The establishment and growth of aquaculture in Israel closely parallels the development and establishment of the State of Israel itself. As opposed to other industries, aquaculture has, from the outset, benefited from organization and close relationships between government, business, and research institutions such as its universities. Economic changes, privatization, ecological concerns, new methods and species have expanded from the basic, traditional cooperative farm, a kibbutz (producing one or two species) to large multimillion dollar projects dealing with a multitude of species.
A major concern to the fish farmer is water. Israel has suffered water shortages during the 1980s and 1990s which strongly affected aquaculture (Mires, 2001). Water shortages have promoted research efforts to increase production using smaller amounts of water. Successful trials have lead to the production of 20-60 kg/m3 (the national average is 0.5 kg/m3 ) (Mires, 1996). With the decline of many of the fish species imported into Israel, the local market will increasingly depend upon the aquaculture and mariculture industry.
Aquaculture in Israel began with the importation of carp during 1927/28. An experimental farm was established in 1934 on the coast south of Acre. The cooperative farm (kibbutz) of Nir David in the Bet Shean Valley began farming common carp (Cyprinus carpio ) in 1937/38 and by 1939 commercial carp farming had expanded throughout the valley. Support for the fledgling industry came from the Jewish Agency, instructors from former Yugoslavia and research units from the universities present in the area. In 1945 an outbreak of a virulent strain of algae, Pyrimnesium , in the brackish water ponds almost caused the collapse of the infant industry. Researchers at the Hebrew University (Jerusalem) solved the problem, using ammonia sulfate. In 1944 they established a laboratory at Nir David to investigate fish diseases. By 1948 aquaculture accounted for 71.4 percent of the fish consumed in Israel and total pond area grew to 1 400 hectares.
Throughout the early 1950s, fish farmers looked for ways to improve marketing and methods were established for shipping live fish to market. Meanwhile farmers were continually searching for other fish species to add to the carp monoculture. Tilapia (or more specifically blue tilapia, Oreochromis aureus ) was chosen for its ability to survive in hot climates and because it does not compete with the carp for food.
The Dor Research Station was completed in 1955 and other fish were investigated as potential aquaculture candidate species. Mullets (specifically Mugil cephalus and Liza ramada ) became a permanent addition to the polyculture system in 1956. Problems with economically producing mullets fry forced fish farms to continue collecting wild fry, a practice that continues to this day. In 1948 the number of farms stood at 91 with a total pond acreage at 3 889 hectares and production at 7 343 tonnes.
The Fish Growers Union (FGU) was established in 1966 to solve the surplus of fish; an annual quota system was established along with a system of unified marketing. In 1969 farming of the Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss ) began in the headwaters of the Dan River (which flows into the Jordan River), in northern Israel. The silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix ) was introduced in the same year. While trout are grown using monoculture in concrete raceways, silver carp was added to the polyculture system to feed upon green algae present in the ponds.
The Genossar Research Station was jointly established by the Department of Fisheries in cooperation with FGU in the early 1970s. Water usage was deemed (as it is today) to be critical and the station's mandate was to identify ways to super-intensify aquaculture in Israel. In later years the station also dealt with the monoculture of male Tilapia and new species such as the giant river prawn (Macrobrachium rosenbergii ) and the European eel (Anguilla anguilla ). Economic and water usage problems drove out many of the small fish farmers during the 1980s, however since 1983, yields have steadily increased. Recently outbreaks of a carp virus has limited carp production, however, due to the flexible and varied nature of Israeli aquaculture other fish species have taken up the deficit.
One of the main pond methods currently being developed and which is rapidly increasing in volume is the use of covered oxygenated ponds, with water passing to and from the ponds via a reservoir/biofilter. Such systems have been yielding production increases as high as 400 percent, from 0.5 kg/m3 in an open pond situation to 20 kg/m3 and more in a covered tank. Equally impressive yields have been achieved throughout the arid Negev and Arava regions using covered "bubble" or "tent" systems, the warm, geothermal, saline water is recycled from the fish ponds to irrigate a variety of crops, from greenhouse tomatoes to cattle fodder. In light of the initial commercial successes, it appears that by promoting fish farming in the south using geothermal water sources local production may be dramatically increased, thus lowering the current high demand for imported fish.
