Fish has always been one of the main dishes on an Emirati lunch table, and the UAE tops the region in the consumption of seafood at a rate of 33 kilograms per capita.
But popular fish species are being fished at rates faster than they can reproduce. The rate of hammour takes, for example, is seven times more than its stock can sustain. The story is similar for many other local species - some readily available at area markets. And as The National reported yesterday, new figures from the Ministry of Environment and Water reveal that fish stocks off the east coast dropped by more than two-thirds in nine years between 2002 and 2011.
These figures suggest one thing: the UAE, the GCC and the region all need to fundamentally change the way coastlines are managed and fisheries protected. Action is needed now to reverse this trend.
What type of action is the question. All-out bans are not the answer, as too many people rely on fishing for their livelihoods. Moreover, with fish such an important part of the local diet, taking some species off the menu completely would only encourage illegal fishing. Rather, the better approach is more aggressive management.
Authorities are moving in this direction. The Ministry of Environment and Water has imposed a ban on catching certain kinds of fish during their spawning seasons, and introduced marine protected areas with no-take zones. This week, the ministry also temporarily stop issuing fishing licences. Enforcement of these rules will be critical.
But introducing new rules and deploying more inspections is not enough. A visit to the local fish market shows that even current bans are not always followed.
Another challenge is coordinating local and federal efforts. The emirate of Umm Al Qaiwain, for instance, has just announced plans to establish a new 72-quay fishermen's harbour to support local fishermen and preserve the traditional profession. While the strategy is welcome, rules and regulations from the Ministry of Environment and Water in Abu Dhabi should be followed to ensure the sustainability of fish stocks throughout the country.
Cooperation at the local as well as regional levels is critical to protect the marine environment and ensure the sustainability of the Gulf's fisheries. Without swift action, locally-sourced seafood may be off the menu.