x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

More must be done to protect UAE's fisheries

New limits on commercial fishing are necessary, but must be part of a multi-faceted defence of the marine eco-system.

The UAE's coastal waters yielded 529kg of fish per square kilometre in 2011, the most recent year for which we have final figures.

If this seems like a lavish banquet from the sea, think again. Back in 1975, the comparable figure was 9,100kg per square kilometre. And the decline appears to be accelerating.

So new restrictions on fishing, set out this week by the federal government, are necessary. The question is: will they be sufficient?

We are a nation of fish and seafood eaters. For a geographically small country, the UAE has a lot of coastline, and fish is naturally a part of the diet here. Also, a high proportion of Asian expatriates come from maritime countries or regions, and many other expatriates also share the enthusiasm for fish and seafood.

All around the world, demand exceeds supply. Stocks of hammour, a local fish that has the misfortune of being delicious, have declined sharply, and this species is not alone. Sharks seem to be fewer every time researchers try to assess their numbers in the Arabian Gulf.

Paradoxically, it is now necessary for us to eat less fish precisely because we like it so well; scaling back now is essential if we are to protect stocks for the decades and generations to come.

The UAE's new measures - seasonal and permanent bans on some types of net, limits on the number of commercial fishing licences and bans on some practices - will constrain the annual national catch. That means higher prices, and ultimately fewer fish dishes on our tables.

However, it is not clear that these new measures will be effective enough to stop the decline before we reach the point at which some fish stocks collapse, to the detriment of fishermen and diners alike.

Nor is human hunger the only challenge to the UAE's aquatic resources. The maritime environment, as a whole, is under threat in several different ways. A report last week in the academic journal Marine Pollution Bulletin lauded the UAE's work in coral protection, but warns that more must be done. Protection of the mangroves, those precious incubators of marine life, is a constant challenge in a time of rapid coastal development. Increasing salinity, water pollution, and other problems continue to press us. All of this demands a sophisticated and integrated approach if we are to be good stewards of our aquatic heritage.