Arva Ahmed vis­its a fish farm in the UAE to find out how it could be a so­lu­tion to over­fish­ing of our favourite species – if the pub­lic gets be­hind it

Friday - - Editor’s Letter -

Culi­nary ex­pert Arva Ahmed tours a fish farm to find out if it could be a vi­able so­lu­tion to over­fish­ing.

Last week’s ar­ti­cle on fish sus­tain­abil­ity pointed to aqua­cul­ture as one pos­si­ble so­lu­tion to save the seas. By nur­tur­ing pop­u­la­tions of threat­ened fish, science might save nature af­ter all – un­til the time comes to fish your wal­let out.

While lo­cally farmed pro­duce is all the rage these days, of­ten, lo­cally farmed fish raises an eye­brow. You won­der what farmed fish are fed; your mind dredges up ru­mours of chem­i­cals, hor­mones and an­tibi­otics. You are con­vinced that the mantra of free-range chick­ens ap­plies to fish – if they roam free, or swim free, they taste bet­ter. You ag­o­nise over the ethics of con­fin­ing fish in cramped spa­ces. The very thought of farmed fish in­vokes images of Nemo be­ing caught, con­fined and cloned in­fi­nite times over – no mat­ter that most of us have never vis­ited a fish farm. Guilt leaves the worst af­ter­taste.

Bader Mubarak, CEO and owner rep­re­sen­ta­tive of soon-to-launch Fish Farms LLC, might tempt you to change your po­si­tion. His non­cha­lant at­ti­tude is a guise for deep pas­sion and knowl­edge in­her­ited from his fa­ther and sus­tained through real-life lessons in aqua­cul­ture since 2006. He does not sound like some­one who runs an op­er­a­tion where face­less fish are churned, tail-to-head, in murky chem­i­cal-bleached wa­ter: ‘Our pol­icy in Fish Farms is to know our fish from day one... We pre­fer to have it from our own fish­eries be­cause we know ex­actly what we’re feed­ing it, and how we’re tak­ing care of it and what environment it came from. We pre­fer to know it from even be­fore it is born… Their mother comes from the Fu­jairah farm. We make them lo­cal!’

Bader’s Fu­jairah farm refers to his com­pany Mubarak Fish­eries, which de­vel­oped hatch­eries in Umm Al Quwain and cage farms in Fu­jairah to farm sea bass and sea bream since 2007. They also nur­ture shaam (yel­low fin sea bream) as well as the threat­ened qab­bit (gold-lined sea bream) – not for con­sump­tion, but to be re­leased back into the sea to in­crease their pop­u­la­tion.

Three-month-old ju­ve­niles are trans­ferred from their Umm Al Quwain hatch­ery to net­ted cages along the open sea in Fu­jairah. Fish in caged farms ex­pe­ri­ence the same marine environment as their wild coun­ter­parts, but by that mea­sure, they are also sus­cep­ti­ble to the risks posed by the open sea, namely al­gal blooms and pol­lu­tion. This is what prompted Bader to ex­plore the idea of Fish Farms LLC, a more se­cure op­er­a­tion in Jebel Ali where fish are farmed in land tanks us­ing tech­nol­ogy that cre­ates ‘any kind of environment for any kind of fish in the world in Dubai.’

The idea was given full sup­port in 2013 by Shaikh Ham­dan Bin Mo­ham­mad Bin Rashid Al Mak­toum, Crown Prince of Dubai, which is not sur­pris­ing since it lines up squarely with pri­or­i­ties on the fed­eral agenda around sus­tain­abil­ity and na­tional food se­cu­rity. The gov­ern­ment has in­vested in marine re­search to cul­ture lo­cally threat­ened species in Umm Al Quwain for over two decades. More re­cently, the Shaikh Khal­ifa Marine Re­search Cen­tre was com­pleted in 2014 and aims to pro­duce about 10 mil­lion fin­ger­lings of over-ex­ploited species such as ham­mour, sheri and safi by the end of this year.

But Fish Farms re­ceived a clear man­date to not com­pete with lo­cal fish­er­men. Their goal is ‘to make an al­ter­na­tive mar­ket’ and even­tu­ally sup­port the fish­er­men by sell­ing them low-priced fish for re­sale. This would re­duce their in­cen­tive to catch lo­cal fish and ‘drop the load on the sea.’ To that end, Fish Farms has tested the pro­duc­tion of foreign species like Euro­pean sea bass, red sea bream and yel­lowfin king­fish.

With a pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity of 2,000 tonnes, the Fish Farms fa­cil­ity is ready to launch with state-of-the-art farm­ing tech­nol­ogy from the Nor­we­gian Akva group. Ev­ery tank can sim­u­late a dif­fer­ent environment based on wa­ter lev­els, tide, cur­rent, oxy­gen con­cen­tra­tion, salt, tem­per­a­tures and other vari­ables; you could hy­po­thet­i­cally swim from the North Sea to the Mediter­ranean with­out leav­ing the fa­cil­ity.

