Abu Dhabi: Fishing has always been a key component of the UAE’s heritage, but rampant overfishing has caused a decline of key fish stocks beyond sustainable levels, environmental experts have announced.

At least 13 species of fish have been harvested beyond sustainable levels, and key species of fish like hamour (orange-spotted grouper), shaari (spangled emperor), farsh (painted sweetlips) and kanaad (Spanish mackerel) have been overexploited up to five times the sustainable limit, they added.

The UAE Sustainable Fisheries programme has therefore been launched to ensure sustainable fishing, and it will be implemented from 2016 to 2018. Under this programme, advanced research and monitoring of UAE fisheries will be undertaken, new legislation developed and implemented, and traditional fishing knowledge gathered to better inform decision making.

The initiative was announced by Thani Ahmad Al Zeyoudi, Minister for Climate Change and Environment, and Razan Al Mubarak, secretary-general of the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency (EAD) that oversees Abu Dhabi’s environmental sector.

“Dwindling fish stocks are a global issue, with two-thirds of the world’s stocks either being fished at their limit or overfished. Scientific surveys and studies have revealed that the UAE’s fish stocks are also being fished above their sustainable optimum. This demands our attention and future collaboration to rebuild fisheries and ensure the survival of this important component of our natural heritage,” Al Zeyoudi said.

As part of the programme, a fish resource assessment survey will be carried out, with the help of the Kuwaiti research vessel, Bahith II. Over the next year, a crew of scientists from the ministry, EAD and New Zealand will assess UAE waters and the status of important bottom-dwelling fish stocks like hamour, shaari and farsh. The ship set sail from Zayed Port in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.

“The last comprehensive fisheries resources assessment survey in UAE waters was undertaken in 2002 and 2003. Therefore, this survey will help us improve and update our estimates of stocks and improve our understanding of the role of protected areas and no-take zones [areas where no extractive activity is allowed],” Al Mubarak said.

She added that the survey would also help researchers determine average sizes, age and populations of fish species, as well as understand the environmental factors that affect their distribution.

“Through this, we can form an information base to develop a fisheries management plan for the UAE. The ultimate goal is to allow the fish stocks to recover so that it may be accessible to future generations,” she said.

According to Al Mubarak, a consistent and long-term fisheries management plan is essential.

“This is because the nature of the fish stock in UAE waters, which consists of species like hamour, shaari and kanaad, requires a 15-20 year period to move from a severely overexploited status to a fishery that has recovered and can be used sustainably,” she explained.

The survey, which will cover more than 46,000 square kilometres of UAE waters, will consist of two seasonal components, one during the key spawning season for most commercial species and one during the cooler winter months. The first phase will soon be under way and the second will run from September to December.

In addition, the project creates a unique opportunity to collect specimens of various fish and marine species from UAE waters. This is especially important as there has been no comprehensive reference collection of Arabian Gulf fish specimens across the region.

Current state of UAE fisheries

UAE’s commercially important fish stocks are currently severely overexploited, studies by Abu Dhabi’s environmental sector regulator, the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD), have revealed.

The EAD has been studying fish stocks in the Abu Dhabi waters for the past 15 years. These waters make up the majority of the UAE’s marine areas, and also see much fishing activity from fishers of other emirates.

At present, the EAD findings indicate that 13 species have been harvested beyond sustainable levels. Between them, they account for about 80 per cent of the commercial catch, and 88 per cent of commercial fishery revenue.

Specifically, key fish species like hamour (orange-spotted grouper), shaari (spangled emperor), faarsh (painted sweetlips) and kanaad (Spanish mackerel) have been overexploited up to five times the sustainable limit. Other types that are under threat include dhil’e (Talang queenfish), zuraidi (golden trevally), shaari eshkheli (pink ear emperor), yemah (snub-nosed emperor), qabit (gold-lined seabream), safi Arabi (white-spotted spinefoot), kofar (king soldier bream), esnenuh (yellow fin hind) and marjaan (mangrove red snapper).

A UAE-wide socioeconomic survey by the EAD also confirmed its scientific findings, with most fishermen agreeing that there has been a significant decline in fish stocks over the past 30 years.