x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Small fry now, next year they'll be dinner

Initiative at Umm Al Qaiwain to boost fish stocks is already experiencing some early success.

A worker feeds the hammour at the Marine Environment Research Centre at Umm Al Qaiwain.
A worker feeds the hammour at the Marine Environment Research Centre at Umm Al Qaiwain.

UMM AL QAIWAIN // Everyone loves a tasty piece of hammour or emperor fish - but often the enjoyment comes with a twinge of guilt at eating a threatened species.

That may soon be a thing of the past, thanks to an initiative at the Ministry of Environment and Water's Marine Resources Research Centre in Umm Al Qaiwain.

The centre is breeding fish to be released into the wild, and has already had some early success with the emperor fish. It is now testing techniques to help the fish to grow to the point where they are big enough to sell.

"We try to see what type of fish are overfished, like the hammour and the emperor, and we run tests in our labs to see how we can save them," Dr Ebrahim Abdulla Al Jamali, the centre's director, said.

"Our aim is to protect fish stocks, and improve them by breeding commercially important fish and shrimp using artificial methods before releasing them back in the sea."

In its attempts to protect endangered species, the centre has earmarked mangrove swamps, lagoons and government-protected areas for the fish to be released into.

"These areas protect the released fish more so than the open sea," Dr Al Jamali said.

"Mangroves act as a nursery for small fish and invertebrates, a refuge for migratory birds like seagulls and a shoreline protection."

Mangrove swamps are an incredibly rich source of food, teeming with nutrients from the decomposing leaves of the trees that grow there. The centre's mangrove nursery has 20,000 trees, all destined to be planted out in lagoons or in the centre's drainage system.

"Their survival rate increases drastically because they have many different routes to escape big fish and the feed available in mangroves is much better than regular beaches," Dr Al Jamali said.

The centre is working on a handful of species, including hammour, subaitis, sweetlips, mullets, rabbitfish and sea bream. New to that list is the emperor fish.

It also has a hatchery, and a micro-organisms culture unit where six tanks of phytoplankton (microscopic plants) are grown to be fed to fingerlings.

Outside, six hatching tanks are home to hundreds of fish eggs. There are four ponds for breeding and six larvae tanks, where juvenile fish undergo the metamorphosis into adults.

"We produced around 130,000 fingerlings in the past six months and our aim is 10 million by the end of the year," Dr Al Jamali said. The centre has released more than 60,000 fish so far.

The centre is also trying to preserve coral reefs, which are under threat from the rising temperature of the sea.

It has four underwater "banks" off the coast of Fujairah, each consisting of 500 reefs that between them support about 24 species.

"Five or ten species of them on average have the highest growth rate," Dr Al Jamali said. "They're all crucial for the UAE and worldwide because they are the fish and the plankton's habitat. We're planning on creating more of those banks."

It is also one of the country's key defences against red tide - algal blooms that are harmful to fish and humans alike. The centre conducts coastal and marine environment studies to detect the occurrence of any red-tide plankton. They bloom in warm weather and in the presence of nutrients.

For the past two years, the UAE has set up eight programmes as part of a national plan to avert red tide.

The experts also carry out biological studies of fish, testing for disease, plankton aquaculture and broodstock at its four laboratories. Another ten are planned.

Last February, the President, Sheikh Khalifa, offered the centre Dh75 million to improve its facilities.

cmalek@thenational.ae