In the UAE, a land where rain rarely fell and little grew, harvesting fish was the traditional lifeblood of the community, a valuable source of protein since time immemorial. As a result, Emiratis were intimately connected to the sea, only taking from it what they needed. The practice of splitting and drying small fish (small fish such as jashr (anchovies) or uma (sardines) were dried whole) and of salting the largest specimens meant that these resources were available to the population inland. Some fishmeal was used as camel fodder or as fertiliser. Silversides, for example, in vegetable gardens.
Traditional fishing methods varied along Arabian Gulf waters and in the Gulf of Oman. In the former extensive tidal shallows, which are characteristic of most of this coast, are ideal for fishing with traps. Hadra are deceptively simple fence traps constructed perpendicularly out from the shore. Fish are shephered into a baffled heart-shaped maze where they are stranded as the tide recedes. Hadra traps are in use both along the Gulf’s mainland coast and on inshore islands. Gargour (pl. garagir) traps are igloo-shaped domes, weighted to the seabed with rocks or cement and baited with fresh or rotting fish, which entice a variety of fish to enter through a one-way funnel-like opening. Traditionally, return passage was not possible for larger fish, due to the progressive inward narrowing. However, the modern wire traps are now fitted with dissolvable trapdoors that will prevent ‘ghost-fishing’ or the trapping of fish long after steel traps are discarded underwater. This wasn’t an issue with the original palm-frond traps since they soon disintegrated.
Garagir are deployed from boats (traditionally fishing dhows known as lanshs, or palm-frond shashahs), being hauled back to surface for emptying and re-baiting. Along the east coast, where steep craggy mountains provide a backdrop, fishermen living in fishing villages at the mouths of wadis (dried river beds) benefit from the rich stocks nourished by deepwater upwellings offshore. Here, beach seine netting (yaroof) and the casting of drift nets (al hayali) or the use of gillnets, known locally as al liekh and often set on the bottom, are also deployed (usually from dhows). Long-lines (manshalla) are also used.
In recent years, the UAE’s population has grown at an unprecedented rate and tourism and trade have flourished, resulting in a large demand for seafood. This has led to a substantial investment in a modern fishing fleet and an increase in boat numbers, boat sizes, and better equipment. The consequence is a higher fishing effort and a greater depletion of stocks: the bounty enjoyed by so many for so long is in rapid decline.
Environmental organisations such as Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) are carrying out surveys of fish stocks to accurately assess the situation. Fishing activities are being monitored and managed. Fishing licences have been limited, the use of fish traps has been regulated, net sizes have been controlled and periods when fishing can take place have been stipulated.