Due to geographic, natural, economic and technical factors, Syrian aquaculture is practised exclusively in freshwater. It is also restricted to “finfish culture,” more specifically “warm freshwater fish culture.” The main freshwater fish produced commercially are common carp Cyprinus carpio and tilapias. The prevailing production systems are pond culture, cage culture and culture-based fishery in barrages.
In 1974 a state owned establishment “the General Establishment for Fish” (GEF), was founded. GEF constructed additional state fish farms and investigated the feasibility of cage fish culture in inland water.
In 1986 an important step in fisheries development took place with the establishment of the “Directorate of Fisheries Resources” (DOF) in the Ministry of Agriculture. The DOF set up, among other things, programmes for aquaculture development. Restructuring aquaculture practices, setting up a technical and administrative licensing system, allocating feed and launching extension services to fish farmers significantly promoted fish culture. Regulations for the leasing of aquaculture and fishery rights in surface water retention lakes favoured the development of "culture-based fishery."
The execution in 1993 of the “Syrian-German inland Fisheries and Aquaculture Development Project” (IFAP) was another important step in the development of Syrian aquaculture. IFAP investigated new aquaculture concepts aimed at exploiting existing non-conventional resources: salinized lands and irrigation and drainage canals in aquaculture. Outstanding results were achieved.
Aquaculture currently accounts for 50 percent of total fish production (8 682 tonnes of a total of 17 210 tonnes in 2004), at an estimated value of 600 million Syrian Pounds (US$ 12 millions).
Aquaculture appears to be the most promising sub-sector for further fish production, particularly if the most recently investigated farming techniques are widely implemented and if a correct and sustainable use is made of the following resources: land, water, by-products, labour, know-how etc. Integrated production systems, as well as marine fish farming, represent additional potential practices for aquaculture development.
Modern aquaculture in the Syrian Arab Republic dates back to the late 1950s when, in collaboration with an FAO aid programme, the newly instituted “Aquatic Life Service” in the Ministry of Agriculture established the first fish farm in Syria. “Qalaat Al Madiq,” a pilot fish farm of three hectares in the “Al Ghab” valley was meant to be an experimental unit to test the feasibility of carp culture in Syria and a training centre for fish farming.
During the first few years of use, it demonstrated outstanding results. The considerably high productivity, mainly resulting from the long (7-8 months) growth season, yielded higher net income per unit of land area than that obtained from cotton cropping which was the most profitable agricultural activity at the time.
This justified the construction of another farm of 41.5 ha in “Ayn At taga” in 1970 to exploit a spacious area for further field trails, and of a third farm of 54 ha in “Shat`ha” in 1973 for commercial production.
1974 witnessed an important step in fisheries development at state sector level. In the course of strengthening the economic role of the so-called “Common Sector,” a state owned establishment, the “General Establishment for Fishes” (GEF), was founded. Its main objectives were to run existing fish farms and build new production units for further exploitation of water bodies. In the Ministry of Agriculture, the ministry in charge, the small number of staff in the “Service of Aquatic Life” were deployed to run the new establishment. They were entrusted with all fisheries responsibilities including services for other fish producing sectors. GEF constructed additional state fish farms, began marine fishery and, with the support of German technical aid, investigated the feasibility of cage fish culture in inland waters.
It is worth mentioning that crop farmers in the “Al Ghab” valley, a drained and reclaimed swamp used to catch fish in the wild, gradually converted considerable areas of their land into fish ponds. This was the beginning of the expansion of fish pond culture in the central region of Syria, namely the provinces of “Hamah” and “Hims.”
In 1984 the Ministry of Agriculture & Agrarian Reform began a survey on fisheries resources. Checking up on existing fish farms and facilities, problems and needs showed latent production capacity. Accordingly, additional amounts of feed at subsidized prices were allocated to existing fish farms. In the following year, aquaculture production statistics indicated that production from private fish farms had doubled.
