ABU DHABI // Seen from passing cars, or through the eyes of people on the quayside, the fishing craft jostling for space at Abu Dhabi Mina port offer a striking spectacle that evokes a living tradition in which days and nights are spent battling the elements to land a catch and a livelihood. But closer inspection reveals the tradition, at least among Emiratis, to be imperiled. Of about 500 boats moored at Mina, 120 have gone nowhere for almost six months, according to Darwish Rashid bin Lootah, a veteran fisherman from the Abu Dhabi Co-operative Society.
Once a source of pride as well as income for the capital's mariners, fishing is increasingly viewed as a dying trade. In place of the hardships of 40 or 50 years ago, when fishermen faced a stiff test of their ingenuity to find ways of keeping fish edible until they reached shore, today's threat comes from rising costs and the competing lure of easier jobs on dry land. "Inflation is affecting our fishing culture," said Mr Lootah, who owns a couple of fishing boats and has first-hand experience of the economic pressures, especially from higher fuel costs.
"By the end of the year, we [the owners] are in debt. In the past, Dh300 (US$83) would be enough to fill the boat for a three-day trip. But today you need to spend almost Dh1,600 for the same period." Although about 360 men are registered as fishermen with the society, fewer than half actually go to sea to ply their trade. Mina port was for many years a busy hub for men like Mr Lootah and two other fishermen, Darwish al Qubaisi, and Saeed Salem al Rumaithy, seated in the manager's office of the society. Boats would return in the early hours of the morning to auction off their daily haul. The fish was later sold at a souk, an activity reserved for women.
The place would be deserted now, except for the South Asian traders trying to lure passers-by to stalls in the Fish Market. The Abu Dhabi-based fishing trade is now overwhelmingly in the hands of a South Asian expatriate workforce. The financial factors that make fishermen think twice before venturing out to sea are aggravated by the problem of finding Emiratis willing to learn the trade and face the arduous lifestyle for poor pay. A new generation of city dwellers prefers the comfort, security and rewards of well-paid jobs in government or commerce.
The process of Emiratisation helps to maintain a UAE presence in the fishing grounds of the Gulf. The law requires the nawkhatha, or skipper, to be Emirati. But even he can scarcely be said to be in it for the money; a captain's pay averages Dh1,200 for a four-day fishing trip, forcing him to supplement his income with some other employment or business. Many, such as Mr Lootah and his two friends, are retired government employees. According to their calculations, a skipper's monthly salary is typically Dh4,000, assuming he leaves shore four times a month.
"Otherwise, the South Asian fishermen do all the work," Mr Qubaisi. "They do not get a salary - their income depends on their daily catch. They receive a portion of the income from how many fish they catch during the trip." While Mr Lootah and Mr Rumaithy recall the rigours of the 1950s and 1960s - keeping their catches fresh and relying on the wind and sails - they see today's challenges as posing a greater threat to the survival of the trade.
Technological advances, including the reliance on engines in place of sails, has brought mixed fortunes for the fishermen. The price of diesel has been increasing steadily and, since fuel makes up almost 70 per cent of the costs of each trip, the impact is severe. Even the cost of more basic fishing equipment, such as rods and nets, has almost doubled since the 1970s. The gargour, a dome-shaped wire fishing trap still in common use in the region, formerly cost about Dh80. "Now it sets you back almost Dh180," said Mr Lootah.
In 1969, according to estimates from the Trucial States Development Office, an arm of the British administration that preceded the creation of the UAE, almost 30,000 Arabs depended on fishing for their livelihoods in what now constitutes the Emirates. Abu Dhabi mariners accounted for relatively few of the total. "In 1963, there were no more than 800 locals who inhabited what is now the city of Abu Dhabi," said Mr Lootah. "Of that number, around 50 men went to sea."
Despite the huge growth in Abu Dhabi's population during the 36 years since the UAE was formed, the number of fishermen licensed by the Ministry of Water and Agriculture of Abu Dhabi has risen only to 1,100. "And only 300 go to sea on a regular basis," said Mr Qubaisi. Because the oases of Liwa and Buraimi, historically the emirate's most populous areas outside the capital, lie some distance inland, fishing was exclusively an occupation for a small group of people from families who permanently inhabited the islands of Abu Dhabi. The biggest of the fishing families were the Rumaithys and Qubaisis, both tribes of Bani Yas.
And for the older generation, especially from such families, the dwindling number of Emirati fishermen is a serious cause of concern. "We are getting too old now to undertake the hardships of fishing regularly," said Mr Qubaisi. Like Mr Lootah, he limits his fishing trips to a handful each year, and then purely for enjoyment. Each of them recognises the difficulty of treating fishing as a viable source of income. Even so, Mr Lootah, Mr Qubaisi and Mr Rumaithy all believe their once-flourishing industry will remain a key part of the country's heritage, a conviction echoed in one of the guiding principles of the International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition, due to be staged in Abu Dhabi in October - to "encourage, protect and safeguard" the traditional activities of the country.
"All we have is our sea," Mr Lootah said. "It is our hobby and our obsession." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org @email:email@example.com