Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 28 March 2020

Ruler's Dh5m aid payment comes as relief to UAE's struggling fishermen

Boat crews lament dwindling stocks and falling earnings

Fish and winds are fickle, but if there is a constant for the fishermen of Ajman, it is the sheikh’s annual winter subsidy.

This month, fishermen received a Dh5 million grant from the fishermen’s co-op and the Ruler of Ajman, Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi.

Fishermen rely on the annual payment as fish stocks and profits plummet. And another winter has passed where fish were few.

Sipping tea at a fishermen’s majlis on Ajman creek, Abdulla Ghanam lamented the challenges faced in his profession.

Never believe anyone who goes to the sea and says he is making money

Abdulla Ghanam, Emirati fishing captain

“If you go to sea, you will see thousands of nets because the fishermen need fish and there is no fish to catch,” said Mr Ghanam, 56, a lifelong fisherman who received Dh17,500 from the grant. “Never believe anyone who goes to sea and says he is making money. Whatever I get from the co-op, I’ll put back in fishing.”

The Ajman Co-Operative Society for Fishermen earns money from selling parking and moorage spaces and trade at the souq.

According to fish market officials, Ajman has about 400 fishing boats. Numbers have dwindled as a result of depleted fisheries and tighter regulations on the type of nets used and the territory where people can fish.

It is no longer possible for large fishing boats to roam the Gulf freely as they did 15 years ago, the result of more strictly enforced borders and infrastructure such as oil rigs and underwater cables.

Meanwhile, common species such as hammour, have dwindled by more than 90 per cent, according to government reports. Decades of indiscriminate fishing has led to severely depleted fish stocks across the Arabian Gulf and Sea of Oman.

“Before there was a lot of profit in fishing,” said Saif Al Shamsi, a poet and retired Emirati fisherman in his 70s who socialises at the creekside souq.

“Now the fish are few. We’d put in a net and take it out the next day. Now they need to leave it for three or four days.”

“The government will encourage them to continue their heritage, even if the fish are few.”

AJMAN, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 26 FEBRUARY 2020. More money has been given to Ajman fishermen to support their industry and fishing heritage. The Ajman Fish market is a buz of activity around the late afternoon as fisherman bring in their catch of the day. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Anna Zacharias. Section: National.
Crew members earn about Dh1,000 per month, for some about 25 per cent of what they earned 10 years ago. Antonie Robertson / The National

Some fishermen hope the federal government will adopt stricter fishing regulations like those introduced in Abu Dhabi, such as a ban on domed fishing traps known as gargoor.

“The laws of Abu Dhabi are the best and they’ve increased the number of fish,” said Mohammed Rashid, 37, an Ajman fisherman.

“We’d be happy to see those laws here.”

Mr Rashid will invested his grant payment of Dh17,500 in new fishing gear and home repairs. “If the government helps us, we’re content,” he said. “If the government does not help us, we are content.”

Law requires an Emirati to be present on every commercial fishing vessel, but most of Ajman’s fishermen are from Gujarat, India, and earn a share of each catch. Each boat supports four to 10 fishermen.

Annual grants to Emirati fishermen are not shared with foreign crew.

Gujarati fishermen may earn just Dh1,000 a month and sleep on the wooden dhows where they work.

Fishermen who could previously remit thousands of dirhams a month now struggle to save a few hundred dirhams a month. Emirati boat owners said it has become more difficult to recruit foreign fishermen, who are reluctant to leave family for years when potential earnings are so meagre.

This week, fisherman Amrat Bahgvantan and his shipmates pulled into Ajman creek with a catch of 20,000 kilograms after 10 days offshore. He earns about Dh1,000 a month, a quarter of his earnings 10 years ago.

Nonetheless, he plans to stay as long as he can save. “I’ll work 10 or 15 more years,” he said.

Fishmongers, the majority of whom are from south India, say subsidies to Emiratis do not help them turn a profit.

Customers have disappeared from the Ajman souq as the fish have disappeared from the seas.

“All fish are sold at the supermarket these days,” said Mohammed Mampatta, 34, a fishmonger from Kerala, India, who earns between Dh2,000 and Dh3,000 a month. “Everything’s at the supermarket. The souq’s finished. Ten years ago, the souq was full of customers.”

Some fishmongers supplement sales by trading fish imported from Egypt, Sri Lanka and Oman.

“Now, fishermen only catch sheri and safi,” Mr Mampatta said. “Before we had any fish you like.”

Updated: February 27, 2020 04:06 PM

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