Omani waters are famous for their yellowfin tuna. But at this year’s Sindbad Classic, a big-game fishing event on Muscat’s coast that rides high on its abundance, reports came in of an unusually meagre return of these strong, lean fish. Meanwhile, over in the UAE, the number of boats ready for big-game fishing is dwindling all the time. Fuelled by reports of decent catches grinding closer to a halt and boats sailing further from the coast to find decent stocks of fish, is this the end for the sport in the region?
‘It’s on a remarkable slide down, that’s for sure,’ says Greg Heinricks, a fisherman who’s been based in the region for 20 years. ‘In Dubai there used to be 11-14 big-game fishing boats, but today there are only two. Companies are closing and just going by the wayside,’
Big game fishing boats tend to be in search of larger, bonier fish like tunas, marlin and other billfish and can haul in single catches of over 90kgs, and as Heinricks explains, the past five years have seen a huge reduction in the number of fish being caught. The biggest indicator, Heinricks told me, is the disappearance of the sailfish from UAE waters in the past three years. ‘We’ve gone from tagging and releasing close to 1,000 sailfish a year down to zero,’ he says. Averaging at 4-5 ft long, with a long bill like a marlin and a characteristic ribbed back-fin, the sailfish are a prize catch among big-game fishermen. UAE waters used to be among the top three fishing grounds in the world for sailfish. Now, they’ve literally disappeared.
It would be easy to assume that over-fishing is the culprit, but Heinricks insists that it’s the loss of coral that is the real problem. ‘Habitat is fundamental to life, if you don’t have the basics for food, life doesn’t exist,’ he says. ‘When you kill the coral and that infrastructure it doesn’t leave anything for the fish to eat. There’s nothing to eat so they’re moving on.’
The concerns over fish stocks became a theme at the Sinbad Classic. It has been running in March for four years now, but Bruce Fennessy of organiser Intevents has decided to pull it forward to February in 2009 when there are usually more fish.
‘We were expecting, and really hoping, for tuna,’ he explains. ‘But if they were there they just weren’t biting. We can’t make any judgements from just this one year but if we fish in February and there are still no stocks, then we know there’s a problem.’ Fennessy notes that weather conditions may well be the cause and that we shouldn’t rule out the effects of Cylone Gonu, which ripped up the coastline last year and dropped the water temperature by a good couple of degrees, both factors that affect which species of fish are around.
On the subject of over-fishing however, it’s more difficult to come to any conclusion. Sinbad 2008 billed itself as ‘Sustainability Through Sport’, and put strict limitations on how many fish of different species could be brought back to shore and billfish, sailfish and marlin had to be released immediately. All caught fish were donated to the local community in a bid to show that sport fishing doesn’t have to be about pillaging the sea. But it’s debatable how much the fish shortage is the fault of sportswomen and men. The huge commercial fishing businesses use the longline fishing technique (hundreds, sometimes thousands of baited hooks on one line). This is known to deplete stocks, while immature fish are caught before they can reproduce.
Intevents is planning a big game competition to match the Sinbad here in the UAE, staging the East Coast Classic in January at Fujairah. ‘The potential here for big-game fishing is enormous. We’re doing these events to get some international exposure and to get things going on a grassroots level.’ Fennessy insists that teaching the importance of sustainable fishing is crucial for these events.
It’s unlikely that this marks the end for the sport in the UAE. Sustainability is now a watchword for both the recreational and commercial fishing businesses, and both rely on fishstocks for their future.
If the sport kicks off again here then Bruce Fennessy believes ‘it’ll do wonders for the region’. For now, however, we’ll simply have to see…
Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club offer chartered big-game fishing trips and operate a largely catch and release policy, keeping only decent-sized edible fish. Four hours Dhs3,500, six hours Dhs4,000 and eight hours Dhs4,500.