For the past couple of years fish-farming has been among the key activities pushed by the government. Huge farms have been inaugurated in the Suez Canal area and in Kafr Al-Sheikh on the west branch of the Nile in the northern part of the country.
The huge fish farms are part of a government drive to boost fish production in order to provide consumers with a cheap source of protein. And government efforts to encourage the industry have made a difference, with fish-farming today covering 75 per cent of Egypt’s total fish production.
Production from fisheries has been growing steadily to reach 1.8 million tons last year, up from around 200,000 tons in the 1990s, or a growth rate of around eight to 10 per cent on an annual basis.
Speaking at a seminar organised by the Egyptian Centre for Economic Studies (ECES) last week, fisheries expert Salah Taher said tilapia represented the bulk of the country’s fish production.
Egypt is 10th in the world in terms of fish production, but only in volume and not in value, for which Norway holds the top position. However, despite the growth in production, Egypt remains far from self-sufficient in fish. According to Taher, 300,000 tons of fish are imported annually to cover the gap between production and consumption.
“There are opportunities for investment in fisheries,” Taher said, adding investment was particularly needed in post-harvest facilities including for processing and cooling. Only three per cent of Egypt’s fish is currently processed or exported, he said, adding that this meant that 97 per cent of the harvest was sold on the spot.
“This creates pressure on fish-farmers, pushing them to sell their yield at almost any price to avoid losses,” Taher said.
He said that a simple process of cooling could lengthen the life of harvested fish from 18 hours to 21 days, enabling its transport to locations such as Upper Egypt. Most fisheries are in the Delta, with 70 per cent of fish produced in Kafr Al-Sheikh.
The industry is further plagued by seasonality, Taher said. The fish harvest is sold between July and January, and afterwards no fish are harvested, causing shortages and pushing up prices.
More investment in the post-harvesting stage would help resolve many of these problems, said Ali Al-Haddad, chair of Fish Basket, a fish-processing factory. Processing would enable the full use of all parts of the fish, he said, even though at present the local market may not be very receptive to processed fish.
Over time people will welcome processed fish, as they had welcomed processed poultry earlier, he said.
However, because production in Egypt is mostly small-scale, Dutch aquaculture expert Jeroen Schuphof suggested at the seminar that farmers work together to build facilities to process their fish. “The market is growing in volume, but the sector is not maturing,” he said.
Al-Haddad commended the government’s fish-farming projects, but he warned that fish produced by the state should not be sold at below cost prices since this would lead private-sector farms to close.
If the government wanted to provide subsidies to the consumer, these should be in the form of cash, he said.
* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly