firm’s activities span the aquaculture gamut, including hatcheries, fish farms, processing, fish feed and equipment, marketing and distribution. Asmak operates in the UAE and has subsidiaries in Oman, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The company is working with ADFCA to develop a fish development plan, with an initial target of increasing local farmed fish production by 800 tonnes a year.

The Abu Dhabi Fisherman’s Cooperative Society is also planning to develop its own fish farming facilities, with a view to producing medium-sized fish and prawns retailing for around Dh10-15 ($2.7-3.7) per kg, and which are a staple food among low- to middle-income families. Slightly more specialised is Royal Caviar Company, which plans to produce the first commercial quantities of Emirati caviar by the end of 2012, and to produce 35 tonnes a year of Ossietra caviar and 700 tonnes a year of sturgeon flesh by 2015.

FINANCING GROWTH: One of the main obstacles in developing a local fish farming industry has been finance, with local banks and insurance firms reluctant to invest, particularly at the hatchery stage where production can be uncertain. “The government must continue to support the industry, particularly at the research and development and hatchery level, so that the fish-farming industry can mature,” said Mamoon Othman, the group CEO of Asmak. “Only then will there be opportunities for the private sector to play a role in commercialising the sector and making it more sustainable.”

Once a network of hatcheries has been established, experience shows that the private sector is willing to invest, particularly on the marketing and distribution sides. Moreover, with fish consumption in the GCC averaging 50 kg per head a year according to Asmak, there is ample potential for Abu Dhabi to sell to its neighbours, creating a commercially driven export sector.

At the same time, the government is keen to tackle the problem of declining stocks, especially to prevent the disappearance of the iconic hamour. Part of the problem is that hamour take up to three years to reach reproductive capacity, and the species is particularly vulnerable to overfishing as stocks are less able to reproduce quickly. Although trawling has been banned in the UAE since the 1970s, the shift from creels made of palm frond to ones of metal wire makes it harder for young fish to escape, including the commercially insignificant but ecologically important smaller species that help maintain the food chain and health of the marine environment. Over the longer term, an agreement between all Gulf littoral states to combat the consequences of overfishing could help hamour stocks to recover, but to date no firm agreement has been reached.

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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2013

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