You could bait Bader with a se­ries of en­vi­ron­men­tal and eth­i­cal ques­tions, but the an­swers still do not paint the por­trait of a trau­ma­tised hor­mone-in­jected Nemo. When in­ter­ro­gated about the feed, he de­nies the use of chem­i­cals, hor­mones and an­tibi­otics. His fish feast on a mix of 48 per cent plant­based green protein, soy­bean, fish oil and fish meal. Land an­i­mal and blood protein are re­as­sur­ingly ab­sent. He si­lences any nig­gling doubts by re­veal­ing that his team could buy feed for less than a third of their cur­rent spend – but qual­ity rather than price is paramount. They are now work­ing to­wards be­ing cer­ti­fied as or­ganic.

Fish Farms uses salt­wa­ter from the sea

rather than pre­cious ground wa­ter. 90 per cent of the wa­ter is re­cy­cled through the sys­tem, with the re­main­ing 10 per cent fish waste such as exc­reta be­ing re­leased back into the sea. Ide­ally, this waste should be chan­nelled into an ad­ja­cent hy­dro­ponic farm­ing op­er­a­tion, but there are none next door in Jebel Ali. They are cur­rently work­ing on get­ting in­ter­na­tional aqua­cul­ture cer­ti­fi­ca­tions GAP (Good Aqua­cul­ture Prac­tices), BAP (Best Aqua­cul­ture Prac­tices), HACCP and ISO cer­ti­fi­ca­tions.

Even if sus­tain­abil­ity ex­perts are ap­peased, the proof of the farm­ing is still in the taste. If you are con­vinced that wild fish must taste bet­ter than farmed fish, stu­dents at Sul­tan Qa­boos Univer­sity in Oman will prove you wrong.

A blind taste test be­tween wild and farmed tilapia was con­ducted at the univer­sity in 2014. Only 8.6 per cent of the re­spon­dents pre­ferred the wild tilapia. Some 48.6 per cent pre­ferred the farmed fish – while the rest could not dis­cern any dif­fer­ence at all. But how you can trust a batch of hun­gry univer­sity stu­dents?

The real test is with dis­cern­ing restau­rant chefs and home cooks. As we walk past a tank of yel­lowfin king­fish – a hy­brid of yel­lowfin tuna and king­fish – Bader pulls up an email from a lo­cal ho­tel where chefs re­cently con­ducted a blind taste test. Once again, the re­sults fall stag­ger­ingly in favour of his farmed fish. In ad­di­tion to the feed and con­trolled environment, Bader ex­plains that fish are fasted for two days be­fore the har­vest, rou­tine in the in­dus­try. This rids the fish’s di­ges­tive tract of harm­ful bac­te­ria that could make it smell ‘fishy.’

There is no de­tail that Bader glosses over – this is clearly a pas­sion and he seems in­vested for the long run. Beyond com­mer­cial sales, he hopes to build aware­ness through ed­u­ca­tional farm vis­its and to sup­port the coun­try’s goals around food se­cu­rity and marine re­search. He is brim­ming with ideas around how Fish Farms can sup­port the UAE gov­ern­ment, lo­cal fish­er­men, cus­tomers and most im­por­tantly, the sea. But for this am­bi­tious cy­cle to be set in mo­tion, he knows that there is a steep learn­ing curve ahead for buy­ers averse to farmed fish. Bader’s farmed sea bass may not re­ceive the same lov­ing gaze we be­stow over a vine-ripened tomato at the lo­cal farmers’ mar­ket.

But with over­ex­ploited wa­ters and a shal­low pool of al­ter­na­tives, maybe it is time for us as con­sumers to dive into the de­tails of farm­ing fish. We need fact-based an­swers, not in­ter­net-in­spired as­sump­tions. Can farm­ing be done in a way that is hu­mane and sus­tain­able? Can it set off a vir­tu­ous cy­cle that helps our seas re­plen­ish them­selves? Bader be­lieves it can, but ‘we will need the cus­tomer to sup­port made in UAE. Farmed in UAE.’

Arva Ahmed of­fers guided tours re­veal­ing Dubai’s culi­nary hide­outs (fry­ing­panad­ven­

For­thisam­bi­tious­cy­cle­tobe­set­inMOTION,heknow­sthatthereisas­teep learn­ing curve ahead for buy­ers AVERSE to farmed fish. Bader’s farmed sea bass may not get the lov­ing GAZE we be­stow over a vine-ripened tomato

Farm­ing Nemo: Sea bass (be­low right) from Fish Farms, a fa­cil­ity lo­cated in Jebel Ali, could soon be on your din­ner ta­ble

In blind taste tests, says Bader Mubarak, his fish, such as this yel­lowfin king­fish, do bet­ter than wild

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