Aquaculture Newsletter

(December 1996 Number 14)

Aquaculture Development and Resource Limitations in Egypt¹

¹Based on a unpublished FAO mission report (1994);
article published with the permission of the Government of Egypt.

Ziad H. Shehadeh² and Izzat Feidi³
² Senior Fishery Resources Officer, Fishery Resources Division, Rome, Italy
³ Regional Fisheries Officer, FAO Regional Office for the Near East, Cairo, Egypt


Fisheries (and aquaculture) in Egypt is an important component of the agricultural sector and a significant source of animal protein. It accounts for 3.9% of agricultural production and 14.1% of total livestock and poultry production by value (FAO, 1994). The sector directly employs about 164, 000 people, representing 3.07% of employment in agriculture. It also provides additional employment for 20, 000 people in supporting services and industries. Estimated total fish production in 1995 was 407, 141 metric tonnes (mt), of which 70.6% (287,456 mt) derived from marine and brackishwater fisheries, 14.2 % (57,872 mt) from freshwater fisheries and 15.2% (61,815 mt) from aquaculture (Figures 1a-b). Total fish supply was 547,952 mt (with imports accounting for 26% of supply), or an average of 9 kg per capita. Demand for food fish by the year 2,000 is estimated at 544, 000 mt (FAO, 1994). The Government's development plan for the sector aims at increasing production to 700, 000 mt per annum by the year 2000 and raising annual per caput fish consumption to 10 kg.

The state of aquaculture

There have been a number of reviews of aquaculture in Egypt (FAO, 1994; Barrania and Sadek, 1994; Balarin,1986; Sadek, 1984). This article reviews and updates selected aspects of the sub-sector with emphasis on resource limitations.

Aquaculture policies and plans: Government policy restricts aquaculture development to land not suitable for agriculture. Aquaculture is often a transitional activity, as part of land reclamation programmes. Water use for aquaculture is also restricted to irrigation drainage water of variable salinity, and water drawn from coastal and inland lakes. Use of water from the Nile and from irrigation canals for fish farming is prohibited. Use of ground water is permitted mainly for fish hatcheries.

The General Authority for Fishery Resources Development (GAFRD) no longer provides subsidised production inputs (feed, seed and fertilisers) to fish farmers or control fish prices. However, GAFRD prices for fish fry collected from the wild is a small fraction of that on the "free" market price.

Land is leased to farmers for a five-year renewable period at about Egyptian Pounds (EGP) 50/feddan/year (US$ 1 = EGP 3.3), and provided on "homestead" basis to unemployed college graduates (10 feddans each @ EGP 25/feddan/ year). A small proportion of the fish farms (10-15%) is privately owned. The Social Fund for Development provides loans to of EGP 10,000-30,000 to young graduates over a four-year period at  10% interest, with repayment beginning the second year. Otherwise, commercial banks are the only source of credit to fish farmers.

Aquaculture development is given high priority in the current five year plan (1992-93/1996-97), in the context of development activities aimed at increasing production through demonstration projects and extension. These include: (a) the development of fish farms in various governorates , (b) the development of marine aquaculture, (c) the national project for the development of tilapia culture, (d) the development of Macrobrachium culture, and (d) expansion of fish production in rice fields.

Cultured species: The main cultured species (Figure 2) are tilapias - mainly Oreochromis niloticus (about 35% of total aquaculture production), carps - mostly Cyprinus carpio (35%), mullets -mainly Mugil ramada and M. cephalus (23%), African catfish - Clarias gariepinus (3%), gilthead sea bream - Sparus auratus (2%), and sea bass - Dicentrarchus labrax (2%). Tilapia, carps and mullets dominate up to water salinity of 4 ppt, with mullets making up the bulk of stocked fish at higher salinities. GAFRD estimates that about 50-60% of existing farms can no longer stock carps and Nile tilapia due to increased salinity (in excess of 15 ppt) of irrigation drainage water and coastal lakes the main water sources for aquaculture; Barrania and Sadek (1994) give a lower estimate of 28%.

