Egypt has built the largest aquaculture industry in Africa, accounting for four out of every five fish farmed on the continent. Egyptian fish farms produced over 650,000 tons of finfish last year, or about 60 percent of the country's total freshwater and marine fish production, providing a cheap source of protein for the country's 80 million people.
"The massive growth of aquaculture has kept fish affordable for the majority of Egyptians, so that today fish and poultry prices are more or less similar (cost) per kilo basis," says Malcolm Beveridge, Director of Aquaculture and Genetics at the WorldFish Centre. "It seems the majority of consumers switch between the two, depending on which is cheaper."
Commercial fish farming in Egypt began in the 1960s with mullet-rearing pens in coastal lakes and lagoons. The industry has witnessed explosive growth over the past decade. Total aquaculture production has grown by 500 percent since 1998 due to a shift to intensive rearing methods and faster growing species such as tilapia.
The General Authority for Fish Resources Development (GAFRD) plans to develop the country's aquaculture industry further, and has set a goal of 1.1 million tons of farmed fish, or about 75 percent of total fish production, by 2012. Its two-pronged strategy aims to increase the productivity of freshwater aquaculture operations, while encouraging investment in marine aquaculture, or mariculture.
Egypt's limited freshwater resources are a major constraint to aquaculture development. The populous desert country relies on the Nile River for 95 percent of its water needs, and water usage is considered a national security issue. Priority is given to potable water and crop irrigation, leaving more than 90 percent of the country's fish farms to operate on agricultural run-off.
"It's not the best idea to use agricultural drainage water for producing fish, because although there are a lot of nutrients in it, there are also pesticide residues, and these pose an unspecified risk to consumers," says Beveridge. "It makes more sense to let aquaculture have first use of water, and to allow the drainage from fish farms to be used for agriculture."
Laws passed over a quarter of a century ago prohibit aquaculture projects from drawing surface water, but a loophole permits fish farms to have first use of groundwater. Farmers can pump clean water from aquifers into fish ponds, using the nutrient-rich drainage of these ponds to fertilise and irrigate field crops - a holistic approach to food production known as integrated aquaculture.
The technique is already in practice on an experimental farm in Wadi Natroun, a depression 110 kilometers northwest of Cairo. "The pilot project serves as an example for farmers working in the desert on how they can increase their productivity and income using the same volume of water for two, or maybe even three, purposes," says GAFRD chairman Mohamed Fathy.
The method revolves around nutrient sharing and waste recycling, he says. "First, the farmer pumps underground water into ponds for raising tilapia, and then for catfish. The water from the catfish ponds is used to irrigate alfalfa, and on these fields he lets his sheep and goats graze. The manure of the livestock is used to make biogas, which in turn is used to increase the water temperature of his tilapia hatcheries, or to warm the fish ponds in winter."
Integrated aquaculture currently accounts for a small fraction of Egypt's total fish farm production, but its share is expected to grow quickly. Fathy sees enormous potential for the technique to increase the food productivity of vast tracts of reclaimed desert land.
GAFRD is involved in several projects to increase aquaculture productivity, including hatchery development, genetics research and breeding programmes. It hopes to increase average annual production of freshwater fish farms to 5 tons per acre, up from an average of 1-3 tons per acre.
The agency is also issuing trying to promote mariculture, which currently contributes 5 percent of total fish production. Marine fish farms already produce mullet, sea bass, sea bream, eels, shrimp and mollusks, and GAFRD has earmarked areas of coastline for development of cage culture and offshore fish farms.
Species selection will be critical to the commercial success of these projects, say experts. Mariculture operators must consider a fish's rearing costs, growth rate, space requirements and market demand.
Native plant-eating fish like mullet are in high local demand, but must be reared in shallow ponds with large surface area. By contrast, sea bass and sea bream can be cultured intensively in cages or tanks, but require enriched fish feeds that drive up costs.
"Getting land in Egypt is not so easy now because of competition with tourism and agriculture, which is why mariculture usually favours sea bass and bream," says Sherif Sadek, a local aquaculture consultant. "What we need is a popular fish that we can culture in marine environments without the need for high-protein feed. Otherwise I'm afraid the fish will be exclusively for export or rich people."
The expansion of tilapia hatcheries, which supply nearly all the fry and fingerlings used by Egyptian tilapia farms, has decreased the price of stocking freshwater fish farms to a tenth over the past decade. GAFRD is now licensing hatcheries for several marine species, which - along with expanded fish feed manufacture - is expected to reduce production costs.
The real winner, say experts, is the Egyptian consumer. The growth of the aquaculture sector has resulted in lower retail fish prices, which has in part encouraged Egyptians to add more fish to their diet. Per capita fish consumption has doubled since 1995 to reach nearly 14 kilograms, and fish now accounts for over 20 percent of animal protein intake.
"You'll find fish on the table even in the most remote desert oasis," says Sadek.