by Wesley Malcorps, PhD student, The Institute of Aquaculture, University of Stirling, UK
and Dr Arash Shirvani, Owner, Modern Bio-Treasures of Qeshm, Iran


Over the past few years I travelled several times to Iran to experience its culture, kind people, great food and to discover its stunning nature on land and below water. Iran's geography, size, diversity of water bodies and climate shows great potential for aquaculture, however, this is relatively unexploited. Curiosity was the driver to write this brief article about the Iranian seafood sector together with my friend, fellow aquaculture enthusiast and scuba diver; Dr Arash Shirvani.


The Islamic Republic of Iran (also called Iran or Persia) is located in the Middle East with a large coastline (including islands) of over 5,800km, bordering the Caspian Sea in the north, the Persian Gulf in the south and the Gulf of Oman in the south-east (Mousavi et al., 2008). This unique location, in combination with the size of the country and diversity of landscapes, give Iran a variable climate.

While these factors indicate a potential for seafood consumption this is not reflected in the statistics, as Iran consumes approximately 10kg per capita in 2013, which is around half of the global average (FAOStat). Nevertheless, Iran's size, climate and the available freshwater resources for different types of aquaculture (Harlioglu and Farhadi, 2017) shows great potential to participate in fulfilling the growing global demand for seafood.

This became clear over the past two decades, as fisheries and aquaculture combined grew about 11.5 percent annually since 2004, reaching a production of approximately 947,000 metric tonnes (MT) in 2014 and over one million MT in 2016 (NordOest, 2017). This resulted in an increase in employment over the years, reaching a total of almost 250,000 people in 2014, according to the FAO.

Capture fisheries played an important role and saw an increase in production from 314,165 MT to 535,865 MT in 2004 and 2014, respectively (IFO, 2013; IFO, 2015). The fishery sector is seen by the local population as one of the most promising industries (Harlioglu and Farhadi, 2017) and this is reflected by government investments increasing from five million dollars to 83 million dollars from 1995 till 2013, respectively (FAO, n.d.).

Despite the increase in capture fishery production, the share of aquaculture production followed up quickly from 26 percent (approximately 124,560 MT) in 2004 to 39 percent (approximately 371,840 MT) in 2014 (Harlioglu and Farhadi, 2017). Iran is currently one of the most important aquaculture producers in the Persian Gulf region and ranked 19th by volume in 2016 on the global aquaculture production list, according to the FAO.

Capture fisheries

The Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman coast are the most important regions for capture fisheries, responsible for approximately 93 percent of the domestic capture fishery (marine and inland combined) production. It is estimated that around 50 percent of the marine harvest consist of large pelagic species, with a majority tuna and tuna-like species.

The other half consist mostly (approximately 35%) of demersal fish species, such as javelin grunt (Pomadasys kaakan), tigertooth croaker (Otolithes ruber), largescale tonguesole (Cynoglossus arel) and silver pomfret (Pampus argenteus).

Additionally, shrimp fisheries (Indian white shrimp (Penaeus indicus), banana shrimp (Penaeus merguiensis) and green tiger shrimp (Penaeus semisulcatus)) in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman accounted for approximately 8,500 MT in 2013 and 2014. On the other hand, inland fisheries (freshwater lakes and brackish Caspian Sea) where the species groups: caspian sea sprat, bony fish and sturgeon represent almost 40,000 MT in 2014 (Harlioglu and Farhadi, 2017; IFO, 2015; IFO, 2013).


According to the FAO, aquaculture production has increased from 27,000 MT (1990) to 320,000 MT (2014) and 398,000 MT (2016), while the IFO estimates a total production of 371,840 MT in 2014. This is reflected by the amount of fish farms, which increased from 7276 (480,267 hectares (ha)) to 18,795 (804,227 ha) from 2004 till 2014, respectively (Harlioglu and Farhadi, 2017; IFO, 2015; IFO, 2013).

The production sites are diverse, ranging from lakes, reservoirs and dams all the way to earthen ponds and raceways. However, intensive and super-intensive aquaculture production methods are not common due the relatively high costs and inadequacy of production equipment (NordOest, 2017).

Aquaculture is dominated by freshwater species, such as cyprinids, trout, sturgeon, crayfish, but also marine shrimp and marine fish species. Currently 63.5 percent of the total production is carp species (16,254 farms - 50.853 ha), followed up by 34 percent for rainbow trout (1595 farms and 225 ha) and 2.5 percent for shrimp (518 farms - 7,053 ha) (NordOest, 2017).

It should be noted that production from inland water bodies is classified as aquaculture to conform to the FAO statistical guidelines for data collection on fisheries since 2002. Additionally, small quantities of sturgeon (650 MT), cage culture of marine fish (123 MT), ornamental fish (204 MT), crayfish (70 MT), were produced in 2014.

