Cairo — Combine the experience of Africa's leading freshwater fish producer with that of one of Asia's fastest-growing mariculture sectors. Fisheries experts in Egypt and Vietnam hope it will lead to a robust aquaculture industry that utilises both river and sea to feed growing populations and generate export revenues.
A cooperation agreement between Egypt's General Authority for Fish Resources Development (GAFRD) and Vietnam's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) inked in May sets a framework for joint fisheries development. The protocol encourages researchers, trainers and quality control technicians in the two countries to share data, and calls for exchange visits of fisheries and aquaculture officials.
Ahmed Salem, general manager of GAFRD, says the partnership aims to leverage the comparative advantages of each country's aquaculture industry to advance the development of commercial fish farming.
"The two countries are an ideal match (for technical transfer) as both share a similar economic and social situation, and both offer solutions that do not rely on high technology," Salem told IPS. "Egypt is a leader in freshwater aquaculture, while Vietnam is very developed in mariculture."
Egypt boasts the largest aquaculture industry in Africa, accounting for four out of every five fish farmed on the continent. Egyptian fish farms produced over 700,000 tonnes of finfish in 2009, or about 65 percent of the country's total fish production.
GAFRD chairman Mohamed Fathy Osman told IPS in an interview earlier that while Egypt has extensive experience in freshwater pond culture and tilapia breeding, it is new to the field of mariculture and is seeking guidance in breeding and processing saltwater aquatic species.
"Mariculture only contributes about five percent to our total fish production," he said, "but I think it is the future of aquaculture in Egypt, either through cage culture or offshore fish farming. For certain, we will need foreign expertise in marine breeding and incubation techniques to develop this field."
Vietnam has over two decades of experience in mariculture and is reported to have more than 40,000 offshore cages, mainly for lobster culture. Private operators also utilise the tropical country's 3,200 kilometres of coastline to farm shrimp, mollusks, cobia and grouper.
Under the bilateral agreement, Vietnam is providing training courses for Egyptian cadres on open sea and cage breeding of marine finfish and shellfish. In return, Egyptian technicians are assisting the country in improving the productivity and quality of its freshwater fish farms.
Vietnam has established a vibrant export trade in seafood and river catfish. It now hopes to become a major player in the tilapia market.
Hanoi has thrown its weight behind efforts to cultivate tilapia in Northern Vietnam, but the programme has "deficiencies (in) the seed and farming technology," according to Dung Huynh Tien, National Policy Coordinator of WWF Vietnam. Fry used to stock tilapia farms must be imported from China, especially in winter.
Analysts say Egypt's extensive experience in tilapia breeding and small-scale pond management could prove invaluable to small Vietnamese fish farmers.
"Egypt is the second largest tilapia producer in the world after China, and has significant experience in hatchery operations, pond farming and raising tilapia," says Gamal El-Naggar, a research coordinator for the Malaysia-based WorldFish Center.
Much of this work has been carried out at Egypt's national aquaculture research centre in Abbassa, 70 kilometres northeast of Cairo. Scientists there have developed a new strain of tilapia capable of 20 percent faster growth than the commercial baseline. While the strain is not yet available to commercial producers, the centre's published work in stock selection and nutritional regimes is proving invaluable to small-scale tilapia farmers in developing countries.
"Most of the centre's work is directed at semi-intensive pond systems," says El-Naggar. "The reason is because about 80 to 90 percent of all tilapia production is based on this system."
Vietnam is reportedly seeking Egyptian expertise to facilitate its shift to pond culture in an attempt to improve the quality of its freshwater products. Consumer groups in several countries, including Egypt, have accused Vietnamese catfish cage farmers of raising their fish in the heavily polluted water of the Mekong River.
While Vietnamese officials have played down the contamination risk, the allegations have prompted them to re-evaluate quality control, particularly among the small farms and processing plants that make up 60 percent of the country's aquaculture industry.
Meanwhile, Egyptian producers hope to benefit from Vietnam's superior processing and marketing techniques. Egypt has just a handful of fish processing plants compared to over 750 in Vietnam. The plants process fresh fish to produce filets and fish meal, as well as dozens of value-added products for export.
"Egypt doesn't have a lot of processing plant for fish, because Egyptians usually eat their fish fresh," explains aquaculture consultant Sherif Sadek. "We could benefit from better utilisation and reduce our reliance on imported fish meal."