Salmon Fishing in the UAE: How Salmon Farming Fits into the Emirates’ Food Security Plans

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) doesn’t seem like the ideal place for a salmon farm. Salmon are a cold-water species that thrives in waters between 46- and 57-degrees Fahrenheit, and most salmon farms are on the shores of cold places like Norway or Maine.

The UAE is the opposite. Not only do temperatures regularly cross 100 degrees in summer, but the country is among the most water-scarce in the world. And yet, as the government strives to reduce water consumption, aquaculture is a big part of its effort to shore up its food security at home.

When the UAE launched its food security strategy in 2018, it identified fish as one of 18 strategic food items. Annual per capita fish consumption in the UAE is about 66 pounds—the highest in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and almost 50 percent above the global average of 45 pounds per capita. Amidst rapid economic growth, the Emirates’ local fisheries are overfished, and even so, local fish make up just eight percent of UAE consumption. While the UAE’s aquaculture ventures extend well beyond salmon farming, salmon is the country’s second-most consumed fish, all of it flown in from colder climates.  

Farmed salmon begin life in controlled freshwater tanks and are transported to seawater when they grow larger, mimicking salmons’ lifecycles in the wild. Because farmed salmon don’t need to move much or search for food, they are very efficient transforming fish food into salmon flesh. Emirati investors have seen an opportunity with new developments in recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS)—a technique that takes in ocean water, and then filters and re-uses it in a massive, self-contained system. Since the first Emirati-raised salmon hit grocery store shelves in 2019, the government took the bait. In 2021, Abu Dhabi’s largest investment firm invested over $350 million into a fund dedicated to RAS production, and struck a deal for one of the largest RAS salmon producers in the world to move its headquarters to Abu Dhabi to develop more inland salmon production in the UAE.

But there are still hurdles to overcome. Although it reuses up to 99 percent of the water that enters the system, RAS is a resource-intensive process, requiring expensive filters, experienced employees, and a lot of energy to keep the water circulating and—in the UAE’s case—cooled.  While raising salmon this way takes more energy than is required for traditional sea-cage salmon farming or RAS production of warm-water fish like tilapia, it saves the fuel used flying in salmon from northern climates.

Locally farmed salmon sells for around $23 a pound—lower than imported wild salmon, but about 30 percent higher than imported farmed salmon. The advantage is less price than freshness, with salmon potentially taking just hours to move from farm to plate.

This article is part of the series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East.

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Caleb Harper
Program Coordinator and Research Assistant, Middle East Program