Coastal patrols will be stepped up after new evidence of over-fishing and the use of illegal nets in UAE waters washed ashore over the weekend.
Illegal fishing nets are suspected to have been responsible for the deaths of five dugongs and one unborn dugong that appeared on the shores of Saadiyat Island, while the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment announced it will be monitoring fish markets during the breeding seasons of vulnerable species.
Some species are to receive increased protection from over-fishing next month through a campaign supporting tighter regulations on the catching of emperor (sheri) and rabbit (safi) fish.
Trading of this fish, whether imported or locally caught, is banned in markets and outlets during the breeding season, which is between March 1 and April 30.
An awareness campaign is being rolled out among fishermen and traders by the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment.
“This decision will bring a positive impact on increasing the fish stock, especially sheri and safi,” said Salah Abdullah Al Rayssi, Director of the Fisheries Sustainability Department at MOCCAE.
“This will help promote a sustainable marine environment and fish conservation, production and trade in the country, which is a key element of achieving Vision 2021.”
Stocks of emperor and rabbat fish are depleting due to uncontrolled fishing during breeding season, which in turn denies the opportunity to rebuild natural stocks.
MOCCAE will issue penalties if the markets and fishing companies fail to comply under the ministerial decision number 18 of 2012 regarding the violators of regulatory decisions on marine life.
Three males and two female dugongs were found on a public beach in recent weeks in an incident described by environmentalists as a ‘a harsh blow’ to one of Abu Dhabi’s most treasured, yet vulnerable, species.
One of the females was pregnant with a fully developed calf.
The discovery has prompted species scientists and marine biologists to strive to determine the cause of death, and to step up patrols of critical areas inhabited by dugongs.
Early indications and autopsy tests have suggested the deaths were caused by drowning after the animals were caught in an illegal fishing net known as Hiyali.
Arabella Willing, resident marine biologist and head of conservation at the Park Hyatt, Abu Dhabi performed the post mortem examinations on the dugongs recently beached in Saadiyat marine national park.
“We know they died fairly quickly, but there were clear signs on the pregnant female that she had become entangled in a net,” she said.
“It’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly what caused them to drown, but it was likely an illegal net.
“We are patrolling Saadiyat fairly often as it is a well used area. I think this will encourage more patrols to go out onto the water.
“Dugongs are fairly shy, and seeing them alive is rare. I’ve seen far more dead ones than alive ones unfortunately.
“The penalties are strict, but it is a difficult job to pinpoint who is using these nets.”
The drift nets, which reach in length from 500 metres to one kilometre, are used illegally by fishermen to catch king fish that are then sold in markets.
The nets are deployed at depths of about 10m and left to drift, but threaten dugongs that have poor eyesight.
Fishermen return to collect nets based on calculations about currents, but the nets are often lost and then pose a further risk to marine wildlife once they are abandoned.
A report was compiled in 2017 to assess shark species in the region who are also at risk from overfishing and the use of nets.
While divers have reported regular sightings of some sharks, such as bamboo and black tips, on the east coast and near Abu Dhabi, other species are facing extinction.
Experts found more than 50 per cent of sharks in the region have an elevated risk of extinction, and are either very endangered, endangered or vulnerable.
“Those species need more attention, such as the hammerhead, eagle rays or guitar fish that all need attention,” said a source who worked on the 2017 report on regional sharks.
“We know that sawfish are almost completely extinct in the whole Arabian Gulf, as they are elsewhere in the world ... These are the kind of species we should be drawing attention to.
“The primary cause of this issue is over-fishing and degradation of habitat is a secondary issue. If coral reefs continue to disappear, many more species will not survive.
Vision 2021 is a long-term socio-economical development plan that aims to make the UAE "one of the best countries in the world" by the year 2021, when the UAE will celebrate the Golden Jubilee of its formation.