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
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 (fryingpanadventures.com).
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