Along Abu Dhabi's Mina Zayed, a community has been quietly disappearing. In the past few years, hundreds of fishermen, part of a once-thriving profession in the port area, have left the country.
Ramesh and Ibrahim, whose names have been changed for anonymity, are among those who have recently said their goodbyes to the UAE. For nearly three decades, the two fishermen worked side-by-side, living on the wooden fishing vessels dotting the port and relying on their catch to earn a living.
They are the central subjects of a new photo essay by Nandini Kochar, 22, a film, social research and public policy student at New York University Abu Dhabi. Kochar, who grew up in Botswana and is of Indian origin, spent two weeks visiting Mina Zayed, speaking to the fishermen about their time in the country. Her images document the men's last few weeks in the UAE, from their daily activities, their emptied living quarters to their farewells.
Through her conversations with Ramesh, Ibrahim and others in March, Kochar learnt that about 200 of them, most of whom are from the Indian state of Gujarat, have returned home since January.
The root causes of their departure are complex. For years, climate change, coastal development, pollution, habitat destruction and unsustainable fishing practices have all contributed to the depletion of the UAE's fish stocks.
The Abu Dhabi government has been trying to reverse this damage with recent regulations, including a ban on the use of gargoor or traditional fishing cages, which have been found to affect key species, such as hammour and sheri. A study by the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD) has found that 85 per cent of the UAE's hammour populations have been wiped out. With these restrictions, the government aims to restore fish stocks to 30 per cent by 2030.
The situation, however, has left the fishermen in a state of uncertainty over when they can fish again. As their catch has dwindled, so too have their earnings.
For the most part, Kochar says, the fishermen’s days are filled with the “the simple act of waiting” – making meals, praying together, listening to Bollywood music.
“Some of the men who have stayed behind were asked to safeguard the area and keep the boats clean, so that is now part of their daily routine,” she says.
But for Ramesh, his income of Dh1,000 per month was not enough to support his family back home. In March, he and Ibrahim packed up and returned to India, leaving behind a tight-knit community that they've known for decades.
“They were happy that they were going to be able to go back home and reunite with their families, but at the same time, they had so much love for the community that they created over the last 20 or more years,” Kochar says.
For most of these fishermen, their lives revolve around the sea and each other – they stay in shared quarters, with a number of them living in the dhow’s cabins. During the busy season, they can spend days at sea hauling in fish. They work, eat, pray together. “We have lived together for many years, it’s difficult to leave. All of us are Gujarati folk. We celebrated both Eid and Diwali together, cooked and even prayed together,” Ibrahim says.
Kochar describes the day of their departure as emotional, as their fellow fishermen gathered around to wish them well. "In casual conversation, the men would talk about how they were like a family, though they barely showed any explicit affection.
“But on the last day, you saw the men hold on to each other tightly. They were touching the elders’ feet, which is a way of getting blessings in Hindu culture,” she recalls.
"Some of these men have lived here longer than they've lived with their families back in India," Kochar says. Ramesh and Ibrahim hope to keep fishing. "They were very proud to be fishermen. They would say: 'My grandfather was a fisherman. My father was fisherman. I'm a fisherman. I'm always going to be a fisherman.' In that sense, they had a very strong connection to their profession," she adds.
For those who remain, the vision for Mina Zayed's future may not include them. The area is slated for transformation. There are plans for a new marina, souqs, restaurants and a cultural quarter around the arts centre Warehouse421.
Kochar's work draws inspiration from a 2017 photo essay on Mina Zayed's fishermen by photographer Sohail Karmani, who is also her professor. In the course of her project, the aspiring filmmaker says she learnt how to get closer to her subjects as a way to capture their interior lives.