The development of aquaculture – particularly tilapia farming – has put Egypt in number one position in Africa in this sector. Researchers and agencies are looking for further boosts in terms of new species and improved methods as well as ways to reduce costs.
As the sun rises over the Nile delta, workers at a fish farm in northern Egypt open a sluice gate and sort through the thousands of wriggling tilapia that pour out of a concrete holding tank. The fish are sorted, packed into crates and sent to supermarkets in Cairo and Alexandria, where they are sold as 'the catch of the day'.
Egypt has built the largest aquaculture industry in Africa, accounting for four out of every five fish farmed on the continent, according to IPS News. Egyptian fish farms produced over 650,000 tons of finfish last year, or about 60 per cent of the country's total freshwater and marine fish production, providing a cheap source of protein for the country's 80 million people.
"The massive growth of aquaculture has kept fish affordable for the majority of Egyptians, so that today fish and poultry prices are more or less similar (cost) per kilo basis," says Malcolm Beveridge, Director of Aquaculture and Genetics at the WorldFish Centre. "It seems the majority of consumers switch between the two, depending on which is cheaper."
Commercial fish farming in Egypt began in the 1960s with mullet-rearing pens in coastal lakes and lagoons. The industry has witnessed explosive growth over the past decade. Total aquaculture production has grown by 500 percent since 1998 due to a shift to intensive rearing methods and faster growing species such as tilapia.
The General Authority for Fish Resources Development (GAFRD) plans to develop the country's aquaculture industry further, and has set a goal of 1.1 million tons of farmed fish, or about 75 per cent of total fish production, by 2012. Its two-pronged strategy aims to increase the productivity of freshwater aquaculture operations, while encouraging investment in marine aquaculture (mariculture).
Egypt's limited freshwater resources are a major constraint to aquaculture development. The populous desert country relies on the Nile River for 95 per cent of its water needs, and water usage is considered a national security issue. Priority is given to potable water and crop irrigation, leaving more than 90 per cent of the country's fish farms to operate on agricultural run-off.
Mr Beveridge explained to IPS News: "It's not the best idea to use agricultural drainage water for producing fish because although there are a lot of nutrients in it, there are also pesticide residues, and these pose an unspecified risk to consumers. It makes more sense to let aquaculture have first use of water, and to allow the drainage from fish farms to be used for agriculture."
Laws passed over a quarter of a century ago prohibit aquaculture projects from drawing surface water, but a loophole permits fish farms to have first use of groundwater. Farmers can pump clean water from aquifers into fish ponds, using the nutrient-rich drainage of these ponds to fertilise and irrigate field crops - a holistic approach to food production known as integrated aquaculture.
The technique is already in practice on an experimental farm in Wadi Natroun, a depression 110 kilometres north-west of Cairo. "The pilot project serves as an example for farmers working in the desert on how they can increase their productivity and income using the same volume of water for two, or maybe even three, purposes," says GAFRD chairman, Mohamed Fathy.
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