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Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nationsfor a world without hunger
  1. Characteristics, structure and resources of the sector
    1. Summary
    2. History and general overview
    3. Human resources
    4. Farming systems distribution and characteristics
    5. Cultured species
    6. Practices/systems of culture
  2. Sector performance
    1. Production
    2. Market and trade
    3. Contribution to the economy
  3. Promotion and management of the sector
    1. The institutional framework
    2. The governing regulations
    3. Applied research, education and training
  1. Trends, issues and development
    1. References
      1. Bibliography
      2. Related links
    Characteristics, structure and resources of the sector
    The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia occupies 80 percent of the Arabian Peninsula land surface with a unique geographical location, with the length of its coastal belt along the Red Sea and the Gulf exceeding 2 400 km. This makes the country a rich source of a wide range of fish and other marine products suitable for commercial exportation, particularly marine species, attributed to favourable climate conditions, availability of water, good land and suitable environment. Due to the excellent potential favourable environment for fish farming, the Ministry of Agriculture has identified aquaculture as a priority economic sector, as a result of rich finfish and shellfish resources, some of which have been identified as suitable aquaculture candidates.

    Aquaculture in Saudi Arabia is rather a new activity. First aquaculture experiences date back to the early 1980s when Nile tilapia was reared in inland water bodies. In 2000 the sector started to move toward shrimp aquaculture giant tiger prawn first and Indian white shrimp after. To date, the shrimp aquaculture industry is highly developed, with a current production of 8 705 tonnes in 2004, a significant increase from just 1 tonne in 1987 (Fisheries Statistics, 2008).

    Whereas the bulk of freshwater aquaculture production is consumed locally, the shrimp production is exported in many countries like Japan, European and North American markets, once the domestic demand has been satisfied. There has been a rapid development of aquaculture in the last 5 years, as perceived from the rapid increase in the number of fish farms during this period. The development is towards increased production of white shrimp and diversification towards the culture of marine fish species. This trend is expected to continue in the coming years.
    History and general overview
    Aquaculture in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is relatively new sector. It began during the early 1980s when some farmers started culturing tilapia in freshwater bodies in inland areas. Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) has been the major fish produced in aquaculture until 2000, when shrimp began to be produced in large quantities. Initially, the activities on shrimp culture were mainly on giant tiger prawn (Penaeus monodon) where the breeding and culture technologies developed in Southeast Asia were brought to Saudi Arabia. However, because of the high saline waters around the country, P. monodon culture was not successful. Instead, it was replaced by the Indian white shrimp (Penaeus indicus), which was found to survive and grow well in the high saline waters around the country.

    Over the past few years, special attention has been directed at boosting commercial aquaculture production. Feasibility studies concerning aquaculture operations demonstrated the economic importance of investing in different aspects of this sector. Compared to other investment activities, aquaculture is a relatively new field, however, considered economically important and a sector attractive to foreign investment. The Ministry of Agriculture strongly supports and encourages investment by facilitating the acquisition of project land, as well as, providing favourable loans. Experimental and show-case aquaculture projects have been established by the authorities to encourage local and foreign investments

    The Ministry of Agriculture is especially focused on the activities and development of the aquaculture sector, so as to meet local needs and for the purpose of exports from such an important source of animal protein. Aquaculture projects in Saudi Arabia are either inland projects, established within agriculture projects or close to them, or coastal projects located along the Red Sea coast. The Department of Aquaculture is responsible for issuing licenses, for setting-up operations for aquaculture projects after the evaluation of feasibility studies for these projects.