Production and production areas: Egypt has the earliest recorded history of fish-farming in Africa, superseding even carp culture in the Far East. In 1994, it accounted for about 48% (by quantity) of total aquaculture production from Africa (FAO, 1996). Production, excluding culture-based fisheries, peaked at 60, 000 mt in 1989, decreased to 53,000 mt by 1994 and recovered to 61,815 mt in 1995 (Figure 1b). Fish culture in ponds accounted for 65% of total aquaculture production in 1995 (39,908 mt), fish culture in rice fields 32% (19,930 mt) and cage culture 3% (1,977 mt)
(Figure 3). The total area under pond culture in 1995, excluding illegal enclosures in coastal lakes, was about 160,066 feddans (67, 255 ha, @ 2.38 feddan per ha). Private farms accounted for 60,174 ha (89%) and government farms 7,081 ha, or 11% (Figure 4). About 46,348 ha (69% of total pond area) consisted of unlicensed farms; i.e. farms using arable land (Figure 4). Rice-fish culture is practised in 172,769 ha of rice fields, while cage culture in the Nile provided a modest production volume of about 198,000 cubic metres in 1995.

The area of licensed pond farms peaked in 1987 at 45,529 ha, then declined by about 77%, to 10,559ha, by 1993 (Figure 5). This was due to the rapid increase in reclaimed land in the early eighties and the utilisation of aquaculture as a productive but temporary means of desalinating new lands, which subsequently reverted to agriculture. The area of rice fields used for rice-fish culture peaked at 224,917 ha in 1989 and subsequently declined, fluctuating between 173,000 and 183,000 ha since 1991. In 1995, the rice- fish area (172,763 ha) was below that reported for 1987
(Figure 6).

Production systems and practices: A variety of production systems are in use, ranging from traps to intensively managed systems [from lake stocking to production in enclosures, ponds, cages and tanks, and rice fields]. The systems have been described in detail by Balarin (1986) and Sadek (1984). Recent developments include the establishment of commercial-scale coastal pond farms, expansion of cage culture in the Nile and intensive culture of tilapia in tanks.

The commercial culture of freshwater fish in cages was stimulated by modest capital investment requirements, the limited availability of land and water for pond fish culture and promising cost-benefit projections based on GAFRD pilot tests (25% IRR).

The coastal fish farms (4,600 ha) in the Damietta Governorate, which operate within a water salinity range of 20 to 40 ppt, are the main brackishwater-marine farms. They are well designed, with water depth of 1-1.5 m. Water (20 ppt) is drawn from Lake Manzala and drains by gravity into a common area which connects to the Mediterranean. Ponds are stocked predominantly with mullets; sea bass and sea bream are also stocked when fry are available. A 5-ha pilot shrimp (P. japonicus) farm is in operation at Sharm El-Sheikh, Sinai. There are no mollusc farms.

GAFRD is conducting tests on cage culture of finfish at Fanara (Bitter Lake) and similar trials by the private sector (Maryut Fish Farming Co.) are underway at Matruh, in the Northwest, on the Mediterranean coast.

Production rates in ponds vary with pond depth, use of inputs, water management and salinity. The use of production inputs is extremely variable even with the same production system, due to differences in water depth and salinity, pond productivity and the availability of water and seed. Average production of about 1.6 t/ha/year (maximum of 2.5 t/ha/year) is reported from some government and private farms using polyculture systems, fertilisers and supplementary feeds; about 300-800 kg/ha/yr from the majority of the area under culture; 115 kg/ha/yr from rice fields and 10 kg/m3/yr from cages in the Nile. Production in the coastal ponds of the Damietta Governorate varies from 250 to 1,200 kg/ha/year, depending on inputs and water (salinity) management.

