Economy of 'Scales': Aquaculture Is Booming in Egypt and with 80 Million Mouths to Feed, the Country Is Experimenting with New Techniques Aimed at Maximising the Productivity of Its Fish Farms

By McGrath, Cam | The Middle East, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Economy of 'Scales': Aquaculture Is Booming in Egypt and with 80 Million Mouths to Feed, the Country Is Experimenting with New Techniques Aimed at Maximising the Productivity of Its Fish Farms


McGrath, Cam, The Middle East


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WALL PAINTINGS IN THE TOMB OF TI AT Saqqara show that the ancient Egyptians were raising fish in man-made ponds as early as 2,500 BC. But it wasn't until the 1960s that the country began to experiment with commercial fish-raising techniques. Since then, aquaculture has become an integral part of Egypt's food production and an affordable source of protein for the country's 80m inhabitants.

The last decade has seen explosive growth. Annual production of farmed fish climbed from 50,000 tons in the late 1990s to over 650,000 tons last year--exceeding the combined output of all countries in Africa and the Middle East. "We think Egypt has a lot to teach other parts of the world," says Malcolm Beveridge, Director of Aquaculture and Genetics at the Malaysia-based WorldFish Centre. "Very few countries have had the spectacular growth in aquaculture that this country has witnessed over the last decade. If sub-Saharan Africa could manage something like that, it would really transform food security."

The General Authority for Fish Resources Development (GAFRD), which regulates Egypt's fish production policy, aims to increase national aquaculture output to 1.1m tons a year, or 75% of total fish production, by 2012. "In order to do that, there will probably have to be some increase in the land area devoted to aquaculture, but given the [scarcity of available] land and water, what we are more likely to see is an increase in production coming from an intensification of production methods," says Beveridge.

Productivity has risen steadily over the past four decades as fish farmers adopt methods and technologies that allow fish to be cultured faster, and in greater densities. Egypt's early efforts at aquaculture involved raising tilapia, a popular table fish, and mullet, an estuarine finfish, in pens and earthen ponds. The fish farmer would simply stock a body of water and wait until the fish grow to commercial size, often adding a pump to circulate the water.

These extensive and semi-intensive techniques, still widely practiced, require little capital but permit only low yields. Most operations cap out around one ton per feddan a year. (One feddan is equivalent to 0.4 hectares).

In recent years, many Egyptian fish farmers have adopted intensive techniques that require a larger investment in labour and equipment, but substantially increase output. A typical quarter-feddan pond with fish, feed and all the plumbing starts around $50,000--too expensive for individual farmers, many of whom subsist on less than $2 a day.

Researchers at state and private institutions are pushing the boundaries of time and space, attempting to enhance aquaculture productivity while reducing the time it takes to grow fish to commercial size. At the Central Laboratory for Aquaculture Research (CLAR) in Abbassa, geneticists are breeding new strains of catfish and tilapia that mature faster and possess greater tolerance to cold.

Meanwhile, the National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries (NIOF) has reported high yields from semi-intensive cultivation at its 37-feddan fish farm on the shores of Lake Maryout near Alexandria. Built in 1969, the fish farm is used to culture various species for research and commercial production. Sea bass, sea bream, sole and red tilapia are raised in non-aerated saltwater tanks, while Nile tilapia, mullet, carp and catfish are cultured in brackish ponds.

"We are producing up to 4 tons of tilapia and mullet per feddan in our experimental section, and 2.5 tons per feddan in brackish water under commercial conditions," says Mohamed Abdel Razek Eissa, head of NIOF's Aquaculture Department. Productivity is even higher at experimental farms in the desert outside Cairo, where tilapia are raised to commercial weight under rigorous, intensive conditions at 10 tons per feddan.

The biomass figures are irrelevant if farmers cannot turn a profit. …

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