    The first aquaculture farm in Saudi Arabia was established a little over two decades ago when the first license to operate this kind of business venture was granted in 1983. During this time, freshwater aquaculture was the main activity producing largely Tilapia. There were less than 20 fish farms in Saudi Arabia during the 80s until the early 90s. The number of fish farms increased significantly to 109 in 2002 (Statistical Indicators for Fisheries in Saudi Arabia, 2002) and more than doubled in just 2 years to 227 in 2008 (Fisheries and Aquaculture Statistics, 2008). From a mainly freshwater aquaculture-oriented activity, it became a highly successful marine aquaculture venture as well, largely producing white shrimp. At present it can be said that aquaculture is both freshwater and marine, but dominated by only two aquaculture commodities, Tilapia for freshwater and white shrimp for marine aquaculture. Because of this dependence on two aquaculture species, farmers are now starting to diversify their aquaculture operations into marine fish culture.
    Human resources
    In 2003, the employment in the aquaculture sector reached 3 407 full time jobs (Fisheries Statistics, 2006). This figure is expected to increase because of the increasing number of farms in the past 2-3 years. Many of these workers, especially those working in the farm sites are unskilled workers doing routine maintenance labour. A few highly-skilled people are in-charge of the operation of the farms. Most of the skilled workers employed in the industry are non-Saudi nationals. It should be noted, that at present, no women are part of the working force in the industry.
    Farming systems distribution and characteristics
    Freshwater sources are limited in Saudi Arabia and the main source of water is underground water, which is used both for aquaculture and agriculture. Therefore, freshwater farms are distributed all around the country where source of water is accessible. The only way to establish a freshwater fish farm is to set up a traditional crop farm with the effluent water being used to irrigate crops. Consequently, fish farming and agricultural activities are joint activities. This system is beneficial for both fish health and agricultural production.

    Brackish and marine aquaculture is mainly undertaken in huge shrimp farms using ponds and raceways located along the Red Sea cost.
    Cultured species
    Many species of freshwater, marine fish, shrimps, shellfish and ornamental fish are suitable for aquaculture activities. These species include:


    Mainly the white shrimp, P. indicus, constitute the bulk of the aquaculture production in the country, comprising of about 78 percent of the total aquaculture production in 2004 (Fisheries Statistics, 2008). This species is present in the waters around Saudi Arabia and is tolerant to high water salinity. Because of its capability to breed and grow well in high saline waters, this species was found to be the best shrimp species suitable for aquaculture in the country. There were early attempts to culture P. monodon and P. semisulcatus, but failed due to water salinity issues.


    Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) is the main freshwater fish cultured in the country with present production of 2 276 tonnes or about 20 percent of the total aquaculture production in 2004 (Fisheries Statistics, 2006). These are mainly cultured in inland waters, where the freshwater used is also used for agricultural crops irrigation. In the last 10 years, Oreochromis spilurus, a salt tolerant strain of tilapia was introduced from Kenya. This species is now bred and cultured in high saline waters of the Red Sea. The present production of O. spilurus is still very minimal at about 1 percent of the total aquaculture production in 2004 (Fisheries Statistics, 2008).

    Other species

    Other species of fish that have consistently registered an annual production for the last 5-10 years are North Africa catfish (Clarias gariepinus), rabbitfish or siganids (Siganus rivulatus) and flathead grey mullet (Mugil cephalus). The production of these species, however, is still very low.
    Practices/systems of culture
    Several fish farming systems are currently used for fish and shrimp production. These systems vary depending on technical, operating and productive capacity. The systems used are extensive, semi-extensive, cage culture and pen culture.

    Tilapia farms employ the semi-intensive culture system. Most of the farms produced their own fry and fingerlings for stocking in grow-out ponds or tanks. The main source of water is from a well. Water is changed once a week and waste pond water is recycled after staying for some time in a settling pond. During the exchange of water, 50 percent of new well water and another of recycled water is introduced. Artificial feeds from commercial feed companies are used and some farmers produced their own feeds. Similarly for shrimp culture, the semi-intensive method is largely used. The size of the culture ponds is large, ranging from 1 hectare to 10 hectares per compartment. Stocking density in grow-out ponds ranges from 15-25 pcs/m3. Approximately, 15-20 percent of water is changed daily.
    Sector performance
    In 2004, aquaculture production comprised about 17 percent (11 172 tonnes) of the total fish production (66 591 tonnes) in Saudi Arabia Production in freshwater culture systems was 2 306 tonnes or 20 percent of the total aquaculture production, whereas production in seawater culture systems was 8 866 tonnes or 80 percent (Fishery Statistics, 2008).