The pressing need for fisheries reorganization, led in 1986 to the upgrading of the “Fisheries Section” to the level of central directorate. The new “Directorate of Fisheries Resources” of the Ministry, lately restructured and renamed “Department of Fisheries Resources” (DOF), was supposed, among other things, to set up programmes for aquaculture development. With this in view the DOF did two things:
Created a legal framework for culture-based fisheries in the surface water retention lakes and immediately started a process of medium term (5 years) leasing of aquaculture and fishery rights in lakes/barrages of an individual surface area not exceeding 500 ha.
Drafted a project outlined for fisheries and aquaculture development. This was positively evaluated, further elaborated and supported by the German government. Eventually, the “Inland Fisheries and Aquaculture Development Project” (IFAP) started in 1993, aimed at developing fish production systems which could be combined with irrigated agriculture, thereby contributing to the overall goal of improving the utilization of national fisheries resources.
As aquaculture has developed in Syria, no serious steps have been taken in the direction of marine fish farming. Limited brackish water, which used to be found at the estuaries of coastal watercourses, practically disappeared following the damming of almost all these watercourses.
Commercial aquaculture has so far been restricted to two main freshwater fish species: common carp (Cyprinus carpio) and tilapias which are believed to be hybrids of Oreochromis aureus and Oreochromis niloticus. In addition, three minor species are cultured as secondary species in fish ponds: African catfish (Clarias gariepinus), grass carp (Ctenopharhyngodon idellus), and silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix).
Three production systems prevail: pond culture, cage culture and culture-based fishery in barrages. Of total aquaculture in 2004 existing farming systems comprised 80.78 percent for fish pond culture, 12.44 percent for cage fish culture and 6.78 percent for culture-based fishery in barrages. These proportions are to some extent the same in terms of volume and value.
Annual freshwater aquaculture yields are approximately 50 percent of total fish production (8 682 tonnes out of 17 210 tonnes in 2004). In 2004 the estimated value of aquaculture production in 2004 was 600 million Syrian Pounds (US$ 12 million).
Aquaculture provides a good standard of living compared to other agricultural activities. This was proved at the very beginning by the first few pilot fish farms, established in 1957 in the Al-Ghab Valley. This was also an important reason behind the wide expansion of aquaculture in the centre of Syria during the following two decades. Initially the educational level of pioneer aquaculturists was generally elementary. Their successors have achieved a higher level of education, in some cases to university degree level. As to gender distribution, females have hitherto not been much involved in aquaculture.
The first fish farm was established in the “Ghab Valley” in the basin of the “Orontes River” which runs northwards stretching along three provinces: “Hims,” “Hamah” and “Idleb” in the centre of Syria. Within a few decades the province of Hamah became the site of the majority of existing fish pond farms with an submerged area of approximately 750 hectares, amounting to 73.76 percent of the total farming area (1 016 ha). The remaining fish farming area, equalling to 26.24 percent of the total area, is scattered in the remaining twelve provinces of Syria as follows:
With respect to the standardisation of feed allocation, productivity of fish pond farms is classified into three categories:
Lake Assad, an artificial water body of 640 000 hectares was formed behind the Euphrates dam constructed in 1974. During 1974-1976 a Joint Syrian-German project investigated the feasibility of cage fish culture in the lake. Encouraging results obtained on an experimental scale (35-40 kg/m3) were behind the expansion in cage culture to the present level of 47.182 m3, the majority of which (76.57 percent) is located in Lake Assad in the province of Raqqah and the rest (23.43 percent) in Lake Tishreen 6th in the province of Latakia. Due to the reluctance of the ministry of irrigation to give permission for private projects, cage culture is still confined to the production units belonging to state owned General Establishment for Fish.
