x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Abu Dhabi battles to save fish from extinction

New stricter laws on overfishing could be drafted in Abu Dhabi by 2015 to help save overfished species.

A fisherman pulls in a catch in waters off Dubai. Environment Agency Abu Dhabi says popular fish from the Arabian Gulf are at risk of extinction because of poor fishing practices. Pawan Singh / The National
A fisherman pulls in a catch in waters off Dubai. Environment Agency Abu Dhabi says popular fish from the Arabian Gulf are at risk of extinction because of poor fishing practices. Pawan Singh / The National

ABU DHABI // New fishing rules could be in place by 2015 in a bid to save overfished species.

Overfishing has worsened in recent years. About 70 per cent of fish landed in the UAE are from over-exploited species, with the result that more are being caught before reproducing.

Unchecked, that could wipe out some key Arabian Gulf species within 10 years.

"There is a huge problem of overfishing," said Stanley Hartmann, a fisheries scientist at the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi.

"Seventy per cent of the volume of fish that is being [caught] by commercial fishing boats comes from species that we found are overfished. It's an extremely big figure."

But the agency is battling the problem.

"We collect data to give an idea of the quantity of boats that are bringing fish in and the composition of the catch," said Mr Hartmann. "We open the fish, look at the gonads and find out the maturity of the fish."

This shows whether the fish has had a chance to reproduce or not.

Last year the agency studied the yellowtail scad, the giant sea catfish and the pickhandle barracuda, all of which were found to be sustainably fished.

This year it will look at the talang queenfish, the yellowfin hind and the mangrove snapper.

"We are getting an increasingly better idea of the status of our species," Mr Hartmann said.

Part of the problem are the different rules and authorities across the UAE, he said.

"Fishermen in Abu Dhabi are allowed 125 traps per boat," said Mr Hartmann. "After three weeks, if the fisherman loses his trap, a device will open it up and let the fish free."

Abu Dhabi also only allows dhows and large fishing boats to fish. But other emirates have less restrictive rules.

"In Dubai, you have smaller boats that are allowed to fish and some boats can have up to 800 traps," Mr Hartmann said. "Each trap can catch between 10 and 20 kilos of fish, with two to four trips per fisherman a month in winter and a bit less in summer."

And although boats registered outside of Abu Dhabi are not allowed to fish in its waters, the Critical Infrastructure and Coastal Protection Authority is more focused on other priorities, such as security and oil protection, said Mr Hartmann.

In 2002, the agency found the biomass of fish in UAE waters was just a fifth of its 1978 level. It plans to repeat that survey next year.

In the first three months of this year, the agency watched specific sections of the Abu Dhabi coast for illegal boats. When it releases the results of that survey this year, it expects to fine a number of fishermen.

"Nothing has changed," said JT, the manager of a seafood-processing company in Dubai. "You still have the same fishermen, techniques and traps and a government that's too easy on them.

"There are hardly any sanctions for [those] who land endangered species, undersized fish or remove fins from sharks. None of the fishermen are interested in tomorrow, only today counts."

But the agency hopes to enforce more stringent laws by 2015.

"We started a fishery socio-economic study last month because we will have to implement more regulations for the fisheries," Mr Hartmann said.

"Some of our regulations implemented in 2004 are not really working because they're not strict enough.

"We need to come up with more restrictions or overfished species could disappear in 10 years and that will affect our future generations."

cmalek@thenational.ae