Fish supply must be better protected, officials say

Fishermen violate existing rules, which have not helped to raise fish stocks in Abu Dhabi waters.

December 20, 2009/ Ras al-Khaimah / Fisherman from Ras al-Khaimah unload and sell the days catch December 20, 2009 (Sammy Dallal / The National)

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ABU DHABI // Surprise inspections of fishing boats at sea would help protect the declining fish population in local waters, an official from the Environment Agency − Abu Dhabi (EAD) said yesterday. The agency is concerned because previous measures have not done enough to maintain the stock of the most important commercial fish species. Inspections are needed to ensure fishing boats follow regulations regarding everything from equipment to personnel to the home base of the boat, said Dr Thabit al Abdessalaam, the director of the agency's biodiversity sector. "The actual monitoring of fishing operations at sea needs to be improved. We need more surprise inspections at sea," he said. Most inspections, which are carried out by the Critical National Infrastructure Authority, are conducted at ports, he said. The EAD is primarily concerned about the orange-spotted grouper, sweetlips and emperor fish, also known by their Arabic names of hammour, farsh and sha'ary, respectively. Populations of those species reached an all-time low nationally in 2002, and Dr al Abdessalaam said there has been minimal improvement in Abu Dhabi's waters. "There have been improvements but they are slight and in some occasions, insignificant," he said. "We are still not out of the woods, if you will. Fish mortality is still high." Fish mortality − the measure of how many are removed from the fishery − has decreased for the hammour. But more farsh and sha'ary are being caught by fishermen. The problem, officials say, is that too many fish are being caught before they reach maturity, which means they have no opportunity to reproduce. There are no regulations regarding the age or size of fish caught, so the EAD's efforts to solve the problem focus on decreasing the overall number of fish taken. Since 2002, the EAD has regulated fishing gear and imposed a moratorium on new fishing licenses, keeping the number steady at 1,100. As a result, the number of dhow fishing trips went down from 7,300 in 2004 to 5,900 last year. But the fishing effort needs to be scaled back further, Dr al Abdessalaam said. "We have taken a number of measures but there are a number of situations that do not help," he said. One of those is fishermen ignoring the regulations. Among the rules regularly broken is one requiring that fishing cages be fitted with an escape panel, which allows trapped fish to swim free if the cage is misplaced − a situation that happens often. The panels are designed to open and release the fish if the cage is not collected within a week to 10 days. "Fishermen are very ingenious," Dr al Abdessalaam said. "We give them escape panels but they do tricks to make them inefficient." He also said boats from Dubai and Sharjah that fish in Abu Dhabi's waters put extra pressure on the fishery. "We still have fishermen from other emirates coming to fish in Abu Dhabi." Hamed al Rahoomy, a Dubai-based fisherman and a consultant to the emirate's fishermen association, said the practice of crossing emirates is allowed by law. He suggested that rather than focusing on where a boat is from, authorities should look into who is in charge of it. If more fishermen were Emiratis, he said, they would have a bigger incentive to take care of the country's fishing resources. By law, there must be a UAE national on board any fishing boat operating in the country. But the law does not stipulate any qualifications for that person, so many boat owners hire an Emirati only to fulfil the regulation. The boats are then run by low-paid labourers, who are looking for short-term profits. This allows fishing license owners to operate one or more boats without having to go out to sea themselves. Mr al Rahoomy said people should not be allowed fishing rights unless they are active fishermen. "We need to adjust the law so that only the owner and his sons can go out," he said. "We have to go for people who are not really fishermen." Last year, the Dubai Government addressed the issue by identifying fishing boat owners who depend solely on the sea for income but who cannot go fishing themselves because they are too old. Such people are now paid salaries by the Government, depending on the number of boats they own. Dh8 million (US$2.2m) is spent on the scheme each year, Mr al Rahoomy said. The hope is that the payments will discourage them from hiring outside labour to run their boats. "They are still allowed to fish provided they or their sons are on the boat," he said. Mr al Rahoomy said most owners observe the rules. "We still have around 15 per cent of people who do not [obey this] and we are asking the Ministry of Environment and Water to close the [legal] gap," he said. All of these efforts have the ultimate goal of protecting more juvenile fish and thereby increasing the fish population. Too many fish being caught before they have reached sexual maturity is a sign that a fishery is in trouble, Dr al Abdessalaam said. Studies of juvenile retention − the percentage of young fish in the overall catch − showed a slight improvement. In 2004, 38.6 per cent of hammour caught were juveniles, but that has dropped to 32 per cent. The situation has gone worse for the farsh, and the sha'ary "is the only one that seems to be doing well" when it comes to juvenile retention, Dr al Abdessalaam said. Another measurement of a healthy fishery is the size of the fish being caught. For the hammour, the latest survey showed a size of 36.2 centimetres. But hammour do not reach sexual maturity until they are 42.6 centimetres, and the ideal size to catch them is 70 centimetres. Of the three species, only the sha'ary is being caught at a size larger than the minimum requirement indicating sexual maturity. "In a nutshell, more needs to be done," Dr al Abdessalaam said.