Seed supply and hatcheries: The Government plays a major role in the production of fish seed. It produces about 88% of the fresh water fish seed supply (mainly mirror carp) and is the sole supplier of seed of marine finfish. Seed of carp and tilapia are produced and distributed by nine government and four private hatcheries. In 1994-95, about 22 and 302 million fry of tilapia and carps were produced, respectively. Fry of mullets, sea bream and sea bass are derived exclusively from the wild resource, from 12 GAFRD collection sites along the Mediterranean coast, Suez Canal and the Red Sea.

About 128 million fry of marine fish were collected in 1994-95, 95% (122 million) of which were mullets, 3% (3.7 million) gilthead sea bream and 2% ( 2.2 million) Mediterranean sea bass. Collected mullet seed consists largely of M. ramada (estimated at about 70-80%) and M. cephalus (15-20%). The inaccuracy of these figures is uncertain; estimates as low as 25% of reported figures have been suggested.

The price of seed varies from year to year according to supply and demand. There is also a great difference between GAFRD and "free market" prices; for example, in 1994, the GAFRD price for mullet seed (0.3 g) was EGP 6/1000 pieces, compared to EGP 80-150 on the free market.

There are no commercial marine finfish or shrimp hatcheries in Egypt. A pilot mullet hatchery, which also produces some Mediterranean bass and bream, is operational at the Maryut Fish Farming Company (MFFC), but is not yet producing at full capacity. The MFFC also operates a Macrobrachium hatchery which is used at present to supply stocking material to the farm. A small research hatchery for shrimp (P. Japonicus) has been established at the Suez Canal University's Mariculture Research Center at Al-Arish (Bardawil Lagoon, Sinai) through an EC project. Another shrimp (P. japonicus) hatchery is in operation at a private shrimp farm (pilot phase) at Sharm El-Sheikh, Sinai.

Feed, fertilisers and feeding: Most farms use minimal inputs due to shallow ponds and low stocking densities (less than 1 fish per square metre), dictated by limited and/or uncertain water supply. Originally, cotton seed oil cake, wheat or rice bran and pelted cattle feed were the only available feed ingredients. The production and use of pelted fish feeds is a relatively recent development.

GAFRD has established two feed mills for the production of supplementary fish, with current production of about 3, 500 mt/year. A few animal feed mills have also set aside production lines for fish feed. The Fish Research Centre (Suez University) has a feed mill (capacity of 0.5 mt/hr of sinking pellets) and the MFFC is constructing its own mill (with extruder) for marine fish feeds. Farmers also shop for ingredients independently and prepare their feeds through private feed mills, who advance them credit till harvest. Coastal fish farms also utilise seasonal supplies of small shrimp and sardines, when prices are low, for feeding bass and bream.

Poultry manure and cow dung are more widely used than inorganic fertilisers. The latter are largely produced domestically, thanks to an abundant supply of natural gas, through six public-sector companies with a total capacity of 5 million mt/year.

Development prospects

The key factor governing prospects for expanding traditional freshwater pond culture appears to be the conflict with agricultural development (i.e. the priority allocation of land and water resources to agriculture) and the lack of integrated planning (for resource management) between the two sectors. These and other constraints, which collectively call for a shift in aquaculture development strategy, are discussed below.

Production: Average production from ponds, excluding government freshwater fish farms, is low (about 550 kg/ha/yr) and has not improved much during the past decade. Opportunities and methods for increasing production from existing farms have been detailed in the reports of various missions and technical assistance projects. However, the short duration of land leases from GAFRD (5 years), which does not encourage capital investment; the shortage of necessary resources good quality water, and seed and feed/feed ingredients; and weak extension services have hindered progress.

A doubling or tripling of production from private pond farms can be achieved with sustainable semi-intensive systems and known technology if resource constraints are removed. Production of 1.0 -1.5 mt/ha/yr has been achieved by some private farmers in the Fayum area, where low salinity drainage water is abundant, pond water depth is 1-1.5 m, and farmers have the means to purchase seed and feed. Production could also be increased to the same level in coastal ponds, from the present average of 360 kg/ha/yr, if an adequate supply of marine fish seed can be assured and water salinity can be controlled within a range of 20-35 ppt.

