More than 85 percent of popular fish, including hamour (a variety of fish, including the brown spotted reef cod) and sheri (aka Spangled Emperor), in the Arabian Gulf have gone extinct, according to the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, a government agency in charge of protecting biodiversity in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Overfishing is an existential problem in the Gulf, where the population of more than 200 fish species faces decline. While fishing bans could help restore some of the species, these efforts could be an uphill struggle without sustained enforcement of the ban and without educating fishermen across the region on dangers of over-exploiting marine resources.

Over-fishing presents a giant challenge to Gulf countries as demand for fish has been growing along with the rise in the population. Moreover, as oceans warm, freshwater gets scarcer, and rainfall patterns change in Arab countries, the composition and population of fish will continue to decline. Climate change threatens the future of fish and the fishing industry of the region. Notwithstanding this threat, this industry is expected to grow, primarily through farmed fish, by more than 7 percent between 2018 and 2024 in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, which includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, UAE and Bahrain. The main drivers of this growth are rising population rates, dietary preferences, and diversification of food supplies.

Farming of fish, crustaceans, marine plants, algae, and other sea organisms is also known as aquaculture. To meet the demand for fish, to reduce imports of seafood, and to maintain food security, some wealthy Gulf nations, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Oman, have stepped up their efforts to cultivate aquaculture. Although it is a relatively new and small sector in these countries, they have been heavily investing in fish farming. Fish captured from the sea have traditionally been favored more than farm-raised fish in Arab countries, because of the former’s perceived greater health and taste benefits. Yet, aquaculture has been gaining more acceptance, and even popularity, in the Middle East.

Companies, whether foreign or domestic, involved in fish farming consider their occupation as part of a conservation effort: more fish sold from farms means less fish caught in the sea. The notion is that reduction of seafood imports by relying on domestic aquaculture will also cut carbon footprint from long-distance transportation. The governments of Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Oman provide favorable policies and numerous incentives to attract investments into fish farming, and there are currently a multitude of aquaculture projects in these countries.

Fish has long been a source of sustenance and an economic lifeline for many villagers living along the coast of the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman.

As one of the highest per capita consumers of fish in the world and with 34 percent of total agriculture production depending on fisheries, seafood has been central to Oman’s food industry. Fish has long been a source of sustenance and an economic lifeline for many villagers living along the coast of the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman. This small kingdom is one of the largest producers and exporters of fish in the GCC. As over-fishing threatens the country’s ability to produce enough fish for domestic consumption, Oman has been actively developing aquaculture to maintain fish supplies.

Since 2013, Oman’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries has been pushing for sustainable fishing and creating essential infrastructure to boost aquaculture as wild fisheries began to decline. While fish farming is still in its infancy in the sultanate, recent large-scale investments to produce shrimp, sea bass, and sea cucumber make a promising start. The country’s authorities hope to produce more than 200,000 tons of fish and create jobs for 11,000 people between 2030 and 2040. It pledged more than 1 billion USD to develop this sector and is providing nearly 15,000 hectares of land for that purpose.

Fish farming, unlike growing fruits and vegetable, is important also to the UAE not only because of strong demand, increasing dietary preferences for fish, and a nearly 70 percent rate of importation for seafood, but also because of the desire to preserve scarce fresh water by relying only on sea water to run the farms. The same is true for other countries in the region that struggle with declining freshwater resources and arable land to grow food. Currently, accounting for just more than 3,000 tons per year, aquaculture is still a young industry in the UAE. But it is slowing growing. The country’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment is driven to bring local and foreign investments into its aquaculture by easing the permitting process for fish farming projects and supporting scientific research to boost this industry.

Compared to Oman and UAE, Saudi Arabia has a more developed aquaculture industry as it has been investing in this sector since the 1980s. The Saudi Ministry plays a central role in establishing aquaculture across the country not only to meet domestic demand, but also to produce enough fish for exports. With fish production reaching 60,000 tons in 2017, Saudi Arabia has an ambitious plan to hit 100,000 tons in 2020, and 600,000 tons in 2030. Because growing demand for fish has pushed up Saudi Arabia’s imports of fish to 60 percent, the Kingdom aims to cut its dependence on imports by making farmed fish its main source of seafood. It has staked out new investment opportunities along the Red Sea to boost aquaculture.

Fish farming will significantly boost food security of these Gulf countries and leave some for exports.

Fish farming will significantly boost food security of these Gulf countries and leave some for exports. However, there are a number of challenges for the industry to be successful. Certain conditions will need to be met for aquaculture to work. For example, farms need to be situated in locations with access to fresh water and productive soil, which can be hard to find in this increasingly dry region of the world. Harsh weather conditions put more pressure on fish farming.

High water evaporation levels in this arid region can also increase water salinity beyond a tolerable threshold for certain fish species. For example, the salinity level of the Arabian Gulf is now too high for many common fish species.

Another potential issue is accidental release of imported fish into local waters, which can decimate already dwindling populations of local fish species.

Lastly, as governments in the Gulf countries develop policies and favorable investment climates to bring about fish farming, they should open opportunities for private investors.

At this juncture, aquaculture is primarily a government-driven industry in Saudi Arabia, Oman, and UAE. Private investors face certain institutional constraints, such as a difficulty in obtaining loans from domestic banks. They are hesitant to fund fishery projects because of their perceived uncertainty.

Another issue is developing the local know-how on building, running, and maintaining farms. Maintaining—and growing—these aquaculture projects will depend on developing certain local industries that are currently lacking in Gulf countries—building equipment, machinery, and replacement parts.

Nevertheless, the will appears to be there to develop this critical industry that will benefit the economies of the region and help to combat the effects of climate change.