Sana'a Yemen's Arabian Sea production of tuna has reached rock bottom, having serious reverberations in the fish industry, long regarded as the backbone of the country's economy.
The industry generates thousands of jobs for fishermen and those working in the canneries, but it is in danger of collapse as the tuna catch continues to fall sharply.
According to annual production figures given to Gulf News by the Hadramout's provincial office in the Ministry of Fishery, the fish catch in general and tuna in particular started to go down in 2005 when the annual tuna catch fell from 46,228 in 2004 to 29,973 in 2005.
At the beginning, the sharp decrease of production was not given much attention and many people thought the decrease could be attributed to the implications of the tsunami in 2004.
However, as production continued to dwindle, local people and biologists raised the alarm. In the following five years, production of tuna fell to 16,526 tonnes in 2006, 10,465 tonnes in 2007, 8,973 tonnes in 2008, 5,269 tonnes in 2009 and 6,265 tonnes in 2010.
Figures of 2011 production were not available but officials maintained that indications show it to be less than previous years.
Along the 370km coastline of Hadramout, there are four fish factories; three are canneries and one is mainly for exporting. The shrinking production of fish has put a dent in factory revenues. Chiefs in the factories told Gulf News they would eventually be forced to reduce the number of workers if the decline did not stop.
Ali Salem Abdul Malik is the manager of Mukalla Ghawizi Fish Canning Factory, one of the oldest and largest in the governorate.
He said: "Since 2005, the tuna production in Hadramout has taken a tumble which has left its mark on the factory. In 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 the annual production of the factory was 19.8 million cans, 13 million, 15 million, 9.4 million and 10.7 million correspondingly."
Production for 2009 was 8.6 million cans and in 2010 the factory produced approximately five million cans. In 2011, production dropped to approximately 4.5 million cans.
Not long ago, tuna-loaded vans used to park outside the factory to sell their cargo of fish. Ali has yearned for those days when tuna was in abundance.
Owing to the scarcity of tuna in the waters of their country, Yemeni fishermen sail as far afield as Somalia and bring their catch to the local tuna-hungry factories.
"To meet the challenge of the shortage of tuna, we resorted to buying all tuna from Somalia. However, this fish is more expensive than local fish which has resulted in an increase in the cost of production. We used to buy local fish for 200 Yemeni riyals (Dh3.67) per kilo, now it is 480 riyals."
Ali said he has gone to great lengths to find a solution to the problem including importing fish from India. "The prices of Indian fish are reasonable and will solve our problem, but high taxes impede us from going ahead with our plan. By adding 30 per cent tax, we cannot compete with other producers of canned fish," he said. "We have 170 fully employed workers and 250 part-time workers. They consistently put pressure on us to increase their salaries, but we can't do so since the production is on the decline. If the worst comes to worst, we will downsize the workforce. As we are taking part in reducing unemployment, we urge the government to lift the tax on imported fish," he added.
Omer Gambet is the director of Hadramout's branch of the Yemen Fishery Union, an umbrella organisation of 14,870. He has called on the government to intervene in the decline of the industry. "We seek the government's help to seriously investigate the reasons behind the decline. Unfortunately, all signs indicate that production will continue tapering off in the near future," he said.
People in the city of Mukalla say the Hadramout coastline was once filled with fish and fishermen would cast their nets offshore and get a huge catch.
A veteran fisherman, Gambet believes local fishermen are primarily responsible for the vanishing stocks.
"Due to the absence of government monitoring, the fishermen and unlicenced commercial ships think they are given a free rein to fish anywhere and anytime. They fish even during the breeding time of some rare species," he said.
Dr Abdullah Salem Bawazer, a marine biologist and lecturer at Hadramout University, is one of many who has observed and studied the decline of fish in Yemen's waters. He said: "From a scientific point of view based on the figures of the production of fish, we can assuredly say that the fish stock is in sharp decline and the telltale signs indicate that the production will keep going down."
tonnes of tuna produced in 2006
tonnes of tuna produced in 2010
cans of tuna produced in one Yemen factory in 2011