The national aquaculture sector in particular has grown rapidly over the past several years making the country the top regional producer and an exporter of seafood worldwide thanks to the highest production safety and traceability standards, state-of-the art technology, and rigorous biosecurity.
Saudi aquaculture has an ambitious strategy
The evolution of the aquaculture sector, recent achievements, and prospects for the Saudi seafood market were among the topics discussed during the international workshop “Prospects and challenges for increasing seafood consumption”, held in Riyadh on 26 November 2019. Organized by the National Fisheries Development Program and the Saudi Aquaculture Society, the workshop presented the national aquaculture industry and its ambitious vision for the future. Mohamed Odaiby, General Secretary of the Saudi Aquaculture Society, presented SAMAQ, the Saudi National Aquaculture Product Certification and Labelling Program, Mouhamed Alahmri, Consumer Protection Association, emphasized the importance of enhancing consumer confidence in marine farmed products, and Philippos Papageorgiou, National Fisheries Development Program of Saudi Arabia, identified prospects for the Saudi seafood market development. The General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean was represented by Mr. Houssam Awadh Hamza, and Ekaterina Tribilustova, EUROFISH International Organization gave a presentation on regional markets for seafood.
While aquaculture in Saudi Arabia dates back to the early 1980s, when Nile tilapia was first introduced and reared in ponds in inland regions of the country, it was really through the semiintensive farming of shrimp that the sector took off internationally. The first pilot shrimp farm was established in the late 1980’s. Production commercialized around the mid 1990’s with the introduction initially of the giant tiger prawn (Penaeus monodon), and then the Indian white shrimp (Penaeus indicus). However, as the white spot syndrome virus (WSSV) epidemic spread to this part of the world too, in 2014 the industry switched to the more robust Penaeus vannamei for which WSSV tolerant specific pathogen free (SPF) broodstock could be obtained from certified agencies.
Aquaculture development is part of Vision 2030
In 1982 the Saudi government in collaboration with FAO established the Jeddah Fisheries Research Centre (JFRC), as a center for fisheries and aquaculture research and a hub for continuous capacity building for personnel in the industry. In parallel, a number of visionary entrepreneurs invested heavily, over the years, in the industry, bringing know-how, developing expertise, and building and installing state-of-the-art facilities. Apart from shrimp farming, fish cage aquaculture projects were also established in the early 2010’s, with the introduction of Asian seabass and Mediterranean seabream for farming. Currently, aquaculture is considered a dynamic food production sector, and a significant pillar for the support of Vision 2030, the Kingdom’s strategic plan to transform the economy, the society, and the country at large.
Despite two long coastlines (Red Sea and Arabian Gulf) supply from the local fisheries is relatively low. It is estimated that over the period 2014-2018, on average between 60 and 70 thousand tonnes of seafood were landed annually at the country’s main ports, largely by an artisanal fleet of small coastal boats. In 2018, as a result of the government’s attempts to prevent overfishing and rationalize the fishing fleet, capture fisheries
landings reached only a little over 62 thousand tonnes.
Production from aquaculture exceeds that from capture
Contrary to landings from capture fisheries, domestic aquaculture output has increased significantly over the past few years. In 2018, aquaculture production surpassed capture fisheries landings. Almost 75,000 tonnes of farmed shrimp and fish were produced, an increase of 200 within just 3 years. Shrimp is the dominant product of the Saudi aquaculture industry. The majority of farmed shrimp produced is exported, while the bulk of the farmed fish is consumed domestically. The final products of the industry are of high quality, certified and marketed under SAMAQ, (SAudi Mark of Aquaculture Quality) the national aquaculture quality certification and labelling program.
Despite the increased supply from aquaculture, the domestic market still relies heavily on imports, which reached about 207 thousand tonnes in 2018. Overall, seafood imports which accounted for over 75 of local consumption in 2014, suffered an average drop of 2.6 over the five year period 2014-18 owing to stringent inspection and
regulatory measures adopted by the Saudi Food and Drug Authority (SFDA), in order to reduce dumping and improve product safety and quality of imports, as well as to mitigate possible biosecurity risks associated with products originating from certain countries.
Fall in seafood consumption needs to be reversed
Based on supply and trade figures, it is apparent that seafood consumption is relatively low in the country. Average per capita consumption is estimated at around 9 kg/year, less than half of the global average. Overall, consumption of seafood in Saudi Arabia saw a marginal drop during the period 2014-18, mainly because of:
a) Demand in the institutional sector dropped by a significant average of 5.9 (CAGR 2014-18) driven by the departure of around 2 million expatriates (due to the ongoing Saudization policy).
b) Fluctuating supply coupled with VAT implementation increased consumer prices, resulting in a per capita annual consumption drop from an estimated 9.4 kg in 2014 to 8.5 kg in 2018.
c) Product supply decreased due to the banning of imports from a number of third countries (mainly Egypt and SE Asian countries).
d) The increase in domestic aquaculture production focused mainly on shrimp. Domestic production could therefore not meet the demand created by the reduction in imports of fish (tilapia and pangasius).
Increased shrimp production lead to higher exports. Overall exports grew by 16.5 over the 2014-2018 period, with frozen shrimp being the most exported commodity. Exports go to more than 30 countries worldwide with China and Vietnam (probably for re-exporting to China) the main destinations, while new markets such as Russia, are also emerging. Generally, frozen shrimp from Saudi Arabia is in demand for its high quality and is positioned as a premium restaurant offering across countries in the region such as Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Egypt as well as certain Asian and European countries.
