Israeli desert aquaculture: A new school of fish

Israeli desert aquaculture: A new school of fish

Aquaculture at Kibbutz Ketura (Credit: Remi Jouan)
Aquaculture at Kibbutz Ketura (Credit: Remi Jouan)

At a time when ocean fish populations are threatened worldwide, Israeli fish farmers are developing innovative new technologies and breeding methods that are revolutionizing their industry.

Faced with managing scarce water resources in a desert ecosystem, the Israeli government has supported the solutions of kibbutzim — and more recently, those of “Dagim,” the Fish Breeders Association — to promote healthy, environmentally sound, and profitable fish cultivation. Today, a close look at the country’s thriving fisheries and available ponds reveals a rich history and a rapidly evolving, yet pragmatic business. The result has been new patents, improved fish quality, increased trade and, perhaps most importantly, a comprehensive mapping of Israel’s water use and untapped reservoirs.

Aqua-culturist Yankele Peretz tells that the country’s demand for specific freshwater fish species, mainly carp, began “in the wake of the first aliyas to Israel.” In the late 1930s, Eastern European Jews brought specimens of their favorite fish to Israel and began experimenting with fishponds. Ponds built in 1939 at Kibbutz Nir David, Ma’ayan Affek, and Kibbutz Bet HaArava, where the Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea, yielded early successes. The settlers quickly learned how to enable and control fish reproduction.

After Israel achieved independence in 1948, more kibbutzim began to experiment with fish farming. 

“Hydro-geological surveys, initiated soon after independence, revealed that the Negev and its eastern part, the Arava valley, possess tremendous amounts of saline underground and geothermal waters,” notes Shmuel Rothbard in his recent study, titled “Tilapia Culture in the Negev.”

Eager to expand settlement in southern Israel — an area previously deemed uninhabitable by the pre-state Turkish and the British Mandate governments — Israelis worked vigorously to establish methods to extract brackish water from deep underground, and they began implementing state-of-the-art water recycling systems. Their goal was to combine aquaculture and agriculture, and to maximize efficient water use, thereby reclaiming land from the desert.

Today, thanks to past efforts, “more than 10 super-intensive fish farms have been constructed in various parts of the Negev,” Rothbard writes.

“Geothermal water is passing through fish culture raceways, and is being used for irrigation of crops,” he writes.

Ponds are now spread throughout Israel and new fish species are being introduced. Israel farms carp, tilapia, grass carp, flathead mullet, striped bass, silver carp and rainbow trout, as well as many species of ornamental fish. In some places, however, fish farming has proven unsustainable.

“Many fisheries were abandoned in the Galilee, when water prices increased,” Fish Breeders Association Secretary Yossi Yaish tells, recounting an early water management mistake. “The Galilee contained good potable drinking water, and it didn’t make sense to use this resource for fish farming.”

The key to success for Israel’s fish farming industry lies in knowing where and when water resources are most abundant and determining ways to optimize the use of every drop. Israel’s most important technological advance in this field has been, therefore, the realization that it could conduct fish breeding in the nation’s strategic water reserves.

“Because of the water shortage,” Yaish explains, “many water reserves are built to collect water in the winter and are used to water the agricultural fields in the summer. The fish farmers were smart to use these reserves for fish breeding.” The collected water provides the perfect environment to breed fish, and farmers capitalize on the opportunity to synchronize agriculture and aquaculture.

When asked whether this dual-use strategy poses any environmental risks, Yaish is confident that fish farming does not pollute or endanger ecosystems. In fact, he notes, “protecting the environment is a basic condition for the progression of fish farming.” The industry has driven implementation of intensive water treatment facilities across Israel and has encouraged water conservation.

Likewise, the focus on fish quality has helped Israel reverse the effects of past pollution on native fresh water species. “Israel was the first to cultivate wild tilapia from the Jordan River and Galilee,” Yaish says. “The fish only get better in terms of their disease resistance and growth rate.” 

Israelis are cashing in on a precise method for producing quality fish with limited negative environmental impact. The industry has grown dramatically, now producing around 20,000 tons of fish annually. With the market value of fish currently standing around $3.5/kg, this translates to a gross income for the farmers of about $70 million. Moving forward, Yaish underlines the priority of increasing production and marketing for tilapia. To be profitable, Israeli fish production must yield at least 10,000 tons annually; presently the country produces 8,000 tons. Israeli fish farmers hope to soon raise fish exports to Europe, expand the range of industrial fish products, and even encourage fish farm tourism, an unexpected bonus of a growing interest in Israel’s innovative fisheries.

Meanwhile, the Fish Breeders Association provides a supportive network to all aquaculture enthusiasts in Israel. The group works directly with the ministry of agriculture to help provide education and enable cooperation between independent farms and kibbutzim.

“Fisheries do not receive the same support as other crops and produce,” Peretz says, explaining the government’s laissez faire relationship with fisheries. “Prices are not regulated as in the case of eggs, poultry, and meat.”

On the other hand, significant “support is expressed through training incentives, investment in research and insurance against damages caused by nature,” says Yaish. An existing Israeli law encourages investment in local agriculture, and the government supports priority investment grants of up to 24 percent, in addition to providing import-tax protection.

A recent UN report indicates that demand for ocean and/or farmed fish has reached an unprecedented high. The global population now consumes 17 kg of fish per person annually. With ocean stores ever declining, fisheries around the world are adapting their cultivation methods in an effort to meet demand. While Yaish maintains it is difficult to predict how the industry will eventually shift from ocean fishing to fish farming, the global trend is clear. 

Peretz points to China as the world leader in developing productive farms, acknowledging that the country combines “innovative research with tradition and discipline.” Israel, however, is emerging as a clear competitor, demonstrating that efficient farming can be achieved even in an arid environment.