Gene pools pay off for UAE prawn farmer
It is a beautiful morning on Bal Rumaid Island, a five-minute boat ride from Reem Island. The city’s skyscrapers are covered with fog and the crystal-clear water revives the spirit.
Waiting on the dock is Dr S D Gopakumar, the mastermind behind the UAE’s only prawn farm.
Around him a crowd of greyish-green prawns swim in ponds. But how those prawns eventually end up on your plate is a far more complicated story than most people realise.
Launched as Al Jaraf Fisheries in 2004, the project at first struggled to meet its objective to supply the country with fresh prawns.
When Dr Gopakumar arrived in 2005, there were only eight ponds. He developed techniques and introduced technology better suited to the local climate.
As a result, today there are 52 prawn ponds in Bal Rumaid Island.
Some of the most valued prawns on the farm are not intended for the barbecue. These are the mother prawns, also called broodstock.
Disease free, they produce all the other prawns on Bal Rumaid Island and ensure they are fit to eat.
“We do prawn farming on a commercial level,” says Dr Gopakumar, the chief operating officer. “We have our own mother shrimps.”
Mother prawns are grown on the farm, removing the risk of introducing diseases from broodstock that are brought in.
Through careful management of its stock the farm has specific pathogen-free (SPF) mother prawns, meaning that, after strict screening and quarantine, they are guaranteed to be free of any disease-bearing microorganisms.
Preserving the farm’s SPF status starts with the selection of mother prawns, Dr Gopakumar explains. They are taken from their ponds to the hatchery, where the prawns are born.
“There are different growing stages. It will be grown in the hatchery for 18 to 22 days,” he says. “The mother weighs around 40 grams.”
Walking past ponds of different sizes, Dr Gopakumar stops to politely ask one of the workers to demonstrate the different ways in which prawns are caught.
“There are two methods of catching: bottom-set netting and cast netting,” he says.
The first is to spread half of a net on the surface while the rest sinks into the water. “You leave it for 20 to 30 minutes and you catch a huge amount,” he says.
Cast netting, the other method, is where the net is thrown by hand so that it spreads across the water and sinks. The problem with just casting a net, he says, is that it is not as effective as the first method because it only works in limited areas.
The farm catches 90 per cent of its prawns with nets. The rest are gathered by draining the water though an outlet in the middle of the pond. The ponds can then be refilled with seawater from canals.
In each one-hectare pond, which is equal to 10,000 square metres, he calculates there will be about 500,000 to one million baby prawns. The farm has 36 one-hectare ponds, and 17 half-hectare ponds.
To provide enough oxygen for them, the farm uses floating aerators that run all night, but for only a few hours in daylight when photosynthesis generates the oxygen.
The prawns, of course, also need to eat. On Bal Rumaid Island, they are given pellet feed five to six times a day.
Another worker walks a platform leading to one of the feeding stations to show how this is done. The feeding trays are square with a fine-mesh bottom and scattered around different parts of the ponds, dipping into the water.
“Shrimps will eat from the tray. After feeding for two to three hours we lift the tray and see if any feed is left. If any is left, it is an indication that the portion should be reduced. If not, it is fine,” Dr Gopakumar says.
He points to a white patch in the middle of an empty pond and explains that this is accumulated waste, including leftover feed.
But nothing is wasted on the farm. When the waste is dried it can be used as nitrogen fertiliser for growing plants.
Back at the hatchery he points out that some prawns have only one eye. These are females who have been through a process called eye stalk ablation.
“The purpose of removing one eye is to speed up the breeding process,” Dr Gopakumar says. “Although it is not fully understood, removing a single eye makes the ovaries of the female prawn develop faster.
Al Jaraf Fisheries supplies a number of major supermarket chains including LuLu, Carrefour and cooperatives and fish markets. Although the focus is on Abu Dhabi, it also supplies outlets in Dubai and Sharjah.
Other prawns are imported from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, which may be up to three days old when they reach the consumer.
But at Al Jaraf Fisheries, Dr Gopakumar says: “If our customer places an order in the night, they get prawns delivered within three hours. The quality is maintained.”
Updated: February 18, 2014 04:00 AM