Fish has long been a cheap source of protein for many Egyptians, with tilapia, known as bolty, costing less than 15 per cent of the price of red meat and around a quarter of the price of a kg of chicken.
According to WorldFish, an international non-profit research organisation, fish accounts for 25.3 per cent of the average Egyptian household’s protein intake.
With the River Nile and coasts overlooking the Mediterranean and Red Seas, people often ask why there never seems to be enough fish.
The truth is that all these areas together only provide around 25 per cent of total fish production, and most of the fish that Egyptians consume is produced on fish farms.
Aquaculture production in Egypt in 2014 came to around 1.1 million metric tons, accounting for around three-quarters of the country’s total fish production, according to data from WorldFish. Most of this is consumed in the country.
Aquaculture had been practised in Egypt for millennia and since the Ancient Egyptian dynasties.
One drawing on the wall of a Pharaoh’s tomb dating back to 2,500 BC shows a man harvesting tilapia from an earthen pond, documenting the first aquaculture activity in history, according to a paper entitled “Aquaculture in Egypt: Insights on the Current Trends and Future Perspectives for Sustainable Development”.
Tilapia is the most farmed species of fish in Egypt, said Harrison Karisa, country director for Egypt and Nigeria of WorldFish, which, headquartered in Penang, Malaysia, and with offices in Asia, Africa and the Pacific, works on improving livelihoods through fishing and aquaculture.
The organisation carries out research in Egypt, Nigeria, Zambia and Tanzania that can be scaled up for implementation elsewhere.
It has been working in Egypt since 1997 and has helped to improve tilapia stock. “This work has helped to improve the production of fish in Egypt,” Harrison said.
He added that Egypt is the largest producer of fish in Africa and the seventh in the wider world. It also holds the top position in tilapia production.
It is unique because 70 per cent of the fish consumed in Egypt comes from fish-farming, Harrison said, whereas in other countries most fish is caught in lakes, rivers and the sea. He attributed this to strong government support for fish-farming later followed up by private-sector investments.
However, Harrison said it was regrettable that production from the Mediterranean and Red Seas did not add more to total fish production in Egypt, caused by over-fishing in both. Oil-drilling and exploration has also affected the fish in both seas, since fish flee extensive activity.
The Nile only produces 4.8 per cent of Egypt’s fish, while the Mediterranean produces around eight per cent and the Red Sea around 12 per cent.
Meanwhile, fish-farming has been growing exponentially to reach 1.8 million tons in 2017, up from around 200,000 tons in the 1990s, or a growth rate of around eight to 10 per cent a year.
Local production still does not cover consumption, however, with Egypt importing up to 500,000 metric tons of fish a year, according to UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) statistics.
Harrison said that people were wrong to think that farmed fish were somehow less clean than those caught in the wild. “When they know it is from a farm, some people may claim a fish is less good, but if they are given a blind tasting they cannot tell the fish apart,” he said.
He explained that the law stipulates that water should be used on crops before it goes to fish farms. That could cause impurities in the fish, but when they have been tested fish that have been farmed have shown no signs of being affected by the water.
Such fish are tested for pesticide residues, and any that are found have been within allowed limits.
Harrison suggested that the law should be revised to allow people to raise fish wherever there is suitable water. “Fish do not use water. They live in water. People should not fear that fish-farming could be a cause of water shortages,” he said.
Moreover, the water that fish live in is rich in nutrients because of fish waste, and it could be used to irrigate crops, helping to lower the use of chemical fertilisers, he said.
He said there were around 15,000 fish farms in Egypt, as well as some that are not registered or are considered illegal because they are located in areas not set aside for this purpose. He said fish should be raised wherever they can grow, suggesting the need for changes in the law.
Many people also depend on fish-farming for their livelihoods and food security, and the sector provides employment for 816,000 people in Egypt, according to WorldFish.
The total market value of the industry was $2.2 billion in 2015, according to a report by the US Department of Agriculture.
Scaling up production is needed not just to meet local consumption, but also to stimulate exports, Harrison said.
China exports fish to Africa, so “why can’t Egypt export fish to Africa as well,” he asked.
“There is a lot of demand for the fish being produced in Egypt, and it would be cheaper for African countries to import and be a source of income for Egypt.”
However, for exports to flourish it is essential that quality standards are observed, he said. For example, EU monitors regularly check any fish exported to European countries.
Currently, only around 30,000 metric tons of Egyptian tilapia and other fish are exported, Harrison said.
“We have to produce enough before we think of more exports,” he added.
In order to boost production, the government has recently launched several mega-fish farms, one of them in Berket Ghalioun 134km north of Cairo in the Kafr Al-Sheikh governorate.
The project, of which only the first phase has opened, is expected to produce five million kg of fish and shrimps a year.
Any attempt at increasing production and reducing imports is good for food security, Harrison said. While the fish the government is producing might not reach the very poor because some of it is expensive, it can be exported or go to the tourism industry, he added.
“It is a good sign that the government is serious about fish-farming, both fresh water and marine, as this will help to feed the population,” he said.
Berket Ghalioun includes an industrial zone where there will be a fish-feed factory as well as a shrimp-feed plant and refrigeration facilities and packaging plants.
One of the biggest challenges facing the industry is fish feed, and Harrison suggested that the government reduce customs on fish-feed inputs. If the price of fish feed goes down, this will mean cheaper fish for consumers, he said.
Another challenge is post-harvest processing in Egypt. “This is one of the biggest impediments to the proper pricing of fish,” he said, explaining that fish is usually sold fresh at the farm gate as there are not enough cold-chain facilties in Egypt.
Only three per cent of the fish produced is processed, forcing farmers to sell their fish at lower prices to stop it going bad, Harrison added. “When the fish is harvested it needs to be iced and then moved to areas where it can be processed,” he said.
Part of the reason there is not enough processing, according to Harrison, is because Egyptians prefer to eat fresh fish.“This stops us from processing enough fish, and we are losing jobs by not adding value through processing,” he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Fishing for opportunities