x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Angling in the shadow of the fleet

Sport fishing prospers off Fujairah as enthusiasts use oil tankers to their advantage, but boat owners and hobbyists sense a change in the tide.

As the sun began to set on the waters in Fujairah, Byron Bower tried to hold onto a fish that was hooked but eventually got away.
As the sun began to set on the waters in Fujairah, Byron Bower tried to hold onto a fish that was hooked but eventually got away.

FUJAIRAH // The hundreds of tankers off the coast offer a strange contrast to the turquoise waters, blue skies and smoky-grey crags as Wayne de Jager steers his 29ft catamaran from the docks of Fujairah International Marine Club with his crew of sport fishermen. The tankers, several kilometres off the coast, are both a boon and a menace to the 42-year-old South African owner of East Coast Fishing Charters, which takes anglers out for four-hour sessions. Two hundred or more are present at any time, and are blamed for countless oil slicks that have blighted the emirate's waters and beaches. Fujairah is the world's second-largest bunkering port, with the 100,000-tonne ships refuelling here or awaiting orders to pick up loads in the Arabian Gulf. But Mr de Jager relishes steering his boat through the maze of ships, searching for fish metres from their fortress-sized hulls. Sport fishing among the vessels is booming, and the skipper boasts of catching and releasing 92 fish in one day last October. Despite the financial downturn that has begun to affect tourism in Fujairah, Mr de Jager says his customers, many of whom come from Dubai, keep returning. He had nearly 40 separate charters last month, one of the busiest he can recall. "This summer was definitely better than other years; we were catching dorado, queenfish, sailfish a lot," he says. Game fishermen say fish gravitate to the shade provided by the barnacled tankers and the nutrients carried in on their hulls from faraway places, creating bustling underwater ecosystems. "They sit out there like they're a big reef; some of these boats have been here for six years," says Johnny Stephenson, 39, owner of a sailing company in Oman, who has fished with Mr de Jager for several years. "Dorado are famous for lying around the shade. They love just about anything that floats - wooden planks, oil drums. They just love shade." Cruising alongside the huge vessels and their often volatile crewmen has provided its fair share of memorable encounters - some amusing, others unnerving. Mr de Jager once steered alongside an oil tanker as the crew, in festive spirits, held a barbecue on deck in defiance of the "No Smoking" warning in large letters on the ship's hull. "We were like, 'we gotta get the hell out of here, man'," he says. Apart from the occasional run-in, Mr de Jager says, attention is mostly fixed on the five to six fish hauled in on a typical day, including bonita, yellowfin tuna and brilliantly coloured rainbow runners. The most prized catches on his boat are sailfish and dorado, also known as mahimahi or dolphinfish. Dorado grow as big as 10kg and sailfish as much as 50kg, and can match the strength of a fully grown man. Mr de Jager says he recently hauled in a 48kg sailfish after a 20-minute struggle during which the spearheaded creature leapt from the water, flailing from side to side with incredible power. "They fight like hell, mate," Byron Bower, 35, a Fujairah businessman and regular sport fisherman, says of a similar sailfish he caught. "I was right knackered, mate. My arm was hurting." Mr de Jager comes prepared to catch fish in just about every discipline - fly fishing, spinning, trolling - and uses devices ranging from simple bait to rigs that border on the bizarre, looking like flashy Christmas ornaments. One of his most effective methods for attracting surface-feeding game fish, such as dorado and sailfish, is to use lures that mimic the fluttering of swimming bait fish, a technique known as the "smoke trail". For that effect, Mr de Jager prefers a combination of filleted mackerel on a plastic lure. A metre or so above the lure, he places another one, called a "tuna bird", which also imitates fish. The lures give the impression of fish chasing one another, and can prove irresistible to roaming predators. "Fish can't refuse it," says Mr de Jager as he dresses his line with the bait. With two poles rigged with the bait, the boat begins weaving in and around the tankers as Mr de Jager and his friends keep their eyes fixed on surrounding waters for signs of fish. One of the best indicators is flocks of birds which swoop down after smaller mackerel that are being corralled upwards to shallower depths by the larger game fish. The process causes the water to churn with excitement as the schools of mackerel squirm for dear life at the surface. "The water literally looks like it's boiling," says Mr Stephenson, who scrupulously analyses the skies as he does the water. "The birds are your biggest friend out here. If there are lots of them, normally that's a good sign." Along with the fun, there are moments of concern and reflection on Mr de Jager's boat. The red tide has been plaguing Fujairah's waters for months now. The algal bloom has halted operations of some commercial fishing companies and has fouled the emirate's shores with unsavoury odours. Mr de Jager and his fishing pals also express concern about changing fishing patterns. In Dubai, some species of fish have all but vanished, forcing anglers to make the hour-long trek to Fujairah. There are complaints that the Gulf's once-plentiful sailfish are increasingly difficult to spot, with their populations dropping as a result of man-made developments and all-out plunder by countries that need them for fertiliser. Now Fujairah appears to be showing hints of similar change. The yellowfin tuna that usually stalk the waters this time of year are nowhere to be found. "We should be having them by now," says Mr Stephenson, who has had to put his boating business on hold because of the red tide. "Fish are a lot less predictable these days." The erratic fishing patterns could be explained by Fujairah's exposure to the Indian Ocean. It is the only emirate connected to that ocean, and is affected by changing currents generated by the subcontinent's abrupt shift between monsoon rains and drought. Part of the change to the fishing pattern could also be caused by natural phenomena: lunar cycles, changing temperatures or atmospheric pressure. Whatever the cause, Mr de Jager says his enthusiasm for angling in Fujairah is undiminished. "You could sit there and say, 'Oh well, it's this and it's because of that,' but you've got to just go out there and do it." As long as he is out fishing with his friends and customers, regardless of what he does or does not catch, he is content. "Fishing's a total release from everything else. It's a switch-off," he says as he steers his boat back into the harbour. "You're not thinking about your finances. Nothing else matters to you." As he admires the setting sun behind the hazy mountains, he says: "If the ground isn't moving beneath me, I'm just not happy." hnaylor@thenational.ae