Cultured species are currently restricted to warm water fish species with a minor exception. All species cultured are non-indigenous species, namely:
The main cultured species is the Common carp (Cyprinus carpio) Mirror type, which was introduced in 1957 from the former Yugoslavian countries via Egypt. It proved to be a hardy fish adaptable to various conditions, easy to spawn and capable of feeding efficiently on a wide spectrum of feed. Moreover common carp demonstrated a high growth rate in Syrian waters. These advantages led to the domination of this fish in all fish farms.
Tilapia, particularly Nile tilapia (Oreochromis aureus), has a good market value in Syria. Its tasty flesh is free of intramuscular spines which made it the most popular cultured fish among consumers. It is farmed exclusively on a few fish farms in "Al Ghab" valley and on one comparatively large governmental farm "Masab As Sin" close to the coast. The risk of mass mortality in the winter made it almost impossible to expand tilapia culture out of the zone of warm water springs.
North African catfish
North African catfish (Clarias gariepinus) was known to be the most popular freshwater fish species among the consumers. It thrived in the former swamp “Al Ghab,” which used to be the main source of this delicate fish. Draining and reclamation of the “Al Ghab” swamp destroyed its habitat and drastically reduced its population. The fish retreated to the few warm water springs in the valley, where it was settled.
Today its fries, carried with water inflow, enter some fish farms and grow and appear at harvest time as an occasional, but very much appreciated species. The largest harvest of this fish comes from tilapia farms.
Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) was cultured in Syria between 1979-1989. Fingerling production depended mainly on the hatching of imported fertilized eggs and partially on the spawning of local broodstock. This was done in a trout hatchery located on the spring of the river “Barada” west of Damascus. Table fish production was carried out on another governmental trout farm located on the spring of a small coastal river "As sin."
The scarcity of cold-water resources combined with comparatively high production costs restricted the possibility of expanding trout production which never exceeded 100 tonnes per year.
Shortly after trout had established itself on the fish market of Damascus, its production was to stop. Reconstruction of the “Barada” spring with the aim of devoting a good deal of its water for drinking purposes stopped fingerling production. This put an end to trout culture in Syria. The exception is a single tiny farm in the vicinity of Hims, but production is negligible.
The mass growth of water weeds in fish ponds was the reason behind the introduction of grass carp (Ctenpharhyngodon idellus). It was first introduced in 1976 by the General Establishment for Fish (GEF). More recently in 1994 a new strain was imported by DOF from Hungary as fries of 0.5-1.0 g, which were nursed, reared to maturity and then artificially spawned in a hatchery specially constructed for this purpose. Grass carp fries are currently given to pilot fish farmers and fingerlings are sold at the cost of production price. Grass carp is still a secondary species on fish farms and thus not very common on the fish market.
It was not before 1994 that silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix) had been introduced into Syria, with the task of making better use of primary production of ponds and eutrophic barrage lakes. Fries of 0.5-1.0 g were introduced from Hungary by DOF. Imported fries were grown up and artificially spawned. The introduction of this new species resulted in an additional production of approximately 700 kg per hectare of pond area.
Other systems, currently still under consideration, are expected to be widely adopted in a couple of years and are described under “Trends Issues and Development.”
This has been recently organised in the surface water retention lakes. The lakes are stocked with fingerlings and broodstock and then fished regularly during subsequent years. Production depends exclusively on primary productivity which varies between 200 kg and 800 kg per hectare per year.
This is practiced in earth pond farms for both carp culture and tilapia culture. In the spring fish is stocked in ponds supplied with a minimum, but constant water inflow compensating for seepage and evaporation. Farmed fish is fed either with manufactured pellets or with a combination of raw materials and agro-industrial by-products: wheat bran, cotton seed cake, etc. The production cycle lasts two years, the first of which ends up with relatively large fingerlings (25-50 g), and the second with market size fish (0.7-1.0 kg). Productivity of this system ranges widely from 3 tonnes/ha/year to 8 tonnes/ha/year and up to 12 tonnes/ha/year.
