The sea bass and sea bream supplied by the Fish Farm are not only favourites with local chefs, but also said to be more halal than the other farm fish available in the market. Image Credit: Arshad Ali/Gulf News

Dubai: Being a nation that prides on its coastal heritage, fishing is as deeply entrenched in the Emirati culture as fish is part of its cuisine.

Whether it is a Mhammara, fish salona or fried hamour fillet, Emiratis relish their platters of fish like any other coastal community.

However, increased demand for this rich source of protein over the years has resulted in significant depletion of the fish stocks, raising concerns that we will not be able to enjoy our fish entres for long if the exploitation continues at the current rate.

According to the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE) the average annual seafood consumption in the UAE has reached 210,000 tonnes, while the UAE’s local fish catch from natural fish stocks in the Gulf is a mere 73,000 tonnes, forcing the country to depend on imports for more than 70 per cent its seafood.

Dwindling fish stock is not just a local concern.

The alarming rate of depletion is being witnessed across the oceans, with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimating that 70 per cent of the fish population is already fully used, overused or in crisis.

This disturbing trend has forced the international fishing leaders to explore alternative sources like aquaculture, which in some countries has already become an established industry, producing more fish than the regular fishing industry does.

In the UAE, food security being high on the government’s agenda, aquaculture has just begun to find its sea legs, with Shaikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, leading the way with a multi-million dirham private investment.

The investment has helped set up a state-of-the-art fish farm in Jebel Ali Free Zone, a hatchery in Umm Al Quwain and a cage farm off the coast of Fujairah and two marine RAS (recirculation aquaculture systems).

According to Jamal Al Shaafar, Managing Director of Fish Farm, the facility is all set to become the biggest contributor to MOCCAE’s target of producing 100,000 tonnes of fish through aquaculture that will meet the growing shortage in supply.

“Fish Farm is the only truly commercial-sized vertically integrated fish farming operation in the UAE, capable of supplying 10,000 fish meals per person per day, every single day of the year. Our aim is to establish aquaculture as an industry in Dubai and help reduce our reliance on imports, which in turn will meet the government’s goal of ensuring food security,” said Al Shaafar, who is steering the nascent facility.

Now, in its third year of operation, the farm is currently supplying only sea bass and sea bream, both European species not found in local waters, in commercial quantity.

“Last year, we supplied 500 tonnes of sea bass and sea bream to the local market and this year we are targeting 1,750 tonnes of fish. We are supplying to 59 outlets including restaurants, five-star hotels and supermarkets,” said Al Shaafar, who is looking to reduce the shortage in local supply by covering five per cent of the market share in the next couple of years.

According to Al Shaafar, the fish farm will not only fill a gap in the deficit of supply, but it will also help stabilise the local seafood market by reducing its reliance on dwindling resources.

“Weather conditions don’t allow fishing for all 365 days of the year, which triggers price fluctuation. Over-exploitation of certain popular species has pushed these species to the brink of expectation. Aquaculture, with steady supply of fish helps stabilise the prices as well as helping provide new source of fish that is more eco-friendly,” said Al Shaafar.

But, are the fish groomed in a farm as good and tasty as those that are born in their natural habitat?

Natural atmosphere

Fish Farm’s general manager, Nigel David Lewis, believes the fish they are cultivating are as good as those that are found in the sea, if not better.

“We have tried to recreate the natural marine atmosphere in our tanks as best as possibly could be done. We use sea water that is circulated constantly, we control the temperature that reflects the weather outside. We also regulate and monitor the oxygen level 24/7 as well as provide high-quality feed that replicate the food the fish eat in the natural environment,” said Lewis, who is at the helm of 78-member team that looks after quality control.

He added that both sea bass and sea bream supplied by the farm are favourites with local chefs and guarantees consistent quality and taste.

Lewis argues the fish they nurture is more halal than the other farm fish available in the market.

“We ensure the feed we provide is made of 100 per cent halal ingredients, which includes high levels of protein, which we derive from halal sources. This may or may not be the case with foreign farms,” said Lewis.

Another advantage, according to Al Shaafar, the locally produced farm fish has over imported or locally sourced fish is that the locally farmed fish is fresher than others.

“Normally, imported reaches market after being days on the transport, even locally fished seafood takes hours to reach the market but our fish reaches the market within a couple of hours after it is fished out of the tank,” said Al Shaafar.

Other than sea bass and sea bream, the fish farm is also producing small quantities of yellow tailed king fish as well as conducting tests on hamour and other species.

The farm is also planning to conduct trials on producing Atlantic salmon in the near future, which will likely trigger a blue revolution.