Abu Dhabi is to introduce strict new rules governing the emirate’s recreational spearfishing sector.
Mandatory licences, potential fines and a ban on fishing for endangered species such as hammour are all part of a landmark new decree that will regulate the growing sector for the first time.
The Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi has also proposed the introduction of size limits, closed fishing seasons for some species and a ban on spearfishing near public beaches, within marine protected areas and close to oil, gas or communication structures. People will also have to secure a freediving licence as spearfishing with an oxygen tank is prohibited.
Spearfishing – where an elastic-powered gun propels a stainless steel spear – has become popular in recent years. It is thought that more than 1,000 people are engaged in the sport across the country. Spearfishing in the UAE is effectively unregulated and no licence is required.
The rules come as Abu Dhabi fights back against the sharp fall in fish stocks, with a 90 per cent decline in the adult populations of hammour alone. Along with commercial overfishing, climate change and loss of habitat, unreported catch by the recreational fishing sector has heaped more pressure on depleted stocks. The "national framework for sustainable fisheries", announced at the World Ocean Summit, is a 12-year plan to try to restore these stocks.
“We need to work to regulate fishing activities and especially unregulated ones,” said Ahmed Al Hashmi, acting executive director for the terrestrial and marine biodiversity sector at EAD. “For a long time spearfishing did not have clear [rules] – and that’s why this draft law has been proposed. It will ensure there is minimum pressure on fish stocks and also ensure safety for the people doing this.”
The details are still being worked out, particularly in the case of what fines could be imposed if people are caught flouting the law. But the EAD believes the new system will help to monitor stocks and build a database of those involved in the sport. It is hoped the decree will become law this year and the EAD has already canvassed the spearfishing community and diving centres as part of the initiative.
Members of community welcomed the news, saying drastic action needed to be taken.
“When you have no regulation, then any sort of regulation is good,” said Sidahmed Talhimet, a spearfishing enthusiast in Dubai, who took part in the consultation programme with the EAD. “We don’t really know what the penalties are yet. That would need to be clearly stated in the regulations so there are no surprises. [But] considering the state of the stocks in the Gulf … we have to do our part.”
Mr Talhimet, 36, said many in the community had been advocating a ban on hammour fishing for some time. “Hammour is curious, comes to you and is easiest to catch," he said. "But it is also the most overfished,” he said, adding that while bad practices exist, the spearfishing community tries to protect habitats.
“You can have abuses. If areas are heavily spearfished then you could go back and potentially not see anything. But whatever the abuse is, it can never have the impact such as nets or cages on stocks. The impact on stocks [from spearfishing] is less than 0.2 per cent compared with commercial fishing.”
The EAD now wants more feedback from the community before the proposals become law.
Mr Talhimet learnt to spearfish in Morocco when he was just 14, has been in the UAE for 13 years and says conservation is vital.
“Spearfishing is the most sustainable way to catch a fish,” he said. “You have only one shot and you have to hold your breath. All the advantages are with the fish."