Imad Saoud: Making waves in the world of aquaculture

Lebanon.- Professor Imad Saoud, chair of AUB’s Biology Department, was recently elected to the board of the World Aquaculture Society (WAS) Asian Pacific Chapter, in recognition of his research in the field of aquaculture and his contributions to this global professional organization.

AUB’s resident expert in aquaculture and aquatic sciences, Dr. Saoud is contributing to this discipline with groundbreaking research that aims to help feed the world as populations soar in number and as fresh water and arable land become more scarce.

Over half of the seafood consumed in the world is farmed as opposed to being caught in the wild. This practice of farming aquatic animals and plants is known as aquaculture, which is essentially agriculture in water.

The World Aquaculture Society was founded in 1969 to contribute to the progressive and sustainable development of aquaculture throughout the world. As a member of the board of the WAS Asian Pacific Chapter, Dr. Saoud will help set the agenda for aquaculture research and production in the Asia-Pacific region, where the majority of fish farming is done.

Can rabbitfish help save the world?

Aquaculture is a growing industry, increasing at a rate of about 8% per year and presently producing around 100 million tons of product annually. Farming of seafood is useful in two major ways: It protects marine life from overfishing and can be far more efficient than catching fish in the wild. 

“I joined AUB 25 years ago to save the world and I’m still thinking about how to save the world,” says Saoud. “Aquaculture is a necessity because this planet is 72% ocean. We cannot grow more food on land and we do not have more fresh water.  We either need to go into super technology—GMOs, fertilization, pesticides—which everyone is against, or start producing food from the 72% of the planet that we don’t use.”

However, most fish farmers raise expensive fish in order to make a profit, and most of these are carnivores, meaning they must be fed with other fish in order to raise them.

“Carnivorous fish are not very efficient.  They are not the way to save the world,” explains Saoud. “So when I came to Lebanon, and since I could start my own research direction, I decided to go with a herbivorous fish.  It’s very low on the food chain.  It’s like raising cows instead of raising lions; where you have to raise the cows to feed the lions.”

What Dr. Saoud found was the rabbitfish. It is indigenous to the Indo-Pacific region and migrated to the Mediterranean after the opening of the Suez Canal and is now well established in this area. It is a very popular eating fish in many countries, including China, where it is the traditional dish for its New Year celebrations, as well as Indonesia and the Philippines. Dr. Saoud has also found it fetching a good price in the fish markets of Oman and at restaurants in Cyprus.

“More crop per drop”

After more than a dozen years of research and experimentation, Dr. Saoud and his team have come up with a complete technology to farm this herbivorous maritime fish, and it is starting to catch on in places like India and the Philippines. His research in this area is now moving in new directions in a further attempt to address the pressing concern of food security.

At AUB’s Agricultural Research and Education Center (AREC) in the Bekaa, Dr. Saoud and his students have been experimenting with growing fish in large tubs and then using the water to irrigate crops. This means that the fresh water is used for two purposes, thus producing more food with the same amount of water; which Dr. Saoud describes as “more crop per drop.”

His next project, which has been funded by a new grant, involves replicating this process within a greenhouse context.  This entails integration with novel methods of biological pest control for plants and would allow for the cycle to be repeated year-round, but adds complication. One of the issues in greenhouses is not being able to use pesticides on the plants since it would harm the fish.

Dr. Saoud’s research in the area of farming herbivorous fish and in using the water from farm-raised fish to maximize the use of fresh water may not save the world entirely, but it has great potential to make a positive impact in our world.

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