x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Small hauls worry Omani fishermen

Entrants in the annual Sinbad Classic had strict limits on the numbers of each type of fish they could bring back.

Traders at the fish market in Muscat.
Traders at the fish market in Muscat.

MUSCAT // It was a fishing competition quite unlike any held before. Instead of trying to catch as many game fish as possible, entrants in the annual Sinbad Classic earlier this year off the coast of Muscat had strict limits on the numbers of each type of fish they could bring back. That meant a maximum of four tuna, and no more than three each of barracuda, kingfish and billfish, such as marlin and sailfish.

There were bonus points for those who brought back just one of each type. The restrictions were introduced amid concerns that game fish stocks are dwindling, but in the end, the organisers might as well not have bothered. Catches of yellowfin tuna, usually one of the most abundant game fish off Muscat, were so poor that there was little risk of anyone coming home with a big haul. The same went for the other types of fish.

The Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman have traditionally provided rich pickings for Oman's thousands of professional and recreational fishermen. According to Oman's ministry of fisheries, each year around 150,000 tonnes of fish are landed by approximately 14,000 traditional small fishing boats and between 20 to 100 larger commercial vessels. But recreational fishers fear the seas are being overfished and question some of the techniques of the commercial vessels, such as the use of longline fishing.

Longline involves having hundreds or thousands of baited hooks on each line, with tuna commonly picked up by boats that hang the lines near the surface of the water. Some game fishermen feel these boats are catching more fish than the environment can afford. Mohammed al Jahwari, an owner of Noman Tours, a Muscat-based company that runs game-fishing trips, said stricter rules on the commercial fishing fleet were needed to protect the country's key natural resources.

"If Muscat is to be developed as a tourism destination, the sea is worth nothing without fishing," he said. "There has to be regulation to say that nobody touches billfish. The longline fishing boats, nobody knows exactly what they do. "People are coming from all over the Gulf and less and less fish are coming in. These kind of fish need to be protected," he said. Instead of allowing the billfish to be caught for food, conservationists believe they should be preserved so that recreational fishermen can continue to enjoy their sport.

"They are more valuable as game fish rather than as something to be put on the plate and eaten," Mr Jahwari said. It is not just Oman where recreational fishermen are pushing for game fish to be protected. The International Game Fish Association has called for the sale and importation of billfish to be banned in the United States. Overfishing is not the only reason for the falling number of game fish. Cyclone Gonu last year destroyed many of the coral reefs off Oman's coast, subsequently wiping out populations of smaller reef fish that larger game fish feed on.

Additionally, Arabia had an especially cold winter, with water temperatures off Oman typically around five degrees Celsius below normal, causing migratory species to stay away. Bruce Fennessy, sports events manager for Intevents, which organised the Sinbad Classic, said the weather was the likely cause of the poor catches of game fish. "The water got a lot colder and because fish are fickle species, the whole tuna season just never arrived. There were far less catches," he said.

However, the tourist fishing industry is not prepared to write the fish stocks off just yet. "It is too early to say [if there is a long-term decline in stocks]. We'll get a better handle on things next year when the yellowfin tuna arrive," Mr Fennessy said. Oman's government has expressed some concern about the recent lack of fish. Ibrahim Said al Busaidi, the director general of fisheries development at Oman's ministry of fisheries, acknowledged total catches had not increased in recent years, despite growth in the number of fishing vessels, and said there was a possibility that stocks could be suffering. "Perhaps this means we have to do more on controlling the fishing," he said.

The ministry is now conducting a large-scale assessment of fish stocks around the country's waters, something it does every five to 10 years. If declines are pinpointed, Mr Busaidi said quotas could be adjusted to help stocks recover. The results of the survey are due in mid 2009. Even if this year's situation was a one-off, it will nevertheless have repercussions for the longer term, since it has helped recreational game fishermen to push a conservation and sustainability agenda.

Competitions are likely to focus more on the catch and release of fish and the use of circular hooks, which reduce mortality because they are less likely to be swallowed. "It's not about catching hundreds of fish and throwing them on to the boat," Mr Fennessy said. "This is where sport fishing is really going. We need to find some form of sustainability so that in 10 years' time there will still be fish in the ocean."