Aquaculture in UAE: Opportunities for Dutch Sustainable Technologies & Challenges

National food security is a key part of the federal government’s plan to improve quality of life in the UAE, and increasing the efficiency and competitiveness of locally produced food products is one of its 10 strategic initiatives. Advanced research & development (R&D) is one of the key enablers of National Food Security Strategy for the country.

The Minister for Food Security announced the necessity to enrich various research areas such as aquaculture, biotechnology, data sciences and automation looking to work with UAE stakeholders bring R&D in the marine domain of food security to the next level. With rapid growth and development, the population of the UAE has risen exponentially to 9.3 million in 2017 placing a critical need on the sustainable and efficient management of the marine resources and fish stoc (source: Khaleej Times, 2 June 2019)

According to the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, the average annual seafood consumption in the UAE is nearly 226,000 tones, while the UAE’s local fish catch from natural fish stocks in the Gulf is a mere 70,000 tones, forcing the country to depend on imports for more than 70% of its seafood. Fish from Aquaculture accounts for about 3255 tones. (source: Gulf News, 20 January 2019)

There are five licensed aquaculture operations in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Production increased from 405 tons in 2016 to 648 tons in 2017. Abu Dhabi aquaculture sector produced 810 tons of seafood in 2018, valued to AED 18.6 million. This included 305 tons of shrimp, 163 tons of tilapia and 120 tons of hamour and sea bream, 60 tons of barramundi and 40 tons of sea bass, as well as non-native sturgeon species (source: The National, 26 May 2019).

The UAE government found that 85% of Abu Dhabi Sheri and hamour populations have been wiped out. As such the aquaculture sector presents an opportunity to augment the supply of fish and seafood through the use of sustainable technologies to relieve pressures on declining wild fish populations and ensure the protection of healthy, productive and resilient marine ecosystems (source: The National, 26 May 2019).

The UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment new aquaculture strategy 2019 aims to ease the pressure on "severely exploited" local fisheries. It outlines six initiatives that aim to accelerate the growth of the aquaculture industry - and these include streamlining the process of acquiring permits; identifying fish farming systems and appropriate sites; promoting economic investments; developing legislation and guidelines; bolstering innovation and scientific research; and developing communication and marketing plans. The Abu Dhabi Agriculture and Food Safety Authority will be overseeing the implementation of these initiatives. The policy has been put together at a time when the sustainable management of marine resources has become critical. (source: Khaleej Times, 2 June 2019)

Studies commissioned by the EAD, in partnership with other entities, indicate that over-fishing and the degradation of marine habitats have been depleting fish stocks and other populations of marine species at an alarming rate. At least 13 species have been harvested beyond sustainable levels, accounting for nearly 80 per cent of the commercial catch and 88 per cent of the commercial fishery revenue. According to the EAD's records, the 2018 production from licensed aquaculture farms in Abu Dhabi amounted to about 810 tons of aquatic organisms, including the local White Indian Shrimp and non-native Sturgeon species, with a total value of approximately Dh18.6 million. This represented a 20 per cent increase in production, from 650 tons in 2017. (source: Khaleej Times, 2 June 2019)

The UAE government is looking to increase the aquaculture projects as it is a viable source for improving the region’s food security. Modern aquaculture is still in its infancy in the GCC region with minimal production in Oman and UAE and comparatively better in Saudi Arabia.  UAE is endowed with many natural lagoons, bays and creeks, most of which are surrounded by mangrove swamps providing ideal spawning and nursery grounds for a wide variety of fish and shrimp species. The environmental conditions in the country are favorable for aquaculture projects and the authorities hope to attract more investors in the coming years. The main opportunity in UAE is its highly diverse population with high seafood consumption (28.6 Kg/year per capita as per FAO). The tourist inflow into the country and lower income disparity among the population further fuels the local seafood needs. Currently UAE depends on imports for a large portion of its demand. (source: FAO – “The new investment wave into aquaculture in Middle East countries: Opportunities and challenges”)

The interest in the industry has grown in recent years and culminated in the establishment of Marin Research Center looking to utilizing this natural environment for the development of fisheries. The Ministry of Presidential Affairs established the Sheikh Khalifa Marine Research Centre (SKMRC) phase 1 in Umm Al Quwain on the west coast of UAE (AED 75 million dirhams). The second phase is under construction.

Some of the big new aquaculture developments in UAE includes:

  • 360,000 square mere fish reserve in the coast of Fujairah.
  • 56,000 sq. m Siberian caviar farm in Abu Dhabi by Royal Caviar Company with production capacity 35 tons of caviar and 700 tons of sturgeon meat/year.
  • 500.000 sq. m salmon, grouper and sea bream RSA farm in Abu Dhabi with production capacity 4000 tons/year.
  • The International Fish Farming Company (Asmak) started the first commercial cage culture farm in 1999 Mubarak fisheries is the second

Challenges: Marine farms are vulnerable to extreme environmental threats. In 2008 to 2009 the coast of Oman and UAE was affected by red tide algae bloom that devastated the marine life. Waters around Dibba, UAE was affected the most where the number of fish fell by more than two third. In addition the highly fluctuating air temperature and high water evaporation rates which can induce water temperature and salinities to rise above for many farmed species.

Possible Cooperation with Wageningen UR:

Wageningen UR/IMARES can be a partner for introducing a more scientific approach, for technology development, capacity building and training courses

Wageningen UR/IMARES can also involve Dutch commercial companies

Post doc training is another possible area for cooperation

Besides aquaculture, other potential areas for cooperation are the effects of oil spills on aquatic live, invasive species, integrated coastal zone management including zoning of aquaculture areas, and determination of the carrying capacity of the environment for different forms of aquaculture.

In the cage culture project at Dibba, fingerlings are stocked in cages and farmed to commercial sizes. In general, the hydrographical conditions along the east coast of UAE are favorable for commercial aquaculture. At present about 20 circular sea net cages measuring 19 meters in diameter (depth: 12 meters). The nearest cage is located approximately 1.5 km off the coast of Dibba.

Recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) are being used in two projects. The first one being Emirates aqua-technology caviar factory LLC, and the second plant is a fish farm for red tilapia.

There are numerous fresh fish markets built with modern amenities located in different cities, villages and in some of the main fish landing facilities in the UAE. The well-developed road network in the Country ensures rapid transportation of the fish to the markets ensuring that quality and freshness are retained and most production mainly for local market. (source: FAO)

During 1999, the Ministry of Environment and water, introduced the Federal Law No.23 regarding the exploitation, protection and development of the living aquatic resources in the waters of the United Arab Emirates.  Aquaculture activities are also covered by this law under Articles 34 to 38 (Reference No. 7, Section 2.5). Accordingly, firms engaged in aquaculture should not cause pollution to the environment, are not allowed to introduce alien species without prior permission from the Ministry and should follow recognized hygienic procedures in handling, stocking, packing and transportation of fish. (source: FAO)

Freshwater aquaculture is limited to a few irrigation channels, ponds and tanks adjacent to agriculture farms. Expansion is likely in the future as people are becoming aware of the dual benefits of rearing fish such as tilapia in such facilities which will not only produce fish but also fertilize the irrigation water.

Source of information:

Ministry for Food Security
Ministry of Climate Change & Environment
Abu Dhabi Agriculture & Food Control Authority
Abu Dhabi Environment Agency
Marine Research Center Umm AlQuiwain