    The graph below shows total aquaculture production in Saudi Arabia according to FAO statistics:

    Reported aquaculture production in Saudi Arabia (from 1950)
    (FAO Fishery Statistic)

    (Source: FAO Fishery Statistics, Aquaculture production)

    Market and trade
    The majority of fish production in freshwater systems, mainly tilapia and catfish, are sold in the domestic market either live or in fresh form. The local marketing chain is very well established. Selling is done by whole sale in the farm site and the products are distributed to a chain of retail shops around the country. The transport of live fish to the market is done using vehicles equipped to keep the fish alive. Trade of live fish is lucrative since the market price is twice than that of the fresh fish.

    Shrimps produced in the country are also sold outside. Export markets include Asia (Japan, Korea, Hong Kong), Australia, Europe, United States of America, other Arab countries like Egypt. The price is regulated by the demand and the production capacity.

    Although fish occupies minor importance in the diet of Saudi people, the demand for fresh fish for human consumption in the country is growing. The annual per capita fish consumption has increased from 3 kg in 1977 to almost 8 kg in 2003 (Fisheries Statistics, 2003). The current fish supply from the country cannot meet the growing demand and this has spurred the aquaculture industry to increase production.
    Contribution to the economy
    Because aquaculture is relatively new in Saudi Arabia, its contribution to the national economy is not yet significant. Nevertheless, the commercial and economic importance of aquaculture so far can be summarized as follows:
    • The annual investment income for aquaculture projects is relatively high reaching 20 percent.
    • The production of fresh, safe and highly valuable animal protein for local consumption and for export.
    • The production plan is not defined by specific seasons or standards, but it is linked to the consumer and marketing.
    • The quality and quantity of production is controlled by market needs, consumer requirements and exports.
    • Saudi Arabia is located close to European markets which are considered one of the most important consumer markets for seafood products, in addition to the availability of recent means of communication and governmental support to cargo services.
    • The availability of research programmes and field experimental studies with respect to local fish and shrimp species, aquaculture systems and feed production.
    • Providing jobs for an important sector of national qualified personnel.
    • Strengthening the contribution of the agricultural sector in the national economy.
    Promotion and management of the sector
    The institutional framework
    The main agency tasked to regulate and supervise aquaculture development in Saudi Arabia is the Department of Aquaculture (DA), an agency under the Office of the Deputy Ministry of Fisheries Affairs within the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA). Based in the capital city of Riyadh, the main task of the department is to control, regulate and supervise aquaculture operations in coastal and inland regions, as well as, to support research projects which focus on aquaculture and suitable fish and shrimp species for fish farming purposes in fresh and marine waters. The DA has the following objectives and specifications:
    • Supporting and supervising activities dealing with site selection of coastal areas suitable for setting up aquaculture projects.
    • Design and approval of short and long-term plans for updating current and future aquaculture performance in Saudi Arabia.
    • Periodical revision of aquaculture production plans.
    • Market analysis of aquaculture products, identification of critical marketing problems facing investors and proper means of correction.
    The governing regulations
    Because aquaculture is relatively new in the country, there are not many rules and regulations governing the sector. The law regulating fishing, investment and protection of living aquatic fisheries resources has been issued by the Royal Decree (No. M/9) on 18 November 1987, entrusting the MOA, the responsibility of regulating fishing, investment and protection of living aquatic fisheries resources in Saudi Arabia. The MOA supervises the development of this sector through the Deputy Ministry of Fisheries Affairs by the General Directorate of Aquaculture Department that plays a key role in establishing general policies, planning and designing long and short-term programmes for the development of fish resources and staffing for inland and coastal aquaculture development in the country.
    Applied research, education and training
    The collaboration between the government, academies, research institutions and the private sector, has helped to develop aquaculture in Saudi Arabia. Early research activities on aquaculture were done by the Fish Culture Center of the Saudi Arabian National Center for Science and Technology now King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology, a government agency tasked to promote scientific research and technology development in the Kingdom. This agency maintains a center for freshwater culture. Seeing the potential of aquaculture as a means to provide food fish for the local people, the government established research centers to hasten the development of the sector. These research centers are the Fish Farming Center in Jeddah, Fisheries Research Center in the Eastern Province and Fisheries Research Center in the Red Sea. Soon to be operational are the Fish Health and Safety Laboratories in Jeddah and Dammam. There are a number of universities that are offering courses on Fisheries and Aquaculture and the graduates from these universities find their way to work in the different research centers and the private farms around the country.

