Hammour time

How seafood outlets and suppliers are handling sustainable fishing

Royal Culimer general manager Jeroen Tollenaar.
Royal Culimer general manager Jeroen Tollenaar.
Beach Rotana Abu Dhabi executive chef Patrick Bischoff.
Beach Rotana Abu Dhabi executive chef Patrick Bischoff.
Daniel Mayor, executive chef at the Radisson Blu Hotel, Kuwait.
Daniel Mayor, executive chef at the Radisson Blu Hotel, Kuwait.

Local seafood supplies are running low according to industry experts, but restaurants continue to broaden their offerings thanks to imports. Ben Watts speaks to suppliers and chefs to find out what is driving demand

Seafood has been an intrinsic part of Arabian cuisine for centuries, but with increasing numbers of hotels and restaurants, chefs are shifting from local to international markets to source their seafood.

Radisson Blu Hotel, Kuwait executive chef Daniel Mayor comments: “The UAE, Oman and Qatar have an increasingly strong portfolio of seafood outlets.

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“The seafood market, however, relies heavily on imports to cover all the needs of the Gulf region,” he continues. “For a five-star hotel with international guests, it is not possible to exclusively use local seafood as the selection would be too limited for guest expectations.”

Demand for seafood in other Middle East markets has also been affected by the recent financial crisis, asserts Beach Rotana Abu Dhabi executive chef Patrick Bischoff.

“It is obvious that people are more cost-conscious at the moment and therefore demand for seafood dishes has not really increased lately,” says Bischoff. “As a result, prices for seafood have definitely increased since the start of the global economic crisis.”

But some suppliers, such as Royal Culimer general manager Jeroen Tollenaar, refute this suggestion, claiming prices have remained realistic and in tune with demand.

“Seafood prices have hardly been affected by the financial crisis,” he asserts. “Most Middle Eastern markets have access to the open sea and therefore there is a nice range of seafood available.

“But products such as lobster and king crab have not become cheaper, because of a decreasing number of people spending less money in restaurants.

“Demand for seafood is more or less linked to the number of tourists and festive seasons,” he adds.

“It’s up to chefs and suppliers to discuss mutual expectations to avoid shortage or overstock.”

Caviar House and Prunier managing director Nicolas Rubeiz says that all along the supply chain, clients and suppliers have had to adapt in order to “moderate the effects of the crisis”.

“Everyone has had to be very specific, in terms of logistics and stock management, in order to minimise the impact at the consumer level,” remarks Rubeiz.

“Prices have been affected, but as Caviar House and Prunier deals in the luxury market, the demand has still been strong.”

However Royal Culimer’s Tollenaar predicts that many catches will become more expensive in future.

“The intensive farming of shrimps, for example, requires serious financing and as the banks are not providing credit, many farmers simply cannot buy baby shrimps to grow,” he points out. “This will eventually result in lower volumes and higher prices.”

But Rotana’s Bischoff says demand for crustaceans such as shrimps continues to grow.

“Crustaceans are becoming trendier at the moment, especially lobster and shrimps,” he notes. “Oysters are also becoming more popular, with simple preparation methods preferred over anything complicated.”

Over-fishing supply

Despite a number of suppliers today offering ‘sustainable’ seafood products, concerns remain regarding the issue of over-fishing.

Freshly Frozen Foods general manager Densil Quadros remarks: “Seafood prices have not been overly affected by the global crisis, but have remained constant or are slightly increasing.

“The main reason for this is depleting catches and an increase in demand from developing countries.”

Royal Culimer’s Tollenaar shares similar concerns, noting that most fish have two things in common:

“They get smaller and fewer”.

“Ruthless over-fishing and wrong catching methods are seriously affecting local fishery,” notes Tollenaar. “Also, a large part of all seafood available is already imported, but sold as local fish. Fresh-water fish such as pangasius or basa, for example, are being sold as hammour, a salt water fish, which is immoral and illegal.”

Freshly Frozen Foods’ Quadros says that while many products are being imported, the region still has excellent local opportunities.

“Catches off Middle East shores have always been renowned as some of the world’s cleanest,” he says.

“There are pristine waters with rich natural breeding grounds for variety of species.

“Consequently, up to this day, people have enjoyed the region’s natural resources. But the growing demand for seafood choices means imported items have to come in. Today most seafood sold in the Middle East is imported — very little is processed and most local seafood is consumed locally,” he continues. “Due to strict regulations from the authorities, the quality is much better than in nearby regions.”

However Rotana’s Bischoff believes there should be stronger laws in place. “There is an over-fishing situation locally at the moment and there should be stronger fishing regulations issued by governments in the region,” he asserts.

Healthy supply

While concerns remain regarding the over-fishing of seafood products locally, chefs based in the Middle East are lucky enough to have a wide variety of products to hand.

This is vital in order to satisfy increasing consumer demand — due in part to the health factor, which consumers are becoming ever more aware of, according to Freshly Frozen Foods’ Quadros.

“Consumer awareness on how to improve their health by eating seafood is rising,” he remarks. “In order to meet this increasing demand, especially for seasonal catches, exporters are finding the best way to manage this is by expanding their seafood production through aquaculture.”

Despite sustainability becoming an increasing concern when it comes to top-end seafood, chefs in the Middle East have found themselves in the privileged position of being able to source many traditional — and unusual — seafood offerings.

With ongoing care and attention to sustainably sourcing fish and seafood items, the Middle East may yet become one of the world’s great seafood destinations.

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