UAE fishing industry in desperate need of overhaul

Bad fishing practices, including outdated techniques and bad payment policies, are threatening the Dh1 billion business.

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UMM AL QUWAIN // Efforts to conserve the country's fish stocks are being hampered by high demand, outdated techniques and poorly paid crews whose salaries depend on the size of the catch.

Fishing in the Gulf is an industry worth Dh1 billion a year, with the UAE consuming between 70 and 100 tonnes of seafood annually at a rate of 33 kilograms per capita - the highest among Gulf states.

The country's fishing fleet is mainly manned by Asian workers, many of whom are paid according to the amount of fish they bring to port.

Saeed Obaid, an Emirati in Umm Al Quwain, employs a crew of four Indian men on his boat and pays up to Dh500 a day for a good catch.

"Most fishermen would not work for a monthly salary, which would be about Dh2,000," Mr Obaid said. "Those working on daily commission earn more than Dh5,000 a month."

He said crews stopped fishing only when they ran out of storage space.

Mohammed Gillasi, 30, a Bangladeshi who works on fishing boats out of UAQ, said: "I earn in the range of Dh150 to Dh200 a day. If the boss is very happy and we catch more fish, he can even give me Dh250."

The waters of the Gulf, particularly off the Northern Emirates, are home to a wide range of marine life, but more efforts are needed to preserve it, says Darren Hiltz, a conservation officer with the Emirates Wildlife Society-World Wide Fund for Nature.

Fishermen regularly catch more than 100 species from more than 35 families of fish and stocks of some, such as the orange-spotted grouper - popularly known as hammour - the spangled emperor fish or shaari, and kingfish are being depleted.

"The high demand for species such as hammour, kingfish and shaari, and intense fishing to satisfy this need, has resulted in a depletion of the reproductive stock," Mr Hiltz said. "If they are being fished out before they can reproduce, then the stock cannot keep up with demand."

Hammour take about three years to reach sexual maturity.

The Ministry of Environment's attempts to curb overfishing are often hampered by traders who mix locally caught fish with imported stock and sell it all as imported.

A study by the ministry highlighted the need for monitors at fish markets to prevent this practice and the effect it has on local stocks and prices.

And some methods, particularly the traditional dome-shaped trap called the garghour, cause great damage to fish stocks. They do so by catching many species with almost no commercial value that are still important to the reef ecosystem.

These traps are also easily lost at sea. This was no problem when they were made of fronds and slowly fell apart, but they are now made of wire.

"Eventually, the metal traps will rust but this can take decades," said Mr Khan. "There are probably millions of abandoned traps that continue to catch fish unnecessarily."

In 2003, the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi introduced modified traps, fitted with an escape panel that opens in case it is lost and submerged in water for a long time.

Mr Hiltz said these should be introduced throughout the country.

Other measures are being taken, too. Hussein Al Hajir, president of the UAQ Fishermen's Association, said fishing on UAQ Creek would be banned from March to June, a crucial breeding period for most species.

Mr Al Hajir said that fishing with nets would be banned, on the creek and at sea, for about three months. Only fishing with cages would be allowed, with the coastguard enforcing the ban.