Water and Land Resources: The expected increase in water consumption to 70,000 million m3 by the year 2,000, and the ever present threat of drought, have made water conservation a priority. Plans call for re-utilisation of low-salinity irrigation drainage water, introduction of water-saving irrigation technologies and recovery of operating and maintenance costs of irrigation networks, leading eventually to price incentives for more efficient use of water. In the absence of integrated resource management, these plans will diminish prospects for the maintenance of existing freshwater fish farms, let alone the expansion of fish farm areas, by limiting the availability of irrigation drainage water and increasing its salinity, as well as increasing the price of available low salinity irrigation drainage water.

Plans are already under way to re-utilise one third of the run-off water entering Lake Qaroun, and diverting 2 billion m3/year of run-off water now draining into Lake Manzala to Sinai. This will raise salinities in these lakes, forcing fish farms using lake water to shift to the culture of brackishwater/marine species and endangering the put-and-take fishery in Lake Qaroun (1,300 mt/yr).

The availability of land for fish ponds is also a major constraint to the expansion of freshwater aquaculture. The total area of pond fish farms has fluctuated widely as reclaimed land was made available for aquaculture temporarily then returned to agricultural use. If unlicensed farms now operating on arable land were to be shut down, aquaculture production would drop by 75%. There are no recent estimates of potential sites (non-arable land) for fish pond development which would be available on a permanent basis, or the nature and extent of the secure water supply. Furthermore, aquaculture development in and along the coastal lakes (Manzala and Burullus) must also await a final government decision on the long term plans for these lakes (e.g. use of Lake Burullus for freshwater storage; continued land reclamation in Lake Manzala).

Clearly, there is need for a more thorough information base on the long-term availability of land and water resources for pond culture, and the future of coastal and inland lakes, to enable formulation of a long-term aquaculture development strategy. There is also need for close co-ordination with the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Irrigation and other government agencies involved in land use, land reclamation and management of water resources. Generally speaking, however, the potential for horizontal expansion of stand-alone freshwater pond aquaculture appears to be poor. Development efforts should be focused on (a) increasing production from existing freshwater farms with assured water supply, using efficient, moderate-input polyculture systems, (b) incorporation of freshwater aquaculture into existing farming systems, (c) more intensive use of inland water resources, and (d) development of brackishwater and marine aquaculture.

There are opportunities for cage culture of fish in the Nile, irrigation canals and inland lakes. However, pollution problems due to high cage density and poor siting, and concern about potential navigation problems on the part of the Ministry of Irrigation must be resolved if cage development is to expand again underlining the urgent need for inter-sectoral planning . Current shortages of fish (tilapia and mullets) seed and suitable pelleted feeds also need to be addressed to enable expansion of cage culture.

With proper inter-sectoral planning and assured production inputs (seed and feed), cage culture could be expanded to inland water bodies (the Al-Rayyan depressions and the High Dam Lake). In addition, there are about 4,700 km of irrigation canals in Egypt, parts of which could be used for cage culture of fish, in co-ordination with the Ministry of Irrigation, which is already producing grass carp fingerlings in cages for stocking in canals for weed control.

Seed and Feed Resources: Demand for seed of mullets, particularly grey mullet, Nile tilapia, sea bass and sea bream exceeds supply. This is reflected in the price of seed on the "free market", which, in the case of mullet fry (0.3 g), has increased by 230% (from EGP 45 to 150/1 000 pieces) since 1988.

The seed supply of euryhaline and marine fish, particularly mullets, requires urgent action for a number of reasons: (a) The Government wishes to eventually protect natural fry resources to revitalise capture fisheries in the coastal lakes. [Banning the collection of wild fry at present would reduce aquaculture production by 27%, not including production from stocked inland waters.] (b) The current supply of wild mullet fry (about 120 million/year), even if not over-estimated, is still inadequate to meet demand (about 100 million fry will be needed for stocking coastal farms alone). (c) Mullets are well suited to semi-intensive culture based on enhancement of natural food production and supplementary feeding and, by virtue of their feeding habits, are admirably suited as components of polyculture systems with freshwater or marine shrimp and tilapias. (d) Expertise in hatchery production of marine finfish and shrimp is very limited in both the private and public sector.

