Facility hopes to reduce the country’s excessive reliance on imports
Fishing is an old and time-honoured UAE tradition. Once Emiratis used to live by fishing, but with the discovery of oil, the traditional industry took a back seat.
Today, the UAE imports a large portion of its growing demand for seafood. However, leading the charge to reverse this trend is the UAE’s top commercial seafood producer Al Jaraf Fisheries. Nestled in Bal Rumaid Island, a few minutes from Reem Island, it is the only shrimp farm in the country. Al Jaraf Fisheries of PAL Group of Companies provides shrimps to all hypermarkets, including LuLu and Carrefour in the UAE.
General manager S.D. Gopakumar, the man behind UAE’s commercial shrimp farming, recalled how the journey began 14 years ago. Al Jaraf Fisheries started operations in 2004 with a pilot project in Abu Dhabi.
“Consultants from the Philippines, Thailand and Japan had tried their hand, but failed to deliver the desired results. In 2005, I joined as a consultant and started work on eight ponds. We produced shrimps through a small hatchery in a commercially viable manner. The company then expanded the project four times, with shrimp production on 100 hectares of land. We started producing 1.5 tonnes a day and today it has reached two tonnes,” Gopakumar said.
Al Jaraf Fisheries’ focus was on Black Tiger and Indian White shrimps, with the latter seeing demand in the UAE market. Al Jaraf Fisheries had concentrated mainly in aquaculture and seafood trading. However, in 2006, the company tested breeding ornamental fish with eight varieties.
“We also have fish varieties of Sea Bream and Sea Bass. In 2012-13, we added Asian Sea Bass and European Tilapia fish. In 2015-16, we introduced breeding of sturgeon fish. It is the egg [caviar] and not meat which is important. Caviar is a delicacy and we have mother stock now. We are also planning to test Pacific white shrimp, which is popular in Iran and India. We supply live fish and shrimps to exclusive seafood restaurants in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. With such a large number of offerings, this may be the biggest variety of shrimps and fish in the region,” he said.
The operation is done over 100 hectares on Bal Rumaid Island.
“Grow-out farming happens on a two-hectare pond, 36 one-hectare ponds, 17 half-hectare ponds and four quarter-hectare ponds. We have various hatcheries and use advanced technology. We have recirculating aquaculture systems [RAS] where water exchange is limited. With the bio-filtration process, only five per cent of water needs to be added as 95 per cent gets re-circulated,” Gopakumar, who leads research and development, said.
“We developed a low-cost RAS system and had a successful crop of Sea Bass, Sea Bream, Tilapia and Asian Sea bass. We cut the capital cost from Dh6 million to Dh2.5 million. It was an eye-opener and breakthrough.”
‘No preservatives in UAE shrimps’
Gopakumar noted that the UAE imports 70 per cent of fish and all of its shrimps, but home-grown is always the best option for various health reasons. Most of the shrimps available in the UAE markets are imported from Saudi Arabia, Oman, India, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and China. Ornamental fish come in from Singapore, Malaysia, India and Sri Lanka.
“The imported shrimps are two or three days old and added with preservatives. It reaches the UAE’s shores after being in their country a few days as there are auctions and packaging. So, you can imagine the delay and the preservatives added. Toxic preservatives may cause damage to brain cells and colon cancer,” Gopakumar said.
Talking about how local produce is better and safer, Gopakumar said: “We have mother stock in a bio-secured place called brood stock section. We select the best shrimp and fish [termed shooters] from our ponds which are healthy and show fast growth. We give them special feed and care to get good eggs in our hatchery. Thus, we avoid any contamination and are free of any pathogens.”
Certifications from the Food Control Authority for best quality in the UAE, Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, SGS’ Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points and ISO dot the office walls.
“New diseases are detected in shrimps every two years in India and the entire crop has to be wiped out. Fortunately for us, we haven’t faced any issues in the last 14 years. We follow very strict protocol. We only import feed and nothing else. We catch fish and shrimps as per order received. We get an order by midnight and start harvesting by 3am, and in two hours, we will pack the final product. We never had a need to add any conservative as our products reach markets with hours,” he said.
Aquaculture industry in trouble
Gopakumar said that competition has grown in the aquaculture sector over the past year with cheap imported shrimps flooding the market. He has sought government support to counter the issue.
He revealed that there are double standards in the policy being followed in the UAE. Fish farmers have a lot of stringent regulations to follow, while importing companies have almost no rules at all. For UAE fish farmers, the cost of production per kg is very high due to strict regulation.
He added: “Just a case in point is us importing feed for fish and shrimps. It should be 100 per cent halal and use of land animal proteins is prohibited. We have to give a certification that our feed is without any prohibited stuff. The only raw material used to then make feed is fishmeal, which is very expensive. The feed for shrimps cost $1.5 per kg and $1.8 for marine fish. Expense on feed makes up 60 to 70 per cent of our operational costs. Daily, we have tonnes of farmed shrimps landing here from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Iran but such regulations don’t apply to imports from these countries.”
Elaborating on the price difference, he said: “We need Dh25 to make a kg of shrimps here but in India or Iran, it is just Dh15. While we will sell for Dh28 to Dh30, imported ones will be available at Dh20. For a customer who isn’t aware of the quality of ‘Farmed Shrimps UAE’, they will naturally pick Dh20 ‘Farmed Shrimps’. In the US and Europe, there is an anti-dumping duty to protect their own farmers. Countries like India and China are exporting at a lower price. Home-grown fish farmers like us have no subsidy too on water and electricity.”
These are the issues which experts in the field regularly discuss, he said. “We have a forum of 12 aquaculture farms and present our issues before the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment. Ministry officials cite free-trade zones in Dubai as a reason for no duty. Iran shrimp, which comes throughout the year at Fujairah landing centres, is great hit in the market. Wholesale dealers get it for Dh12 to Dh14 a kg. So, they can easily sell it for Dh20.”
The fish market is also facing similar situation. “Fish from Turkey, Cyprus, and Tunisia are reaching here daily. A kilogram of imported Sea Bream costs Dh18 while our cost of production itself is Dh22 to Dh25. Naturally, we will sell it for Dh28 to Dh30,” he said.
The price war has taken its toll on local business. “Our business has dipped by 20 per cent, i.e. Dh1.5 million to Dh2 million less turnover,” he pointed out.