New fish species are also being investigated and produced, for example, barramundi (Lates calcarifer ), Australian crayfish (Cherax sp.), striped seabass (Morone saxatilis ), red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus ) and silver perch (Bidyanus bidyanus ) (Loar, 1999; Snovsky & Shapiro, 2003).
Recent production figures (2003) show total production at 20 777 tonnes from both aquaculture and mariculture operations.
The aquaculture work force is a skilled one as a result of the highly technical nature of aquaculture in Israel. Most, if not all workers have a high school diploma (12 years) while a high percentage have a college degree (B.Sc. or M.Sc.). Women make up about 95 percent of the work force.
Aquaculture in the Galilee, Gilboa and Jordan valley's is characterized by freshwater polyculture utilizing intensive fish ponds, reservoirs for extensive freshwater aquaculture and in the northern regions raceways for the growing of the rainbow trout. In the coastal plain, freshwater polyculture is carried out in intensive fish ponds as well as brackish and marine water ponds to produce a variety of marine species. Along the Mediterranean Sea coast a variety of brackish water and marine fish species are produced in ponds as well as in floating cages. The Negev and Arava valley's has brackish and freshwater ponds producing salt tolerant and exotic species (e.g. barramundi and seabass) while in Elat the gilthead seabream (Sparus aurata ) is farmed in cages and ponds.
Most of the fish species grown in Israel have been imported from aboard. For example, in 1969, the rainbow trout was imported from Switzerland. This species is successfully farmed with 352 tonnes produced in 2003. Common carps (Cyprinus carpio ) were imported in the 1930s and is by far the most important farmed fish in Israel accounting for over 7 000 tonnes annually. However, more recently the Koi Herpes Virus (KHV) threatened carp production resulting in a decrease in production between 1998 and 2001. The Grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idellus ), Silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix ) and the Bighead carp (Hypophthalmichthys nobilis ) were all imported in the late 1960s.
Striped bass and its hybrid (a cross between striped bass Morone saxatilis and white bass Morone chrysops ) were first introduced in the mid-1980s, initially in an effort to control an over population of pest fish species in reservoirs. Farmed production, however, began in 1989 in the Jezerel (lower Galilee) and Bet Shean valleys. The Red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus ) followed in the early 1990s and is being farmed in net cages off Elat on the Red Sea and in the Mediterranean Sea. The introduction of tilapia hybrid (Oreochromis aureus x Oreochromis mossambicus or Oreochromis niloticus ) and the production of all male fish populations has replaced the production of the endemic tilapia (mainly Oreochromis aureus ) due to problems resulting from wild spawning.
Trout farming began in 1969 in the north of the country and in 1992 sturgeon was added to the raceway systems. In 1996, farming of barramundi (Lates calcarifer ) begun in Arava. The ornamental fish industry (both tropical and cold water) has expanded over the years.
Recent research has led to fish being produced in octagonal monocultural concrete ponds using oxygen (ozone) and/or a recirculation system. Proper water usage has also led to the development of integrated systems (mostly in the Arava region) using warm geothermal water (unfit for human consumption) which is then recycled for irrigating farm agriculture land.
According to FAO statistics for the period 1990-2004 aquaculture production in terms of volume was as follows:
Carp, barramundi and striped bass are exported in frozen form to markets in Europe and North America, while ornamental fish are exported live to Europe. The main imported species include fresh and frozen Atlantic salmon from Norway and Canada, fresh and frozen Nile perch from Kenya and Uganda, tinned sardine from Portugal, and frozen mackerel, hake, herring and tilapia. Fish markets are present in the three largest Israeli cities of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa; they handle fresh, chilled and frozen fish produced from all over the country.
Harvested fish are first shipped to the regional packing houses from the individual farms, and following inspection, the fish are transported on to main fish markets. Examination of farmed fish is carried out by the Israel's Veterinary Service both at the farms and at the packing houses, thus preventing poor quality fish and fish products from reaching the consumer and enabling prompt detection of diseases. Farms affected by specific diseases are placed in quarantine. A recent example would be the outbreak of the KHV and its successful treatment.
Aquaculture in Israel has been and continues to be based upon the use of cooperative farms (i.e. the kibbutz). Over the years the smaller fish farms have ceased operation as a result of being unable to compete and to fill fish production quotas. Small farms similar to those found in other parts of the world do not exist mainly due to the limited availability of water resources.
