A recent UN Food and Agriculture Organisation report put per capita seafood consumption in the UAE and Oman at 28.6kg a year, with Qatar and Egypt on 24.5kg and 20.8kg respectively, above the 18.4kg global average. But growth in catches has stagnated as fish stocks have declined due to overfishing and pollution – Red Sea fish stocks are estimated to have declined 70% over the last 20 years.
“The richer oil producing GCC states except Oman have been growingly depending on imports to meet their seafood demand. Lately there have been new investment waves into aquaculture in the Middle East to achieve food security and reduce dependence on imports for it,” said a report on the FAO’s Globefish site.
Philippines eyes tuna market
This demand gap has prompted fish-producing countries which have not sold large volumes into the region, such as the Philippines, to target this market.
The agricultural attaché of the Philippine embassy in the UAE, Gil Herico, urged Philippine producers to focus on the Middle East canned tuna market, currently dominated by Thailand. He claimed the region imports the equivalent of 100 shipping containers of Thai tuna products every month, and said gaining 10% of this market would give a significant boost to the Philippines’ tuna industry.
“I am urging our industry players to unite and focus on expanding our exports to the MENA region. You can start by planning a selling mission there for tuna products exclusively coming from this city in 2015,” Herico told attendees at the National Tuna Congress in General Santos City, a major centre for tuna processing in the Philippines, earlier this month.
“[The Middle East and North Africa’s] estimated retail sales in the packaged food market, which is dominated by processed seafood products, could reach around US$2 billion by the end of the year,” he added.
While exporters look to exploit the Middle East’s growing demand for seafood, regional governments are also working to boost local production, largely through aquaculture. Farmed fish and seafood made up 44% of regional production as of 2011, up from 21% in 2001, according to the FAO.
The Saudi government is working to increase fish production in the country with a US$10.6bn investment in aquaculture projects, aimed at boosting production tenfold. Oman has also approved aquaculture projects worth US$332m this year alone, and plans to invest US$1.3bn in the sector by 2020.
Oman is also working to change public perception around farmed fish, according to the Globefish report: “Recently a university in Oman conducted an experiment handing out unmarked wild caught and cultured tilapia to students to understand their taste difference. The blind test revealed that 48.6% of the respondents preferred cultured as tastier given their distinctive softness of flesh flavour against only 8.6% preferring wild caught. The rest didn’t recognise any difference in taste at all.”