Tilapia seed is in short supply. However, the problem can be resolved by the production of tilapia fry in the many existing GAFRD carp hatcheries and by demonstrating low cost fry production systems to farmers. In addition, investment in hatcheries could be stimulated by increasing the price of marine fish and tilapia fry to "free market" levels.

In view of the pressing need to develop hatcheries for tilapia and marine fish and shellfish, the Government has enacted a law permitting appropriation of private land for the establishment of commercial hatcheries by Government agencies and related bodies.

Aquaculture competes with agriculture for manure, but the supply of fertilisers does not pose a problem. The establishment of two fish feed mills by the GAFRD seems to indicate that competition with livestock for agricultural by-products has been somehow averted. Most protein in animal and fish/shrimp feeds is of plant origin as supplies of animal protein are limited and expensive. The use of animal proteins for fish feed would be, in most cases, in direct competition with its use for direct human consumption. There is need to improve the supplementary feed produced by GAFRD for freshwater fish and to prepare supplementary feeds for marine fish, based on local ingredients, at reasonable cost.

Marine Aquaculture: The high priority assigned by the GAFRD to the development of marine aquaculture in its current five-year plan is warranted by the obvious constraints to expanding production from freshwater aquaculture, and the keen interest of the private sector. However, development is proceeding without adequate planning. This has already lead to serious problems of water management and pollution in coastal ponds due to a faulty pond water supply and drainage system. The adoption of semi-intensive production systems in coastal pond farms is also being constrained by limited feed and seed resources, and production management expertise.

The potential for the development of marine aquaculture has not been properly assessed, and economically viable production systems are yet to be identified and validated through pilot production tests. Unless this situation is remedied, there is danger that failure of poorly planned ventures will discourage future investments.

A number of opportunities for marine aquaculture have been tentatively identified by external consultants. These include: (a) potential sites for various production systems along the Red Sea coast, (b) potential for the culture and stock enhancement of Mediterranean sea bass and sea bream in Bardawil Lagoon, Sinai (c) potential for development of semi-intensive marine fish farms in association with proposed channels for improving the circulation of Lake Burullus, and (d) potential sites for land-based and cage production systems in the Matruh/Alamein area, and at Fanara, on the Bitter Lake. Though these studies provide valuable information, they contain little data on the social and economic feasibility of the proposed production models.

A number of development activities need not await the formulation of a marine aquaculture development plan. Most important of these is the establishment of marine hatcheries. Other activities include improvement of locally produced feeds, addressing water salinity and quality problems in coastal farms of the Damietta Governorate, and training programmes for fish farmers.


Balarin, J.D., 1986. National reviews for aquaculture development in Africa. 8. Egypt. FAO Fish.Circ., 770.8. FAO, Rome. 119 p.

Barrania, A. and S. Sadek, 1994. Evaluation of the Egyptian experience in aquaculture: Objectives, accomplishments and constraints. Paper presented at the Aquaculture Symposium on Technology and Investment Opportunities, 11-14 April 1993, Riyad, Saudi Arabia. [in Arabic]

FAO, 1996. Aquaculture production statistics 1985 -1994. FAO Fish. Circ. 815 Rev. 8 (in press). Rome, FAO.

FAO, 1994. The marketing, distribution and trade in fish in the Arab Republic of Egypt. FAO Regional Office for the Near East (RNEA). Cairo, Egypt. 46 p.

Sadek, S.S., 1984. Development de l'aquaculture en Egypt. Référence à la ferme de Reswa [Port Said] et proposition d'une politique nationale aquacole. Institut national Polytechnique de Toulouse, Ph.D. thesis. 151 p.