x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

New effort to replenish dwindling hammour

Protection measures planned as overfishing has reduced wild stocks of popular fish to just three per cent of natural levels.

The Ministry of Environment and Water plans to ban the sale of smaller hammour fish at markets.
The Ministry of Environment and Water plans to ban the sale of smaller hammour fish at markets.

The Ministry of Environment and Water plans to release 35,000 finger-length hammour into the sea next year in a stepped-up effort to save the popular fish from extinction. Over-fishing has depleted the stock of wild hammour in recent years to just three per cent of natural levels. A breeding programme was launched in 2000 with some success, and now the Government plans to create protected areas and ban the sale of smaller fish at markets.

"In the first year of the project we bred 1,000 young hammour and we have increased capacity steadily, and last year bred over 20,000," said Ebrahim Jamali, director of the Marine Resources Research Centre. "It is a very difficult process as the species is sensitive to feeding patterns and oxygen levels in the water. We also lose many fish to cannibalism. However, despite these obstacles we believe we can increase capacity to 35,000 a year."

Mr Jamali said the young fish would be released into mangroves and lagoons, where there is plenty of food and protection. "Generally it will take the fish around three years to acclimatise to the environment before they reproduce," he said. Another important conservation technique is to provide refuge areas for the fish to reproduce by prohibiting fishing. Mr Jamali said more protected areas were planned.

Because of the migratory patterns of hammour, also known as grouper, the main hope for a sustainable solution comes in regional collaboration. The Regional Commission for Fisheries (Recofi) has highlighted aquaculture, commonly known as fish farming, as a key to meeting increasing consumer demand and easing pressure on wild populations. But Alessandro Lovatelli, Recofi's fisheries resources officer for aquaculture, said breeding schemes would need to be increased significantly to revive the wild stocks.

"Aquaculture in the Gulf is still in its infancy and the technology and techniques are yet to be refined," Mr Lovatelli said. "Natural factors such as high water temperature and salinity limit the productivity. However, in the last few years grouper hatcheries have been established in Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which is very positive for the region. It would take the introduction of millions of fish to reverse the decline of the wild stock, and currently there is no evidence that small-scale schemes will have an impact."

It is not just a question of scale. "The conditions have to be right for repopulation schemes to be successful," he said. "The chances of survival are very low with small fish, because having been raised in controlled conditions they lack the skills of hunting for prey. It is also critical that they are released into protected zones that is a suitable territory for them." The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), through Recofi, has a mandate to create sustainable fisheries in the region, balancing the economic demands of the fishing industry with protecting the environment.

Worldwide aquaculture produces around 50 per cent of total fish stocks, but most of this comes from fresh water fish farming. Mr Lovatelli believes that aquaculture has the potential to produce 25 per cent of the capacity of captured fisheries in the region within 10 years despite the drawbacks in the Gulf. "Aquaculture produces a very small percentage of supply in the Gulf," he said. "But we aim to increase capacity building in aquaculture so that it can help meet the high local demand and relieve pressure on wild stocks, including looking at intensive land-based schemes."

Recofi has the power to formulate regional policies that if agreed by the eight member nations must be adopted into national law. Following a meeting of the commission last week, an action plan has been agreed to harmonise regional policies to help tackle dwindling fish stocks and destructive incursions of the red tide. The commission is conducting an accurate stock assessment of the region and a review of national legislation, and it is devising an early warning system for red tide," said Piero Mannini, senior fishery officer at the FAO and executive secretary at Recofi.

Officials have focused on the need to ensure that juvenile fish are protected by regulating fishing gear and nets so that fish can reach sexual maturity and reproduce. Stopping illegal fishing is therefore the main concern of Recofi and its members. tbrooks@thenational.ae