Rainbow trout and sturgeon farming are very important for Iran, as they are globally one of the biggest producers of rainbow trout, biggest exporter of sturgeon fish meat, while caviar is one of their most valuable export products (Harlioglu and Farhadi, 2017).

The FAO highlights that mariculture is relatively small, but that its focus on shrimp production resulted in an increase in production from 2,500 MT to 22,500 MT in 2006 and 2014, respectively. Main shrimp species produced nowadays is the white leg shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei).


According to the FAO, carp is one of the dominant aquaculture species in Iran and includes silver carp (75%), bighead carp (10%) and other species such as common, grass and local carps species (20%). The production increased from approximately 61,000 MT to 170,000 MT in 2003 and 2013, respectively. According to the projections, carp production is projected to hit approximately 263,000 MT in 2020, according the 6th Five Year Plan developed by Shilat Iran, The Iranian Fisheries Organization (IFO) (FAO, n.d).

Rainbow trout

Iranian aquaculture started with trout farming and experiments back in 1959 in Tehran. Most of the trout farms nowadays are raceways and located in the mountainous areas with a cool summers and cold winters in the north and northwest. Beside raceways, rainbow trout is also grown in integrated aquaculture farms (approximately 13% of total production), in between rice fields and cages. The use of these integrated systems increases aquaculture productivity and are currently promoted and funded by the Iran Fisheries Organisation (IFO) (NordOest, 2017).

The production saw a rapid increase from 208 MT in 1978 (NordOest, 2017) till 126,515 MT in 2014 (IFO, 2013; IFO, 2015). Consequently, rainbow trout fish farmers surface almost doubled from approximately 105 ha till 225 ha between 2004 and 2014, respectively.

According to The Fish Site, Iran officials have said they aim to support the growth of trout aquaculture in the Caspian Region. They are supporting this by providing licences, land and juvenile fish to private farmers and is building government owned building, hatcheries and on-growing units in order the fulfil the global demand for trout (NordOest, 2017; IFO).

This support would increase production, which is expected to hit 210,000 MT by 2020, according the 6th Five Year Plan for fisheries (explained in the last chapter) (FAO, n.d).

Sturgeon fisheries and caviar

Sturgeon fisheries declined from 2004 till 2014 from 500 MT to 41 MT (IFO, 2013; IFO, 2015), as a result of overfishing, pollution and changes in habitat due human activities in river systems and the Caspian Sea (Adeli, 2002; Bronzi, Rosenthal and Gessner, 2011).

However, the aquaculture production of sturgeon species showed an increase from 363 MT in 2009 to 650 MT in 2014 (IFO, 2013; IFO, 2015). Despite this, a decline of sturgeon stocks in the wild, export and lack of pricing regulations and counterfeiting resulted in an increase in price of caviar and a decrease of share of Iranian caviar on the global market (Adeli and Namdar, 2015; Feyzabadi, Gholamnejad and Ramezani, 2009).

Additionally, the Iranian market was heavily affected by political sanctions, which decreased the export of caviar from 40 Mt in 2000 to just 1 MT in 2014 (NordOest, 2017). Despite the low production compared to other caviar producers (eg Norway and Korea), Iran produced the second most valuable caviar of 1300 dollars per kilogram after Azerbaijan, selling caviar at 2600 dollars per kilogram (Adeli and Namdar, 2015).

Nevertheless, Iranian caviar markets is influenced by the decline in sturgeon population and the current and upcoming caviar producers in Asia, Uruguay, Israel, Vietnam and Argentina (Bronzi and Rosenthal, 2014).


Future perspectives

Iran's Fisheries Organisation (IFO) plans to support further fisheries and aquaculture sector through the 6th Five-Year plan (2016-2020), as mentioned before. This plan has a main focus on (1) increasing fish share in domestic food security, (2) responsible harvesting of aquatic resources, (3) increasing productivity and (4) improving the fish import/export balance.

This could be achieved by increasing domestic fish production and consumption (per capita annual fish consumption from 9.2 kg in 2014 to 14.8 kg in 2020) and improving aquaculture productivity. This plan also includes infrastructure development to improve quality, fresh fish handling and processing to satisfy EU regulations and consequently increase exports (FAO, n.d.).

These factors should contribute to an increase in seafood production from 947,000 MT in 2014 to 1,879,000 MT in 2025, in which more than half is produced by aquaculture. Cage farming in brackish water and along the coast of Iran has great potential for sustainable aquaculture expansion, according to the Iranian Fisheries Organisation (IFO) (NordOest, 2017; FAO, n.d.).

The Persian Gulf is relatively isolated through the narrow Strait of Hormuz. This result in a long water residence, low freshwater input, high water temperatures and salinity levels, creating a unique marine ecosystem. The Gulf of Oman is relatively sheltered, but its link with the Arabian Sea results in higher water exchange and high marine biological productivity as a result of upwelling of nutrients (FAO, 2016).

