Gulf fishermen struggle as stocks decline.

Posted: 20 September 2011

Author: Nadia Eldemerdash.

Author Info: Nadia Eldemerdash. is a senior journalism student at the American University of Sharjah, residing in Dubai. Bissan Abdeen, the photographer, is a (female) journalism graduate of the same university

In just 30 years fish stocks in the waters of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have dropped by 80 per cent, and now local fishermen face an uncertain  future. Nadia Elderman sends this exclusive report from Sharjah.

In the afternoon the Sharjah fish market is nearly deserted. There will be no fish here till 4 p.m., no vendors, no buyers. Even the officials at the market, those in charge of quality control and cleanliness, are not here. The only things present are the sun, the heat, and the smell of the sea.

And of course, the fishermen. Some relax on the decks of their boats, lined up against the pier, while others do small chores around the area. There are only a few of them now, though. Others will come in later, when it is time to once again sell their catch.

Abu Farraj, Sharjah
Abu Farraj, Sharjah. Photo © Bissan Abdeen

In the meantime, Abu Farraj, an elderly man with a happy, welcoming smile, talks to me about his life as a fisherman. He retired from the Emirati police force around eight years ago, and has been fishing ever since.

From his cheerful attitude, you would never guess that Abu Farraj makes a loss on the fish he sells. Although he does not own the boat he works on, he pays for everything, including food for the other workers on the boat, and he simply cannot sell enough fish to meet his expenses. Money is hard to come by in the fishing industry because, to put it simply, the fish are running out.

In little over 30 years, the UAE’s commercial fish stocks have dropped by a whopping 80 per cent, according to the Emirates Wildlife Society-World Wildlife Fund’s sustainable fishing campaign website, Choose Wisely.

Some of the region’s most popular fish, such as Hamour, are being fished at more than seven times the sustainable level. The result has been an increase in prices and a decrease in profits for people like Abu Farraj, whose livelihood depend on commercial fishing.

Ghost fishing

It is not a surprising phenomenon, considering that 60 per cent of the UAE’s population, which has skyrocketed since the 1990s with the influx of expatriates from all over the world, eat fish once a week, if not more often, according to the Choose Wisely website. As a result, the number of fish caught has increased drastically to meet this demand.

In Sharjah alone, Abu Farraj says, there are around 1,500 fishing boats, and fishermen all over the UAE fish in the same area. “How?” he asks. “The sea…”and he laughs as he illustrates the small size of the sea with his hands.

The difference in fish stock levels 30 years ago may be staggering, but even eight years ago when Abu Farraj first began fishing, a difference could be felt. Back then, he tells me, “the sea [had] fish, the sea [had] goodness…Now we’ve finished the sea!” he says, chuckling.

Fishing boats, Sharjah
Fishing boats, Sharjah. Photo © Bissan Abdeen

Overfishing is not the only cause of the decline. According to Darren Hiltz, the project manager of sustainable fisheries with EWS-WWF in the UAE, the country’s rapidly increasing population and coastal developments are also contributing to the decline. “The loss or discard of fishing gear can lead to 'ghost fishing,' whereby fish continue to be trapped in fishing gear left behind,” he said.

“Unlike in the past, when the traps were made out of degradable palm fronds, modern day gargoors are made out of steel, allowing them to continue to catch fish long after they are lost to fishermen,” Hiltz said.

Cultural loss

It’s not just the Hamour that are rapidly depleting from the Gulf. Nessrine Alzahlawi, the sustainable fisheries project leader for the Choose Wisely campaign, said that when she joined EWS in August 2009, the main concern had been over the fate of Hamour in the region. But research showed that out of 22 commercial fish species in and around the UAE, seven are being fished beyond sustainable levels. These numbers, she says, do not even include all the fish species in the region; EWS has still not completed its research on all fish species

The Choose Wisely campaign aims to create awareness of the issue among fish consumers in the UAE and to encourage them to ‘choose wisely’ when purchasing fish by providing a list of species that are not overfished, contrasting them with those that are.

Alzahlawi and her team also approach hotel chains and grocery shops and encourage them to switch to sustainable fish. Recently, the Starwood hotels group in Abu Dhabi, which includes such famous names in luxury vacations as Le Meridien and the Sheraton, not only switched to sustainable fish but began contributing to creating awareness by placing Choose Wisely leaflets at their hotels.

The disappearance of major species such as Hamour, Kingfish and Shaari would not only be a huge environmental loss for the UAE, it would be a cultural loss as well. “If you speak to local fisherman, [even though they might have other jobs]…they are still very attached to this activity. It’s still very much part of their identity, part of their culture,” Alzahlawi says.

Nowhere was this more evident than on the face of Abdallah Al Naeimi. Now a doctor and director of Saqr Hospital in Ras Al Khaimah, he still fishes regularly. With a proud smile stretching across his wrinkled face he declared, “I am 81 years old and still a [fisherman].”

Economic repercussions

The loss of fish would also have serious economic repercussions. In 1992, the Canadian government suspended cod fishing due to the extreme decline in the species. Within a year, 30,000 people had lost their jobs, according to the Canadian Geographic website. If Hamour and other commercial fish continue to be fished at current levels, a similar situation could play out here, with many people losing their main source of income, according to Alzahlawi.

As it is, Abu Farraj is already struggling to make ends meet, even though he says that the boat’s sponsor is able to make a profit because he sells the fish wholesale to the market. But Abu Farraj’s cut of the money is not enough for him to pay expenses. “He must make profit,” he says of the sponsor. “He has money.”

Because he is illiterate, Abu Farraj has few options when it comes to work. When I ask him why he works as a fisherman if he’s losing money, he says good-naturedly, “What else can I do?”

It’s a good point, especially if fish numbers continue to decline and he faces the prospect of unemployment. For now though, he seems to see the humour in the situation, chuckling amicably throughout his conversation with me. Because after all, as he says, “God is generous.”