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Over the past five years Israel has joined the ranks of countries like Singapore, China and Japan as a leading exporter of fresh-water fish, fresh-water tropical fish, marine life and corals.
Most of the exports go to Europe, where Israel has earned a reputation for quality fish. The high quality is attributed to the way the fish are bred in indoor facilities where biologists can monitor their progress.
According to Yitzhak Simon of the Agriculture Ministry, the exports to Europe have been of better quality than those from the Far East.
"The prices to people in Europe aren't important," he said. "It's the quality of the fish and how long they will live. [Some] fish from the Far East died quickly, so what does the price matter when it doesn't live?"
The local industry has boomed over the last few years, said Ofer Carmeli, the pets and ornamental fish product manager for Agrexco. In 2005 the estimated profit was $13 million-$15m. He said a large exporter like China, which exports a variety of goldfish, makes a profit of approximately $16m.
The Agriculture Ministry designated fish exporting as a growth market and sponsors special events like cruises to educate farmers about their options. Lecturers from marketing companies teach farmers about untapped markets.
Initial progress was made when some farmers invested in the Arava. They became leaders in the field after earning a good reputation in Europe, and other farmers sought them out as teachers.
Israel has four major companies that export fish. While all of them compete with one another for better deals and more clients, they don't have the cut-throat desire to put the competition out of business, Carmeli said.
"It's free competition, but of course we respect each other and have our own loyal clients," he said. "We think it's good we have competitors. It helps us because it helps us stay sharp and awake to the market demands instead of being a monopoly from Israel."
Agrexco joined with Magnooy, another fish exporter, to combine their efforts while still remaining independent. The other two major companies, Sundag and HaZorea, followed suit.
The companies targeted the European market because the prices there are relatively high and the closer distance allows for cheaper and faster transportation.
Carmeli said the European market is organized differently than in the United States, with agreements made with the wholesalers, who then sell to other stores. He said when his company makes an agreement with a European wholesaler, it knows it will be a long-term deal.
The local companies have earned a loyal clientele based on their product's quality, which is due to the way the fish are bred, Carmeli said.
Agrexco uses an intensive, indoor breeding facility that allows the workers more control over the environment, he said. Some Far East companies use extensive, outdoor or natural breeding facilities, which can flood the pool and the fish with potential problems.
"Let's say due to the extensive way they breed and the intensive way we breed, we have more control of the environment and then reduce the amount of health problems," Carmeli said. "If you do have a problem, most of the time you can avoid it in advance and avoid a bad shipment."
According to Simon, "It's not a question of the size [amount], the leader is about the quality not the quantity. They [Europe] buy the Israeli market because they are known for good quality."
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