Between 1995-2003 aquaculture contributed on average to approximately 4.7 percent of the country's livestock production and 4 percent of the total value. The local aquaculture sector faces strong competition with the imports of frozen fish products (approximately 65 percent of all fish consumed) as well as other major livestock production sectors, which are partially subsidised.
The Aquaculture section or branch of the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture is ultimately responsible for the monitoring and management of the freshwater aquaculture. The mariculture branch is responsible for the monitoring and management of brackish water and marine aquaculture. The establishment of mariculture (initially in the Gulf of Elat at Akaba and later along the Mediterranean coast) has been the direct result of the work and research preformed by a government-owned company.
Most fish farms are organized within the Fish Growers Union (FGU). The Union has assumed many governmental like functions, for example, price control and species management. However, recently with the emphasis placed on free market trade and the appearance of independent farms, the status of the FGU has been downgraded to one of a purely professional non-profit organization specializing in technical training and insurance.
The Department of Fisheries is responsible for ensuring an adequate supply of fish to the sector. Several research stations under the department are responsible for conducting research on new farming methods, on new species and to identify technical problems that need to be addressed for the aquaculture sector to grow. All research results are peer-reviewed and published in the Israel Journal of Aquaculture. The Department works closely with fish producers themselves.
The three research stations under the Department are: Dor, Nir David, and Genossar. The stations were established with the express purpose of improving the country's aquaculture sector. Their main research activities focus on improved feeds, the effect of oxygen addition, recirculation systems, fish disease and the potential for new species (e.g. Australian crayfish, striped bass, silver perch, and paco).
The Aquaculture branch of the Department of Fisheries in cooperation with the Fish Growers Union is also responsible in setting the agenda for advanced research activities.
Higher learning institutions, such as the Hebrew University, have long been involved in the development of the aquaculture sector and degrees in aquaculture are obtainable at the Rehovot branch of the university. The Israeli Oceanographic and Limnological Research institute (IOLR) has been involved for over 35 years in advancing mariculture, through investigation into the spawning and culture of marine species such as Sparus aurata , Dicentrarchus labrax , and Caranx spp.
Centers for higher learning include the universities of Technion, Hebrew, Tel Aviv and Haifa.
Domestic fish production and in particular aquaculture production will continue to play a dominant role within the Israeli market for fish products. Mires (1996) highlighted the dramatic decline of fish imports from the Atlantic Ocean, which make up the bulk of imported fish products and at the same time the Israeli population is expected to grow by approximately 56 percent by the year 2020. Fish consumption is also expected to grow by 23 percent and the decrease in the availability of imported fish will cause a price increase for imported products.
The growth in domestic fish production has kept pace with previously predicted values (Mires, 1995). Unforeseen natural events such as the cold winters of 1991/92, 2002/2003 and the carp virus outbreak in 1999-2001 had an effect in the domestic production of fish. Mires (1996) estimates that fish production will approach 25 000 tonnes by 2010 and 30 000 tonnes by 2020. This prediction is based on the successful adaptation of new technologies which will enable the further intensification of aquaculture in Israel.
The future of aquaculture in Israel has also been influenced by ecological concerns for water quality and consumption. Water quantity and quality has always been a primary concern. The National Water Carrier was developed in the 1960s to transfer water from the water-rich north to the deserts of the south (Negev Desert). As part of the water system, special attention has been given to the main source of freshwater in Israel, i.e. Lake Kinneret and its watershed area.
FAO . 2005 . Aquaculture production, 2004. Year book of Fishery Statistics - Vol.96/2. Food and Agriculture organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy.
Loar, A. 1999 . Fishing and aquaculture in Israel (in Hebrew). Dept. of Fisheries, Ministry of Agriculture.
Mires, D. 1995 . Israel's aquaculture 1995 - recent developments and future prospects. Isr. J. of Aqua. Vol 47 (2)
Mires, D. 1996 . Expected trends in fish consumption in Israel and their impact on local production. J. of Aqua. Vol 48 (4).
Mires, D. 2001 . Internal Report: Forecasting fish consumption in Israel in 2000-2005. Dept. of Fisheries, Ministry of Agriculture (in Hebrew).
Snovsky, Z. & Shapiro, J. 2003 . The Fisheries and aquaculture of Israel. Dept. of Fisheries, Ministry of Agriculture.