x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Price of fish has soared as fewer take to the waves

Fewer wooden fishing dhows set out from Abu Dhabi than than did a decade ago, but the tradition just about survives.

ABU DHABI // A decade ago, between 250 and 300 traditional wooden fishing dhows would leave from the capital's port each day. Now, according to the head of the fishermen's co-op, that number is sometimes as few as 25, and as a result the price of fish has gone up almost tenfold. Still, life seems little changed at the fish market. The dhows leave their berths at 4am each day to chase the latest shoal of shari or hammour, although now they are passed by the modern fibreglass boats that have become the mainstay of fishing fleets around the world.

A deep-voiced auctioneer sells the catch in the hours before the rest of the city wakes and metal fish traps are stacked 10ft high along the dock. The Emirati captains conduct their business in the air-conditioned offices of the co-operative society. The crews of Indian men spend their off-duty hours drying clothing on the dhows and lounging on old armchairs. The best fishermen are old and getting older, some edging out of their seventh decade, and they have few romantic notions of their trade.

"The most dangerous job in the world is fishing," said Ali Mohammed Mansour al Mansoury, the managing director of the Abu Dhabi Fishermen Co-operative Society, which supports 400 members, about 95 per cent of the active fishermen in the emirate. "Any time it can get windy and you can die. The weather can change in one day." At the best of times, the job is unpleasant. In the summer, it can be unbearable. The men sleep in quarters with no air conditioning in 50°C heat. There are no toilets and the hours are long.

It is little wonder that, despite the Government's best efforts, a captain's job is not an attractive career choice for the younger generation. Most prefer office jobs in the public sector to days in the open sea. "In the past, our grandfathers would do this for three or four months. But then that was life," Mr al Mansoury said. "Nowadays, young men can go into the police or the Army. They can work in the city."

The dhow has long been an iconic sight in the country's waters. In an attempt to keep the trade in local hands, the Government declared in 1999 that all captains be Emirati. The result has been a startling decline in the number of local fishing boats leaving Abu Dhabi's harbour. That, coupled with declining fish stocks, a sharp increase in population and an increased demand for fresh local fish, has led to a dramatic increase in fish prices.

Saeed Rashid, 74, who has worked as a fishermen and auctioneer at the market for decades said 4kg of hammour cost Dh14 a decade ago. Five years ago, it would cost Dh60. Now, 4kg of the popular fish would sell for Dh120 (US$32). The dwindling number of boats, however, had a positive side, Mr al Mansoury said. Fewer boats means more time for fish stocks to replenish and less damage to the marine environment.

Also, times are changing and fishing is not the harsh job it used to be. Global positioning systems have replaced the stars as the preferred method of navigation, and fish finders have proven themselves more capable than instincts used for generations. "Now you don't need a clever captain," said Mr al Mansoury. "Before, you needed a clever man who knew how to navigate many hours from Abu Dhabi. A lot of accidents happened. If it got foggy or stormy, you didn't know right from left."

An experienced fisherman can earn up to Dh3,000 on a good day, although most of that will go to paying for diesel, maintenance and crew. The fish trade is gradually passing into the hands of big business. Mr al Mansoury said three quarters of the fishermen were now over 50 and the future lay in fish farms. Within the next two years, the co-operative plans to build massive fish farms to provide a steady supply of hammour and sturgeon. It also hopes to create factories to freeze and preserve fish, helping to alleviate rising prices.

"Fish should be for all people, not just the rich," said Mr al Mansoury. The co-operative does what it can to encourage younger men to consider fishing. Once a skill passed from father to son, today the co-operative offers training. As well as providing housing, the co-operative also sells the fish to ensure a steady wage, pays for boat maintenance and provides subsidised ice. It also gives loans to fishermen for new nets and manages their paperwork and licences. "This is our heritage. Now we are trying to encourage the young people to work in the field," Mr al Mansoury said.

The co-operative's efforts, however, may prove to be bittersweet failure. Abdullah Musabah, 60, has been fishing for more than 30 years. He has eight sons and nine daughters, but none of his children wants to take over his helm. "They work in petrol and police and in a private company," he said. But he added that his children's choices did not sadden him. "We suffer for fishing," he said. @Email:jgerson@thenational.ae