These factors could partially contribute to a total cage farming production of 400,000 MT in 2025, while additional seafood cage production potential for the Persian Gulf and Oman is estimated around 150,000 MT and 450,000 MT, respectively. At the northern coastline, the Caspian Sea shows potential for another 300,000 MT in the long term (Harlioglu and Farhadi, 2017).

Mariculture could introduce new species to the aquaculture portfolio of Iran, such as groupers (Serranidae), cobia (Rachycentron canadum), silver pomferet (Pampus argenteus) and fourfinger threadfin (Eleutheronema tetradactylum) (Kalbassi, Abdollahzadeh and Salari-Joo, 2013), but also the Caspian Salmon (Salmo trutta caspius) (Dorafshan et al., 2008).

According to the Fish Site; Iranian officials have said to support the aquaculture of sea bream and barramundi species in the Persian Gulf. Additionally, experiments with seaweed have been conducted in the past few years. In total, 130 species of seaweed were found in the country, with a focus on the more commercial species such as Gracilaria spp., Sargassum spp. and Eucheuma spp.

On the other hand, different research projects are conducted with a focus on pearl farming and the production of sea cucumber species (Holothuria lecospliota and Holothuria scabra) and oyster species, such as the black-lip pearl oyster (Pinctada margaritifera) (Harlioglu and Farhadi, 2017; Kalbassi, Abdollahzadeh and Salari-Joo, 2013).

It must be noted that Iran is promoting and funding new techniques to increase agriculture and aquaculture productivity in order to be more resource efficient (NordOest, 2017). According to researchers from the Islamic Azad University, integrated farming system, such as rice and fish farming is low cost and with high value protein and minerals in return.

Additionally, the land is used efficiently with less use of fertilisers and pesticides (Noorhosseini-Niyaki and Bagherzadeh-Lakani, 2013). On the other side, aquaculture adaptability is important in central regions in Iran, which are affected by increased salt content. However, this wouldn't be a problem for certain trout species as they can tolerate brackish water, according to the Iranian Fisheries Science Research Institute (IFSRI) (Alizadeh, Dadgar and Hafezieh., 2016).

Aquafeed production and prospects

The intensification of Iranian aquaculture production requires additional feed production for hatcheries as well as grow-outs. The highly important artemia for hatcheries is found at 17 locations throughout the country, but its population size is affected by different factors, such as drought, floods, decrease in water salinity and introduction of freshwater fish in lakes (Abatzopoulus et al., 2006). This could potentially result in an increasing dependency on artemia imports to fulfill demands for hatcheries.

The provision of aquafeed for the domestic grow-out phase is almost self-sufficient, as 90 percent of the aquafeed is produced in 17 factories across the country (NordOest, 2017). However, the production of certain ingredients declined, such as fishmeal, as a result of the fluctuating catches of sprat in the Caspian Sea (Harlioglu and Farhadi, 2017).

Nevertheless, dependency on fishmeal for increased domestic aquaculture production (and increasing demand from the poultry industry) could possibly be met by lantern fish fisheries. The 6th Five Year Plan (IFO) indicates a 70,000 MT catch from the Gulf of Oman for the year 2020 to meet demand for food as well as fishmeal for its aquaculture and poultry sector.

It must be noted that the Iranian animal feed sector is relatively self-sufficient, but shows dependency on certain raw materials from Brazil, Argentina, Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, such as livestock corn, soy meal, colza meal, cottonseed meal and sunflower seed meal (Financial Tribune, 2017).

Increasing demand on terrestrial crop ingredients exposes the aquafeed sector to fluctuating global ingredient prices (Troel et al., 2014). Additionally, increasing demand and diversification of aquaculture production species could potentially lead to an increase in the import of feed ingredients. This could potentially affect the resilience of the Iranian aquaculture industry.

Iranian aquaculture has immense growth potential from a geographical, resource and climate point of view. The 6th Five Year Plan developed by the IFO is designed to fully exploit this potential in the short term. However, this plan is ambitious and requires massive growth in a relatively short period of time to achieve its targets.

This is especially difficult because of the lack of technical knowledge among farmers, improper broodstock production and feeding management, lack of cage culture diseases, slow growth rates and low cultural species diversity.

These targets also require additional investment to improve water quality, implement intensive farming techniques, disease control, hatcheries, stocks and feed management (NordOest, 2017; Harlioglu and Farhadi, 2017; Kalbassi, Abdollahzadeh and Salari-Joo, 2013). These investments and developments could boost the aquaculture production, which is beneficial for the Iranian market, export, employment as well as the global seafood market.

However, climate and political obstacles emerged, and this could potentially affect the aquaculture production and seafood import and export in general. This makes the future of Iranian aquaculture hard to predict.

Nevertheless, Iran is definitely a country with massive potential to contribute to the increasing global demand for seafood. Collaboration is essential if we wish to continue consuming healthy, diverse and nutritious seafood in the future.

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