Growth opportunities in the Israeli desertAquatech plans to expand, with a hatchery, nursery and processing for ready-to-market products. Photo: Aquatech

In Israel, barramundi farming is thriving in an unlikely environment thanks to land-based aquaculture pioneer Aquatech Fisheries, reports Bonnie Waycott.

Enjoying fresh fish that doesn’t come from abroad may seem like a fantasy for those in harsh environments such as thisone, but thanks to recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS), locally produced barramundi is now available in the Israeli desert.

Situated on a plot of land in southern Israel measuring 50,000 square metres (12.35 acres), the Aquatech Negev fish farm of Aquatech Fisheries Ltd (Aquatech) is an advanced RAS farm in the heart of the desert, spearheaded by a local team of experts from all disciplines of fish farming, with advanced technology used throughout all stages of production to grow barramundi. Aquatech currently operates Israel’s only large-scale industrial inland fishery, raising and marketing barramundi across the country.

The company uses local geothermal water that enters the RAS system at a temperature of 37°C. It takes eight to nine months for the fry to reach market size. The unique location of the company and its pathogen-free water source make it possible to meet its high bio-security standards, according to Mordi Laloush, CEO of Aquatech Fisheries.

“We also monitor our process and production parameters each day, and manage and control our data using a unique programme for aquaculture,” Mordi Laloush said.

“After passing through the technological cycle, a small amount of water is discharged using a special irrigation system. This water is then reused for the irrigation of nearby olive groves. Because we’re also in quite a unique location, we’re able to use solar energy efficiently to power our operations with a photovoltaic system.”

Aquatech’s RAS system is based on Israeli RAS firm AquaMaof’s technology, which was originally designed to grow sea bream with a high salinity and close to zero water discharge. After an operation period of two years, Aquatech decided to replace sea bream with barramundi and identified the species as the perfect fish to grow in its Negev facility after a selection process in 2018.

Also known as Australian sea bass or Asian sea bass, barramundi is a popular fish in Australia and South-East Asia with a small market presence in Israel. Because it’s a predator fish that poses a threat to local fish populations, it cannot be farmed off the Israeli coast but land-based farming is possible, while its fleshy texture, taste, fresh smell and high nutrient content, as well as being Kosher, make it a natural favourite among Israeli consumers.

“We decided to switch to barramundi because we felt that the system, which is supposed to support zero discharge of a marine fish facility, was, in our view, not designed, commissioned or delivered properly and we wanted to make some changes,” Mordi Laloush said.

“We had to upgrade some of the system components by ourselves and cope with all obstacles alone to be able to restart with a new species of fish.”

“At the same time, we established a unique, identifiable brand known as Israeli Barramundi. Thanks to the support of a reasonable marketing budget over two years and national campaigns on TV, digital media and the help of influencers, our fishery and brand have become extremely successful, reaching expected annual deliveries of 700 tonnes in 2020 despite the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Total barramundi consumption in Israel grew from 150 tonnes in 2018 to 600 tonnes in 2019. Hopes are high that the figure will rise in 2020 to 900 tonnes, of which Aquatech will supply 80-85% of that demand. Barramundi is still no more than 5% of fresh fish consumption in Israel (the country currently imports 90% of the fish it consumes), but Aquatech’s market research has shown that more and more Israelis prefer to consume local fish.

Access to local fish

With the COVID-19 pandemic still very much a concern, consumers are expressing a general desire to have access to local fish. They are also interested in sustainable ways to grow fish, something which RAS is able to offer.

To that end, Aquatech is now planning its expansion strategy, which includes increased production, added value services and the establishment of additional fishery locations inside and outside of Israel.

“There is no doubt that RAS is the future,” Mordi Laloush explained.

“Growing fish next to its market is the right way in terms of quality and freshness, sustainability, and for operational and economic reasons. Our barramundi project right in the middle of the Israeli desert is a true success story, and the experience and knowhow that the Aquatech team has gained over four years of operation can now be leveraged. We’re planning to add a hatchery, nursery and an advanced sorting, packing and processing facility to produce fresh gutted fish, filets, smoked fish and additional branded, ready-to-market products.”

Based on its unique knowledge, hands-on experience and technological capabilities in establishing and operating RAS fisheries, Aquatech is planning to identify opportunities in Israel for new fisheries to grow additional species, and tap into new markets for barramundi in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the US.

“Barramundi is seen as a very promising species, so this, together with our successful project in the desert, has resulted in quite a few enquiries from individuals and companies around the world that wish to learn more about our farm. We’re excited to see what the future brings,” Mordi Laloush said.

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