Delma's dwindling stock of fishermen

Restrictions on fishing off Delma island, implemented to preserve fish stocks and protect oil rigs, have slashed fishermen's incomes to a quarter of what they were 10 years ago.

United Arab Emirates - Abu Dhabi - September 10, 2009:  Fishermen from Delma Island ask questions and raise concerns to representatives from CNID after having Iftar with them.  (Galen Clarke/The National) *** Local Caption ***  GC10_09082009_Delma.jpg
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Rules on who can skipper boats and where they can fish were among the issues raised at an iftar with government officials Delma Island // Losing his sight as a child did not stop Jassem al Tamimi from taking up a fishing career that has lasted 50 years. Yet the 73-year-old Emirati captain, who moved from Qatar to Delma Island in 1982, says he now faces his toughest challenge.

Restrictions on fishing off the island, implemented to preserve fish stocks and protect oil rigs, have slashed Mr al Tamimi's income to a quarter of what it was. The major cause of his troubles are rules, passed years ago by the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi, that ban fishing in certain zones and decree that boats can be operated only by their captains. It means that Mr al Tamimi spends just 10 to 15 days a month fishing. "I'm too old and tired," he said. "I can't go out every day on the boat."

Mr al Tamimi would prefer to send his Indian assistants out every day, but only the Emirati owner of the boat can be captain and the captain must be on the boat. Exceptions are made for children of owners if they obtain a permit from the authorities, a solution that does not help. "None of my sons is free to do that, they are all working in offices and have their own careers and lives," he said. "I need a permit for my workers, not sons."

As a community, Delma relies on the sea for a living, but one fisherman's son, Tayyaib Kathem, 23, estimated that, in seven years, 40 families had left the island for Abu Dhabi. "If you go back 10 years, a person's income in a week was Dh20,000. It is now only Dh5,000 (US$1,360) in a whole month. This is not enough. "In the northern Emirates, everything goes there. No restrictions, they even allocate a spot for them in the sea and say, 'it is yours, do whatever you like with it'."

Last week, Mr al Tamimi was one of 200 fisherman who aired their grievances when the Critical National Infrastructure Authority (CNIA) held an iftar for them. "We at the CNIA were given the mission of monitoring fishing, in addition to protecting petroleum establishments," said Brig Gen Faris al Mazrouei, the authority's general director. "Some fisherman have their own understanding of the rules, and are unaware of the possible solutions, so we clarified what they were not aware of.

"We try to deal with their concerns and solve the problems. If the solution requires the decision of a higher authority, we take it up to them. "Fishing is a strategic wealth for the country. There are few fishermen around so we have to preserve this profession. It is everyone's interest for this profession to continue and be cherished." The event cleared up a few misunderstandings, including one in which the fishermen believed that they were not allowed to pass through oilfields.

"To pass through is allowed, they are only not allowed to fish there," said Brig al Mazrouei. "First we warn them. If the practice is repeated, legal procedures will be applied.   "They are not aware where one oilfield begins and another ends. Most of the time they think they are outside the field when they are in the middle. They should have a full picture of the oilfields in their vicinity, so we provided them with maps."

The authority is to launch a toll-free phone number to offer advice and take complaints, in addition to the 996 number introduced recently to report marine emergencies. "This would help clear confusion about any angle of the law," said the officer. The authority is a member of the Fisherman Regulation Committee, along with the environment agency, which sets legislation; the Department of Transport, in charge of licensing and ports; and the fishermen's association.

"After listening to the fishermen's problems, we will represent them to the committee and we will look for possible solutions. As a result, some laws might be amended," Brig Gen al Mazrouei said. "One of the fishermen's main complaints was the captain issue," he said, adding that permits were limited to the children of owners because the authority did not want to "stretch it too much". This way, the process would remain under control.

"Some of them complain that fish bring them less money now. But they forget about the difference in the number of boats between now and then," said Brig Gen al Mazrouei. "If there used to be 500 boats, there are now 2,000 boats, so obviously the supply won't be the same for each fisherman as it used to." Things do not look as though they will be getting any easier for Mr al Tamimi, despite the meeting with officials.

"We have security, the state has provided everything for us, but the sea is bitter. We have to sail for 50 to 100km to find fish. And not allowing us to assign captains to our boats makes it harder," he said. "Life was more difficult in the past but there was freedom [in fishing]." Mr al Tamimi's 18-year-old grandson, Jumaa, said he would not consider becoming a fishermen. "It is too difficult," he said.

Mohammed Youssef, 31, from Delma, also decided not to follow his father into fishing and, instead, became a policeman. "After I bought a fishing boat, we saw how the laws are very strict on fishermen, especially the captain issue, so we decided to quit," he said. Malallah Sager, 60, has been a fisherman for 30 years. Like Mr al Tamimi, Mr Sager fishes for only half the month. "Fishing was easier in the past," Mr Sager agreed.

The biggest obstacle affecting his catch is a plastic seal that has to be added to the cages used to catch the fish. The seal dissolves over time, allowing fish to escape. "We have to pay around Dh300 for each gargoor [cage] and Dh36 for the plastic seal," he said. "This will add up to around Dh100,000 for all the cages we have." Major Humaid al Rumaithi, manager of Abu Dhabi Coasts, said the seal was used "to preserve the marine environment".

He added: "Sometimes the fisherman might lose the key to the seal and the fish will stay inside the cage and die. Then nobody will benefit." hdajani@thenational.ae hhassan@thenational.ae For a photo gallery go to https://www.thenationalnews.com/multimedia