Fish Swim in Israel’s Desert

Fishing in the desert. - Pierre Klochendler/IPS.
Fishing in the desert. - Pierre Klochendler/IPS.
  • by Pierre Klochendler (kibbbutz mashabei sadeh, negev desert)
  • Inter Press Service

Under the sweltering sun, the luminescent fishponds — sparks of a liquid mirage in the parched moonscape — bristle with the tropical sea fish that should be more at home, seemingly, in southeast Pacific high seas than in sand.

Seemingly, because, for the past 14 years under Appelbaum's guidance, local fish farmer Amit Ziv has been tending ponds stocked with the half-kilo carnivore specie. Twice a week, his team of desert fishermen dressed in diving suits haul their nets filled with one-and-a-half ton of the aquatic creature. The whole procedure takes about 20 minutes.

At the packing house, the fish catch is hosed with special icy water at minus three degrees Celsius. 'Barramundi die of heart attack below 15 degrees,' explains the manager of the Deli-Dag fish farm. It's then sorted by size and shipped around the country.

Once a biblical wilderness where Abraham wandered and watered his herd, the Negev has become a source — of money. Israeli scientists and farmers like Appelbaum and Ziv have developed an innovative way of raising tropical sea fish that makes use of warm brackish (slightly salty) water. Desert barramundi fetch 60 shekels (18 dollars) per kilo in the domestic boutique market.

Ziv's clamour, 'Desert fish on your plate, there's nothing better than that!' may sounds like a promising auction, but the down-to-earth kibbutznik is selling no fishy patter. 'Our fish is bred in an uncontaminated environment. Water is purified by sunlight and dehydrated air. There's obviously no other aquatic species around. So it doesn't catch any disease. Since organic fish is on high demand in industrial countries, we plan to export.'

The somewhat incongruous endeavour is the fruit of decades of research. Some 60 years ago, it became clear that a vast prehistoric thermal aquifer is actually nestled 700-metre deep in the womb of the unforgiving wasteland. But the naturally hot ocean of saline water was out of reach. Drilling the rocky underground was then too expensive.

Cheaper technologies were introduced during the 1960s. Geothermal water became economically viable. Nowadays, drilling a one-kilometre deep well costs the State company Mekorot around a million dollars. Effortlessly emerging at sea level, the 40-degree artesian water is pumped to the surface of the 200-metre high plateau, cooled and stored in fishponds at a constant temperature of 28 degrees.

'There are billions of cubic metres of water free of any pollutants, an ecological treasure-trove that's sustainable for at least the next 100 years,' marvels Appelbaum. The fish physiologist at the Bengis Centre for Desert Aquaculture had first to convince himself that the water is good enough for growing fish, not just trees and vegetables. He finally concluded that the water is 'physiologically wonderful.'

'Fish need water, but they're unhappy in seawater salinity. The brackish water found here is 20 times less saline than marine water, yet five times saltier than fresh water.'

Seems out of place? 'True, we have almost no rainfall here. For humans, desert means no water. The fish don't mind, as long as there's high-quality water laden with nitrates and ammonia — it contains 1,500mg chloride per litre — and good food. Oxygen dissolves better in water under dry conditions.

'We raise fish all year, and, with the heat, the breeding is intense,' Ziv adds. The Kibbutz produces 200 tons of fresh barramundi per year.

Nothing's lost, nothing's created. Ponds are covered like greenhouses to prevent evaporation. The brine is recycled up to six times before it's circulated to irrigate the kibbutz's jojoba orchards and olive groves that thrive on the chemicals produced by the fish excrements.'The metabolites that the fish excrete are an excellent diet for plants,' notes Ziv.

Moreover, the geothermal heat is used by the Kibbutz and by touristic spas of the area. 'We've managed to create a combination of desert aquaculture and agriculture integrated in an ecosystem that's not so unique after all,' chimes in the modest scientist.

'Take a problem and turn it into an asset', has long been a national motto. The Negev makes up 60 percent of the land. The chronic shortage of water has forced Israelis to think out of the box. 'If you live in an area which is aplenty with natural resources, you worry less,' reckons Appelbaum.

'Here, either you say, 'To hell, I give up, I leave’, or you decide, 'I'm staying, but I'll find a solution.' The drive is to want to make life livable in the desert. You make use of whatever resources you discover.'

Israel's founding pioneers wanted to fulfill Isaiah's prophecy in the Bible, to make the desert bloom. Appelbaum doesn't share this vision. 'I don't want to conquer and change the desert. I'd like to keep it untouched, a pure beauty. I just want to love it, live in it, with it, and from it.'

Development in the Negev might once again become not just lucrative but strategic patriotism, were this already tiny country with available land as scarce as water to withdraw from occupied territories for peace with the Palestinians and Syria.

National rights to water — in the West Bank (and below it, to its aquifer) and in the more fertile Golan Heights (and below it, to the Lake of Galilee's northeast tip) — have been contentious issues of past negotiations.

The scientist-cum-pioneer lays out his personal, more global, vision: 'The whole planet is 40 percent barren — lands which are considered poor, useless, cursed. It's wrong. Let's think fruitfully,' urges Appelbaum.

'Contrary to such stigma, sparsely inhabited arid lands are unspoiled and conceal resources. The technology is simple and can be applied wherever there's an aquifer. Fish like clean water and sunlight. Deserts can become oceans for fish, sources of food production for all the nations of the world.'

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service