Domestic seafood market has potential to grow
Saudi Arabia represents a growing seafood market with significant potential for increased local consumption. Seafood has traditionally been part of the Saudi diet in the coastal regions of the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf, but not in inland regions of the country. However, with a total population of 33 million (2018), the highest in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, and a growing young population (over 50 is below 35 yrs old) that is quickly adopting a new lifestyle, thanks to the social and economic reforms pushed by the government (saudization of most jobs, increased entrance of females to the workforce, etc), food consumption patterns are rapidly changing. The average Saudi consumer is becoming more health conscious and has less time to prepare meals. At the same time the available income per household is increasing.
If the increase of the Saudi population, which is growing at a rate of 2.9% annually, along with the emerging consumption trends which are already shaping the market, are complemented by a national campaign promoting seafood consumption, the market is expected to grow at an average annual rate of around 8. This will create an annual demand for seafood of around 700,000 tonnes in 2030. As landings from capture fisheries are declining and stricter safety regulations are imposed on imports, aquaculture is expected to be the main source of seafood in Saudi Arabia. At the same time, its strategic geographic position presents an ideal opportunity for the country to become a major seafood exporter serving the GCC as well as European and Asian markets.
Aquaculture is about more than just seafood production
The extensive Red Sea coastline, with its pristine waters and favorable environmental conditions is considered a largely unexploited goldmine in terms of its capacity for aquaculture production. Properly and sustainably managed, it could provide high quality nutritional seafood products to the domestic and international markets. The national plan for the aquaculture sector under Vision 2030 aims is to reach a total production of around half a million tonnes in 2030. Aquaculture thus seeks to create a strong pillar for the country’s new economy, contribute to GDP, provide skilled employment, and help effectively address the issue of food security in the most environmentally sustainable manner.
Implementation of the national strategy has begun
To achieve this, the government has established the National Fisheries Development Program (NFDP). In practice, the NFDP is the executive arm for the implementation of the government’s strategy for the development of the aquaculture industry in line with the Vision 2030 objectives. The NFDP has been provided with a ‘toolbox,’ which includes five key initiatives, totaling SAR1.3 billion (EUR0.3bn). These initiatives are expected to act as catalysts for the industry’s further growth, by mobilizing private interest and investment in the sector. Smart and sustainable use of the unique natural and environmental resources and the potential for growth of the seafood market are the cornerstones of this strategy which is already being realized through measures, such as:
a. In collaboration with other government agencies such as SAGIA (Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority), MODON (Saudi Authority for Industrial Cities and Technology Zones), SIDF (The Saudi Industrial Development Fund) and ADF (Agricultural Development Fund) a clearer and investment-friendly framework has already been established. Aquaculture licensing has also been simplified making rf elevant investments more business friendly. As a result, there is already increased interest from local as well as international investors for either expanding existing projects (aquaculture farms) or establishing new ones. Emphasis is given to marine fish farming, while increased interest is also shown for shrimp.
b. The geographic locations with the most favorable conditions for aquaculture development have been identified, surveyed and are ready to be licensed, taking into account not only the environmental and oceanographic conditions, but also the logistics for supply of raw materials and the quick transport of the products to the local, national, regional, and international markets.
c. A tight national biosecurity surveillance program is already in place, with Standard Operating Procedures, Rapid Alert systems, and Contingency Plans in case of emergencies.
d. Technical workshops are organized on an almost bimonthly basis, with national and international experts sharing their experience and knowhow with all relevant industry stakeholders, on issues ranging from new production techniques and protocols, to environmental impact monitoring and control, animal health and welfare, product marketing etc.
e. Research towards improving production efficiency of the currently cultured species, as well as experiments with new species, better adapted to local conditions and which have high market potential, are being conducted by the country’s best research and academic institutions, often in collaboration with international experts and globally highly acclaimed centers of excellence in the field of aquaculture research.
f. Sustainable practices based on global standards are being emphasised. All aquaculture operating facilities are required to be certified by the Global Aquaculture Alliance / Best Aquaculture Practices (GAA/BAP) scheme. The Aquaculture Department of the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture is strongly promoting the use of responsible aquaculture practices and already 95% of the national output is BAP certified. The aim is for the industry to achieve 100% BAP compliance by the end of 2020 and thus become the first country in the world with national level GAA/BAP certification for its products.
A Saudi national aquaculture product certification and labelling scheme has been developed under the acronym SAMAQ which is based on international guidelines and responsible aquaculture practice requirements. The objective is that ultimately all Saudi national aquaculture products will be certified and marketed with the SAMAQ label indicating their local origin and guaranteeing their quality and freshness.
g. A generic national marketing campaign will be executed, to increase public awareness of the health benefits of increased seafood consumption, and to communicate to the local population the advantages of domestic aquaculture products (locally produced, freshness, safety, nutritional value). Already MEWA has executed a detailed seafood market study and is ready to design and execute a “National Seafood Consumption Campaign” to boost seafood consumption.
Philippos Papageorgiou, National Fisheries Development Program, Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture of Saudi Arabia; and Ekaterina Tribilustova, EUROFISH International Organization in collaboration with Saudi Aquaculture Society and National Aquaculture Group.