The Dead Seas

Fifty years ago, underneath the shimmering surface of the mighty Arabian Sea a multitude of marine creatures swam, varied and wondrous to the eye. Now and then, a wooden dhow would come by carrying local fishermen who fished because it was part of their culture, and just to feed their communities. These were the days before the discovery of oil and the boom in commercial fishing.

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Published: Fri 28 May 2010, 9:29 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 1:27 PM

Nowadays, a study of marine life would indicate an alarming decrease in the species that once flourished here. The main reason? Overfishing — the commercial exploitation of certain fish species to the very point of extinction. Overfishing is not a new phenomenon; it has been happening in the UAE since the population boom that was triggered by the discovery of immense oil wealth. According to environmental agencies, the species that are being decimated the most include the ever-popular hamour, the kingfish, sea bream and emperor fish.

The Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD)’s director of biodiversity management Thabit Al Abdelssalaam says there are several reasons behind overfishing. He blames the excessive amount of fishermen, the employment of too many fishing vessels and the use of excessive fishing gear. According to a ministry source, the number of fishermen has increased from 10,172 in 1990 to 21,220 in 2008. Abdelssalaam also says the lack of selective fishing gear (gear that will catch only the type of fish needed) is another problem. What happens, he explains, is that fishermen catch everything, even fish they don’t value or fish that are not supposed to be caught. Another problem is the lack of conservation of marine habitat. Due to the rapid growth of the UAE, massive amounts of dredging and coastal development took place that in turn destroyed the natural habitat of many of the UAE’s marine species. “Fish need proper habitat,” he says. According to him, healthy mangroves, coral reefs and high water quality need to be in place for them to thrive.

He explains the reason behind the deterioration of the country’s marine life. “Hamour is an apex predator, the most successful predator. If we destroy it, then other species will be affected.” A sad example of this has occurred in the Pacific where commercial whaling decimated species of great whales. Since whale species, like the sperm whale and fin whale, are preyed on by the killer whale, the decrease in their number has caused killer whales to look for prey elsewhere. The result is a horrific plunge in the number of sea lions, otters and seals along the north Pacific coast. As Abdelssalaam says, it is a “catch-22 problem”, the “domino effect”.

The extent of the problem is alarming. Research shows that the UAE’s fish species have deteriorated by 80 per cent in the last 30 years. The World Conservation Union’s Red List of threatened species has marked eight fish species in UAE waters as ‘threatened’ or ‘vulnerable’. The WWF says that hamour is now fished at seven times its sustainable level. On a global scale, environment experts predict that 90 per cent of all commercial fish species will collapse by 2048. And the knowledge that the country’s population is largely unaware of the problem is quite frightening in itself. For example, fish vendor Pervez Shaikh strongly denies there is anything wrong with fish supplies in the UAE’s waters. He maintains that if fishermen do not catch the fish, the fish will come to the surface and die. What’s really alarming about his statement is the confidence with which he utters it. And he’s not the only one unaware of the problem. Dozens of people, when asked, are not familiar with the term ‘overfishing’. It seems that a massive education of the country’s residents about overfishing is necessary if the UAE is to combat the problem.

Mass education aside, what can we do to prevent such a catastrophe from happening? Thankfully, experts say there are a number of ways to alleviate the problem, but only if action is taken immediately. The UAE government realised the severity of the problem several years ago and has implemented certain rules and regulations in response to it. In 1999, it issued federal law no.23 that focused on the protection and development of marine resources. It has stopped issuing new commercial fishing licenses and has limited the number of fishing vessels and fishing traps each vessel can carry. It has also decreed that small fish, if caught, are to be released back into the sea. Fishing in spawning season is strictly prohibited to protect reproducing fish from being killed.

At the Ministry of Environment and Water (MOEW), Amran Alshehi from the Fisheries Department says the Ministry has devised several programmes, apart from these rules, to combat overfishing. Ministry staff tour the coast educating fishermen not to fish in spawning season and not to catch small fish. “The Ministry is here to make sure these things don’t happen,” he says. “We are going to educate fishermen to look after natural resources.” The problem, he says, lies with the new breed of fishermen, those who fish solely for profit. Fishermen who have been around for a long time know the dangers of catching small fish. “They tell us that when they catch small fish, they throw them back because they know that next season, these will bring them higher profits. New fishermen do not think like this.”

Illegal fishing, once a common occurrence in Emirati waters, is also now under control. The Ministry ensures that when fishermen come back to shore, they show their licenses to coast guards. Alshehi admits there are still some rare occurrences of illegal fishing. “Sometimes they use badly meshed nets and also fish in spawning season,” he says.

The officials have additionally resorted to aquaculture to grow new coral reefs that are the preferred habitat for many fish. This has been started on an experimental basis. The idea is to install them at various areas off shore to maximise fish species recovery. They also plan to improve the coastal line by planting mangroves; another area fish like to inhabit. A number of mangroves have already been planted in areas like Ras Al Khaimah and Ajman.

Non-governmental environmental organisations have also jumped on the fish protection bandwagon. Emirates Wildlife Society in collaboration with the WWF (EWS-WWF) recently inaugurated a campaign against overfishing; one with a different approach. They have chosen to focus on the consumer. ‘The solution is in your hands’ screams the campaign banner, because they feel the consumer is the final link in the whole chain. If the consumer says no to buying certain fish, the chain will break. In a poll they carried out on consumer trends in the UAE, they found that 70 per cent of residents would be less likely to eat fish they knew were being overfished. Among the organisation’s efforts is a free booklet that can be carried by people shopping. It tells consumers which fish are safe to eat. EWS-WWF has also organised a sustainable fish-dish challenge that encourages users of their website ( to submit recipes made from fish that are not endangered.

Would supermarkets and retail outlets join the movement? Lulu and Spinneys say that they would be happy to distribute the EWS-WWF booklet in their stores to inform their customers, when the booklets become available. They will also stop selling endangered fish if the Ministry passes a law requiring them to do so.

What do the people of the hour — the consumers — have to say? When told about the impending marine crisis, most people say they will stop eating endangered fish species. “I would definitely stop eating fish if I could make a difference,” says highschool student Hewan Fitwi. However, there are some fish addicts out there who cannot do without fish. One of them is customer service executive Janet Botelho who says that she cannot do without certain types of fish. “For example,” she says, “some fish contain more nutrition than others. And people would generally opt for those fish over the others. If an endangered fish was high in nutrition, I probably would still eat it.” Student Milena Fitwi is straightforward about her choice. “I don’t care if it’s overfished,” she says. “I can’t do without eating hamour.”

Consumers eager to save overfished species can join the EWS-WWF online group and also download the which-fish-to-eat booklet. They can also join in the sustainable fish-dish challenge the society has organised. People who want to volunteer can email or To make an impact, they can sign EWS-WWF’s ‘Take Action’ form (available on the website) that encourages retailers and restaurants to offer more varieties of fish that are safe from extinction, and gets them to put labels on fish giving information about the sustainability of each species. And finally, there’s no better way to stop overfishing than to spread the word. A unified effort to stop overfishing will be a boon to the UAE’s diminishing marine life.

It’s good news for the UAE’s marine environment that the government and environmental organisations have realised that immediate direct action is the only way to bring coastal waters back to a fraction of the wondrous habitat of teeming life they once were. For the rest of the world, the future is not so rosy. Blue-tuna harvesting and shark finning, among other commercial evils, continue to be rampant as the world races to marine D-Day, 2048.

It’s time to stand up and save what we haven’t yet destroyed.

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