JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia, 21 October 2002 -- After 20 years of identifying marine fish and shrimp that would breed in captivity and creating systems to farm them profitably, the Government-owned Fish Farming Centre has reason to celebrate. The private sector is now investing in the nascent aquaculture sector.

The Saudi Fish Company at Al-Shaqiq near the southern Red Sea already produces 1 500 tonnes of fish a year. The National Shrimp Company in the Al-Laith area expects to produce 10 000 tonnes a year soon, while the Gizan Agricultural Company is building production facilities for 1 000 tonnes a year.

"Our aim is to reduce the gap between marine fish production -- Saudi fishing vessels bring in 50 000 tonnes a year -- and national consumption, which is
100 000 tonnes a year," says Mr Salem Al-Thobaiti, the Fish Farming Centre's manager. "We will achieve this in line with our national policy: all fish stocks should be utilized in a sustainable way so that this food resource won't be depleted."

FAO has helped the Fish Farming Centre with technical assistance since its founding in 1982. Once dependent on European and Asian experts for field training, the Centre now is completely staffed by nationals, with 37 Saudi researchers and technicians working at its 9-hectare site outside the country's largest port city.

Domestic demand for fish expected to grow

While desert dwellers in the Arabian Peninsula traditionally prefer lamb, cow and camel meat, consumers are increasingly attracted to cholesterol-free and easy-to-digest fish. Fish consumption is expected to increase from 3 to 9 percent of animal protein consumed in the country, according to a recent government study.

"Our national policy encourages the export of farmed fish to neighbouring Arab countries and Europe. We want the private sector to be competitive with other aquaculture producers and exporters in South East Asia," says Mr Al-Thobaiti. "In fact, we want to expand the Centre, attracting more researchers through better working conditions and benefits."

Centre innovates constantly

Research is currently underway on the white shrimp Penaeus Indicus, especially suitable as it is indigenous and resists disease well. The Centre so far has produced more than 8 tonnes/hectare/year of it. "They reproduce well in a limited space, so they are commercially interesting as well as nutritious", says Mr Al-Thobaiti.

The Centre is pioneering the raising of freshwater fish, such as the species known locally as boulti, in tanks of salt water pumped from the nearby Red Sea.
It has also adapted for local use the "baubab" fish-growing system, first established in Kenya. Consisting of rectangular concrete basins for raising fry and large circular basins for feeding the boulti fish, the system has a capacity of 12 tonnes of fish per year per tank.

Research continues on other marine fish, particularly on species known locally as Hammour, Nagel and Taradi. Also of interest are Seajan, which grows fast and can be marketed within six months, and species like Alarabi, Albream and Alsubeiti.

Since feed constitutes 60 percent of the cost of fish farming, researchers have developed a low-cost feed composed of poultry bones, soya bean, maize, barley, vitamins and minerals. Quality inspection on the feed is carried out constantly.

Monitoring fish health

Hygiene for farmed fish and shrimp is of utmost importance since bacterial diseases and parasites slow growth and reduce survival rates. The Centre has developed a monitoring system that helps stop the spread of diseases. Dr. Salah Mohammad Afifi, head of the diseases section, praises the system: The Centre has not experienced a fish epidemic in the past five years.

The establishment of the Fish Farming Centre is the fruit of one of 15 agricultural projects undertaken in Saudi Arabia with FAO assistance since 1964.