The only type of intensive fish culture currently practiced in Syria is cage culture in inland water bodies. The exclusive species cultured is still the common carp. Floating cages of either 30 or 300 m3 are stocked with comparatively large fingerlings (40-50 g). Balanced pellets containing animal protein sources are used for feed. Productivity varies between 15 and 25 kg/m3/year. Raceway culture of rainbow trout had been practiced for almost ten years before it stopped. The water exchange rate was rather low (20-25 times/day). Imported starter and locally manufactured granules were used to feed fries, fingerlings and fish respectively.
In 2004 fish production from freshwater aquaculture yielded 8 682 tonnes, the breakdown of which is shown in the table below:
In 2004 the estimated value of aquaculture production was 778million Syrian Pounds, (US$ 15.561 million).
The graph below shows total aquaculture production in Syrian Arab Republic according to FAO statistics:
The main domestic fish markets for aquaculture products are Damascus, Aleppo, Hims and Hamah. Owners of small fish farms usually sell the majority of their production in situ in the nearest villages. Comparatively bigger farms sell their fish to wholesalers by contract. Exports of local aquaculture products have never been registered. Nevertheless, following permission to import fish from Arab countries, it is expected that some contracts to export aquaculture products might be made in the coming years. Jordan is then expected to be the first candidate as importing country.
The local supply chain starts from the contractor or the wholesaler who transfers the fish to different local wholesalers in provinces where there is demand. Retailers gather every morning in the so-called auction place where the wholesaler offers his fish. This chain does not exclude direct channels between producers and retailers, or even consumers.
The labelling or certification of aquaculture products is still to be considered. A scheme will have to be well drawn up and prepared for training fisheries officers and then adopted on a solid basis. Syria would require technical assistance in this respect.
Aquaculture activities in Syria are still considered to be on a small-scale. The majority of fish farms are comparatively small (1-5 ha). Nevertheless, field practice of aquaculture during the past few decades has demonstrated relatively high income in comparison with other agricultural activities. A small fish farm of one to two hectares demonstrated that it could secure a source of living for a family of 4-5 people. Initial estimations assume that fish farming sustains a minimum of 1 760 families working full-time, in addition to a further 1 800 families employed part-time.
The peak season in aquaculture coincides with the school holidays. Thus farmers involve their children in farming activities. Their main job is feeding and watching feed consumption and fish behaviour. This usually minimizes direct production costs, puts important duties in responsible and trustful hands and represents a good opportunity for the training of new generations in this field, securing the continuity of aquaculture activities and the accumulation of know-how.
Aquaculture is also able to create a source of income for a considerable portion of rural society This is also anticipated in the need for part-time workers during the different phases of the production cycle: preparation and fertilisation of fish ponds, harvesting of over wintered fingerlings, seed stocking, keeping watch, experimental fishing and then harvesting the final product: marketable fish. In addition, associated services provide enough employment opportunities such as input production, maintenance and transportation, fish seed and table fish transportation and marketing.
From time to time the harvesting of small quantities of large fish is common practice in aquaculture communities. This might be devoted to the sale of production or for own consumption. In both cases, aquaculture activities provide a source of frequent small income that mitigates the seasonality of income from agriculture, or it represents a supplement to the nutritional value of the family meals.
The Department of Fisheries Resources (DOF) in the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform is the only agency with administrative control of aquaculture in Syria. DOF is, inter alia, authorized to:
In addition, advice is extended by DOF to the chambers of agriculture, commerce and industry with respect to existing investment opportunities either in inputs production or in external collaboration to promote fisheries and the aquaculture sector.
The following regulations apply to the fisheries and aquaculture sectors in Syria:
The current strategy of the Fisheries Department to promote aquaculture aims to:
Agricultural Statistical Abstract, Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, from 1995 to 2004.
Fisheries Statistical Abstract, Fisheries Department, from 1995 to 2004.
Syrian Statistical Abstract, Central Bureau of Statistics, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004, Damascus, Syria.