Middle East hungry for more seafood

By Ankush Chibber

- Last updated on GMT

Middle East hungry for more seafood

Related tags Middle east United arab emirates Uae

Earlier this year, Oman embarked on one of the most ambitious food production projects in the Middle East when it announced plans to invest US$1.29bn in fisheries development from 2013 to 2020.

These plans include the construction of 41 modern fish markets across Oman, 10 more fishing ports, and a modern integrated fisheries complex with fish processing plants, cold storage, office buildings and other facilities.

These plans point towards a growing trend that has also caught the eye of other nations in the west and the east—the Middle East is eating a lot more seafood.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), seafood consumption in the Middle East is already way above the world average and increasing rapidly. The per capita consumption of seafood in the UAE is at 51.1kg, four times the world average and one of the highest worldwide. It is followed by Oman (36.7kg/per year), Bahrain (16.9kg/per year), and Qatar (16.5kg/per year) as one of the fastest growing seafood markets in the region, with Saudi Arabia also growing rapidly.

Last month, Dubai hosted SEAFEX 2013, a trade show focused on seafood industry, which saw exhibitors come from the Philippines, Namibia, Peru, Turkey, Northern Ireland and Argentina—and more than a 100 buyers from across the Middle East.

Trixie LohMirmand, senior vice president at Dubai World Trade Centre, said that the Middle East is now the perfect market for the growing global seafood industry.

Food service sector pushing consumption

“The Middle East offers exceptional opportunities for the seafood industry with many of its regional markets in the world’s top ten in terms of per capita consumption,”​ she said.

According to a report by Seafish, the UK seafood industry body, with recent financial growth and prosperity and the increase in tourism, total seafood consumption is increasing year-on-year in countries like the UAE. “This is boosted further by information and education regarding the health benefits of consuming seafood,”​ it said.

A recent survey by YouGov on fish consumption trends and preferences across the UAE showed that 66% of its citizens eat fish at least once a week and prefer to eat it outside the home.

 Arjun Chavan, a Mumbai-based halal meat and frozen foods exporter, told FoodNavigator that apart from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are hotspots for South Asian seafood exporters in the B2B space.

“The demand is heavy from the food service sector. Fish has always been a part of the Middle Eastern diet but the people there are now getting more varied and premium in their demands as they have got exposure to western diets,”​ he said.

“I see a huge demand for seafood such as oysters, shrimp, crab and mussels along with regular fish,” ​he added. “In the UAE in particular, with the presence of numerous hotels and restaurants catering to a wealthy population, the demand is really high.”

Vietnam has emerged as one of the top exporters of shrimp to the region. In 2011 sales of shrimp from Vietnam hit US$35m, with Saudi Arabia accounting for US$3.7m and the UAE accounting for US$3.3m. Incidentally, India is the top exporter of seafood by value into the Middle East at roughly US$30m.

Local overfishing to help exporters

The same YouGov survey also found that close to 50% of UAE fish consumers order Hammour, a grouper fish, when eating at a restaurant and believe it to be readily available in the waters around the UAE and the Gulf.

However, a government-backed survey of fisheries resources in the region has shown that levels of groupers (same family as the Hammour) declined by about 87-92% between 1978 and 2003 in waters around the Middle East.

The decline was sharp enough for the UAE government to launch the Choose Wisely project in the country this year to protect the future of UAE fisheries. Operated by EWS-WWF, in collaboration with the Environment Agency, Abu Dhabi (EAD), the campaign has released an up-to-date list of sustainable and unsustainable fish choices—essentially guiding consumers to the fish they should eat.

However, this gap is creating an opening for exporters. “My understanding is that consumers tend to eat fresh fish as they like the taste and perceive it as being a healthy option...which is why they also prefer Hammour...But with expats, tourism and the food service sector they are open to more fish choices,”​ said Chavan.

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