    At present, aquaculture research and training is done mainly in the Fish Farming Center (FFC) in Jeddah. The focus of research in FFC is mainly on marine fish species. Very little aquaculture research is done elsewhere in the country. Grants for scientific research studies come mainly from the government and is administered by King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. There is no vocational training on aquaculture in technical or vocational colleges.

    Fisheries Research Centers

    The Deputy Minister of Fisheries Affairs supervises several fisheries research centers in Saudi Arabia. These centers provide technical and extension services to the local aquaculture projects based on scientific and research studies.

    The research centers are:
    • Fish Farming Centre in Jeddah.
    • Fisheries Research Centre located in the eastern province.
    • Fisheries Research Centre in the Red Sea.
    • Fish Health & Safety Labs in Jeddah and Dammam (under process).
    Fish Farming Centre in Jeddah

    The fish farming centre in Jeddah was established in 1982, under an agreement between FAO and the Saudi Arabian government. The main targets of the centre are to focus on research and development programmes for marine fish and shrimp species suitable for fish farming operations, transfer and application of recent aquaculture techniques and training programmes. The centre lies on the Saudi Arabian Red Sea coast, 60 km north of Jeddah. It has been carefully selected to fit the establishment of models for different fish farming systems, e.g. cages, pens and ponds, as well as, other accessory facilities. The centre has the following objectives:
    • Conduct of research programmes to select valuable local and foreign marine fish and shrimp species suitable for fish farming at commercial level under local environmental conditions of Saudi Arabia.
    • Evaluate different means of fish farming systems and select those suitable for application in different regions.
    • Develop standard fish and shrimp feed formula using locally available components.
    • Conduct field and research studies in diseases of cultured fish and shrimp species.
    • Execute quality control of water drainage from fish farms.
    • Carry-out training programmes covering different aspects of aquaculture operations.
    • Provide aquaculture projects with the required fish and shrimp larvae and fingerlings.
    • Publish and distribute free extension books which cover all aspects of aquaculture operational techniques and offering technical extension to aquaculture projects.
    • Selection of suitable coastal areas for aquaculture projects.
    • Evaluate feasibility studies of aquaculture projects.
    • Support the centre library with recent references of aquaculture operations.
    Trends, issues and development
    As stated earlier, the shrimp aquaculture industry is developing very fast. This is expected to continue in the next 10 years as evidenced by the increasing number of farms that applied licenses to operate shrimp farms. In addition, the existing big shrimp farms are also expanding, acquiring more areas intended for production.

    The big shrimp farms are also diversifying their aquaculture operations. In the pipeline are plans to go into marine fish culture, especially the highly priced marine fish species such as groupers, seabreams and seabass reared in floating cages in the Red Sea.
    Fisheries and Aquaculture Sector statistics. 2004 . Deputy Ministry of Fisheries Affairs, Ministry of Agriculture, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. (Pamphlet)
    Fisheries statistics of Saudi Arabia. 2003 . Marine Fisheries Department, Ministry of Agriculture, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
    Fisheries statistics of Saudi Arabia. 2006 . Marine Fisheries Department, Ministry of Agriculture, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 192 p.
    Fisheries statistics of Saudi Arabia. 2008 . Marine Fisheries Department, Ministry of Agriculture, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
    Prince Abdullh Research & Consulting Institute. 2009 . Future Plan of agriculture in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (5th and 7th reports).
    Statistical indicators for fisheries in Saudi Arabia. 2002 . Ministry of Agriculture, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. (Pamphlet)
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