A guide to fishing responsibly in the UAE

November marks the lifting of the fishing-licence embargo in the UAE, but it’s never been more important to follow ethical measures

Fishing expedition organised by Absea Tours
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As the long heat of the summer months and sapping humidity of October gives way to temperature drop, so people across the UAE begin digging out their fishing gear and planning charters out to sea. The prime fishing season runs from late October to late May, with authorities doling out the requisite licences by November.

Sanctions and skill aside, fishing responsibly has become more imperative than ever. This year at the World Ocean Summit, the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi and the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment announced that many species of fish are declining in our region due to climate change, desalination, coastal development, degradation of habitats, pollution and increased demand for fish meat.

For example, a study by the Environment Agency in the capital revealed that about 85 per cent of the sheri and hammour populations have been wiped out – it's one of the reasons you should never order the latter in a restaurant.

Because the issue has been exacerbated by illegal fishing and catching of prohibited species, new laws are being drafted, and rules about fishing in the UAE are changing and becoming stricter. While much of this applies to commercial fishing, a vast number of people fish for pleasure at this time of the year, enjoy it responsibly.

Getting your licence

The first thing you need before heading out with a rod and tackle is a recreational fishing licence. For Dubai, it's available online from the Dubai Municipality site, and the licence is free, but they are not issued from June 1 until end of October to help ­minimise catches and sustain local fish species. In Abu Dhabi, there is no restriction on the time of year, but it costs Dh30 for a weekly license and Dh120 for an annual one, and they're available online from EAD's e-services portal.

You have to be at least 18 years of age and provide a passport copy (with a valid ­residence visa) and ­passport-size photograph. It takes three working days to have this processed, although short-term licenses can be obtained on the same day. When you collect your licence, you'll be given more information about dos and don'ts.

There is a ministerial decree about the sizes of fish that can be caught, and that applies to all times of year, so undersized fish have to be returned also

Ahmed Al Hashmi, acting executive director of terrestrial and marine biodiversity at the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, says: "We are just asking people to be responsible. Regulating through licences is important as it allows us to communicate with people who intend to go out fishing, and give them important information about where they can and can't fish and what species are permitted to be caught."

This list that comes with your licence is fairly detailed. For example, you can't fish in any of the six marine port areas, some areas are military zones or power stations, other areas, such as along the Corniche, are where families are walking so restrictions apply. Al Hashmi adds: "We are monitoring the fish stock, and if you compare the results from 1978, 2002 and 2017, it's clear that numbers have dropped significantly. Recreational fishing has a detrimental impact on fish numbers if it's done irresponsibly, so we encourage people who are fishing not to keep going to one location as it will have an impact on that area – if you have 10 boats fishing from one place every day, then it will have a detrimental effect."

Know your fish

The Environmental Agency has assessed 28 species of fish, of which 13 are overfished, so it pays to learn a bit about what you are reeling in before you cast off. And as some of these species live closer to breakwaters than frther out at sea, it is advised to be conscious of fishing from land as well as from a boat. Should you reel in something that has been ­identified as one of the overfished species, the Environment Agency wants you to throw it back in.

“If you catch one that’s still alive, then we are asking you to release it back into the water, and it’s also worth remembering that there is a ministerial decree about the sizes of fish that can be caught, and that applies to all times of year so undersized fish have to be returned also,” Al Hashmi explains. Although the number of licences being granted is increasing – and the last two years have seen a significant rise in applications – Al Hashmi says the agency is now seeing fewer violations than before, as the message is getting through. 

Once you have the permits and are aware of exactly where you can fish and what you can catch, you’re all set to go.

There are several places in the UAE selling tackle boxes and fishing equipment. Photo Getty Images/EyeEm

The team at Barracuda Fishing ­Equipment in Dubai say that a basic set-up of rod, reel, line and tackle costs between Dh1,000 and Dh1,500, depending on make and model. They advise that the best time to fish from land is early morning just after sunrise and then between 5pm and 7pm. Some other places to buy fishing accessories include Dragon Mart’s Fishing Market, Al Boom Marine in Dubai Festival City and Blue Waters Marine.  

Enjoy the experience

Fishing, however, is far more than just the practice of catching fish – ask any seasoned angler, and they'll tell you it's the tranquillity, the joy of being outside on the water and the long peaceful quiet, occasionally – and hopefully – interrupted by the burst of excitement when a big one bites. And the best way to enjoy that experience is out on a boat.

Fishing can be a tranquil pastime. Photo Absea Tours

If you head out on an organised charter boat, there is no requirement to obtain a licence as the charter company will have its own. In addition, the captain will know where the best spots are and can pinpoint them with on-board GPS. Fish are usually found at spots where the land underwater drops offs, and around trenches and reefs. Here, the smaller fish congregate that, in turn, attract the bigger game fish, such as barracuda, sailfish and tuna, which are the type of haul you’d want to pose with for an Instagramable catch-of-the-day.

Timur Khamitov of Dubai's Absea Tours arranges trips out for fishing and explains: "There are broadly two main areas for fishing, the Arabian Gulf with boats departing from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, and Ras Al Khaimah, and the ­Indian Ocean with departures from Fujairah and Dibba," he ­explains. Most of the best spots in the Gulf are no farther than 25 ­kilometres offshore, with Absea's ­expeditions taking you ­between 5km and 16km offshore.

Most fishing tour operators can provide all necessary equipment; however, if guests have their own that they prefer to bring, they are welcome to do so. With regards to whether they encourage those fishing to keep the bigger game fish or take a photo and throw them back, Timur says: “We strongly encourage a catch and release policy, but it is up to the guests.”

There’s no shortage of charter companies that can arrange a trip, but you really want to push the boat out and do it in style then, for Dh2,000 an hour, Al Wasl Yachts will take you and 40 friends out on an 85-foot luxury yacht that comes with a top-of-the-line Bose sound system and can provide gourmet catering, meaning should you fail to catch anything you won’t go hungry.