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An fisherman weaves a cage used for fishing in the UAE. The GCC countries are bound by agreements on fishing in territorial waters as part of the common Gulf market. Image Credit: AFP

The marine wealth represents such a vital industry for coastal countries, which is why special attention is paid to develop its potential to the fullest through fish farms and processing plants.

It is also a given that a sizable proportion of a country’s manpower works in this industry. And maritime borders have led to periodic tensions between countries due to the difficulty of defining the continental shelf of each, as well as disputes over islands spread around the mainland.

Late last year, an intractable crisis was about to erupt over fishing between the EU and UK, which could have prevented the signing of the eventual Brexit deal. All EU member countries are allowed to freely fish in the seas surrounding them. However, Britain demanded that this rule should end after its formal exit.

No giveaways

Yet, the European Commission vehemently refused the UK request until the last moment, which led to formulating an agreement allowing EU countries to continue fishing in the British waters so as to save the exit deal. And with the provision that this would be reviewed later by striking another agreement that should be in favour of the two sides.

When it comes to marine rights, there have been deep divergences in many regions around the world, especially between Spain and Morocco. Spain insisted on fishing in Moroccan waters - it is still doing so - for the sardines that Spanish beach restaurants are famous for, especially in Andalusia.

Moving towards the South China Sea, there have also been some skirmishes between China and others.

‘Continental’ stretch

Just recently, this issue of finishing has begun to complicate relations in some Gulf countries. Especially as it is difficult to define the continental shelf and which do not usually exceed several kilometres.

This is unlike disputes in other parts of the world that extend over vast ocean stretches and open seas.

It is necessary to look at these disagreement from an economic, legal and scientific perspective, away from the cheap social media polemics, especially the chatter on ‘street’ Twitter.

The GCC countries are bound by agreements struck as part of the common Gulf market. Therefore, fishing near each other’s borders is considered legal from a legal point, and the marine borders are intertwined in a complex way. Plus, joint fishing operations have been taking place over decades.

Spirit of the sea

It has to be kept in mind that simple Gulf fishermen will find it difficult to differentiate between borders. In addition, they are governed by friendly relations, and I always remember sailors’ greetings when they meet in the middle of the sea. They are more than neighbours, they are relatives and friends.

Considering such aspects, including the historical, the issue requires implementing of the Gulf Common Market agreement, and the GCC General Secretariat must supervise its execution.

Gulf’s legacy

We have also to remember there are giant fishing companies in other parts of the world, especially European and Chinese ones. And when it comes for Gulf countries, we are talking about simple fishermen who seek to earn their livelihood through small catches.

It does not matter to them the political tensions taking place here and there. Thus, detaining and imprisoning them is cruel and does not reflect the well-known Gulf spirit of tolerance.

Fishermen can instead be alerted in case of going past maritime borders, which would help address such problems that are always likely to occur.

- Mohammed Al Asoomi is a specialist in energy and Gulf economic affairs