Qatar’s efforts to revive its dwindling fish supply hit another snag last week, after it emerged that more than a dozen illegal fishing traps were operating off of the nation’s coasts.
According to recently published research, the traps, known as weirs, are catching tons of young herrings and snappers each year before they can breed and help restock the waters.
Qatar officially banned weirs in 1994. The traps, which have been used for hundreds of years, typically consist of a long mesh fence called a “wing” that runs perpendicular to the shore line. Fish swimming parallel to shore during high tide try to escape the wing by swimming along it towards deeper waters, where they they enter a small enclosure that traps them when the tide recedes.
A paper co-authored by Dalal Al-Abdulrazzak, a Kuwaiti national completing her PhD at the University of British Columbia in Canada, was published last week and estimates that between 186 and 386 tons of fish are caught in weirs off Qatar’s shores each year.
This is only a small percentage of the estimated 12,000 to 15,000 tons of fish that are caught in the country’s waters annually, according to the Ministry of the Environment.
Still, while the number of weirs in Qatar is overshadowed by many of its Gulf neighbors – Bahrain likely has more than 850 weirs off its coast that catch an estimated 17,125 tons of fish annually – the findings nevertheless come at a time when local officials are warning of unsustainable harvests and dwindling fish stocks.
As part of efforts to shore up its supply, Qatar has in recent years required local owners of fishing boats to accompany expeditions – vastly decreasing the number of fishing trips taken by these boats. Last year, it also announced that it would stop issuing new fishing licenses for the next decade.
Based on her findings, which were funded by her university and Pew, Al-Abdulrazzak argued that Gulf nations are vastly underestimating the size of their annual fish harvest.
“Poorly reported data impairs country’s economy, puts their food security at risk … (and) jeopardizes entire marine ecosystems.”
Scenes from space
Al-Abdulrazzak’s research was inspired while casually browsing satellite images on Google Earth. Like many users, she joked, she started by trying to see what her home in Kuwait looked like from space before noticing she could clearly make out weirs off the coast of her home country.
Al-Abdulrazzak, who is currently working as an environmental policy analyst at the United Nations, counted 1,656 weirs in the Gulf’s coastal waters. Correcting for poor visibility and low imagery resolution, Al-Abdulrazzak and her colleagues raised their estimate to 1,900 weirs.
The majority of the weirs were located in Bahrain (50 percent) and Iran (37 percent), followed by Kuwait at 5 percent. Qatar represented a small fraction of the total, with 14 visible weirs. However, Al-Abdulrazzak estimates that the total is closer to 17, when one accounts for cloud cover, reflections on the water and poor image quality that reduced visibility in some areas.
A map plotting the locations of the weirs show that most are clustered around Qatar’s north and west coast, which is particularly problematic because that’s where many fish nursery grounds are located, according to Al-Abdulrazzak.
“They are catching juveniles of commercially important species before they have a chance to spawn,” she said.
In October 2012, the Qatar Statistics Authority published its Sustainable Development Indicators report, which found total fish harvest increased an average of 4.5 percent a year between 2001-10 amid rising local demand for seafood.
In an effort to protect the country’s dwindling fish reserves, government officials said last year that they wouldstop issuing new fishing licenses for the next decade and ban the export of hamour and safi, although the latter move was reportedly intended to reduce the prices of the popular species.
This past summer, Brig. Ali Ahmed Al Bedeed, director of Qatar’s Coasts and Borders Security Department, said foreign anglers deliberately head into this country’s waters to catch hamour and are putting the domestic fish stocks at risk:
“If we don’t protect our fish, in one year’s time there won’t be any fish left in the Qatari waters.”
For its part, Qatar’s Fish Wealth Department – an MOE department – said it condemned all forms of illegal fishing, and that the country’s waters are tightly controlled by authorities.
“If there is some illegal fishing, it should be of insignificant impact on the resources,” the department told Doha News in a written statement.
Weirs are illegal in Qatar in the sense that the country does not issue any licenses for this form of fishing, the department added. No one has been arrested for operating illegal weirs and none have been dismantled, the government said.
Qatar’s Fish Wealth Department said that Al-Abdulrazzak’s report contained several “interesting and innovative ideas that are likely to raise good interest among the fisheries community.”
However, it added that her approach should be a supplement, rather than a substitute, for existing data collection methods:
“Our government has invested considerable effort in fisheries statistical monitoring and catch/effort assessment and we are becoming progressively confident that our assertions concerning the exploitation of fish resources are reasonably accurate.”
Along with improving the quality of data reporting annual fish catches, Al-Abdulrazzak said she would like to see restrictions on the number of weirs and their locations in the Gulf.
While Kuwait has banned weirs in Kuwait Bay and other specific areas, Qatar stands out as the only country with a nationwide ban.
While her research shows that enforcement remains an issue in Qatar, Al-Abdulrazzak said illegal fishing weirs are “really common” and not unique to the Gulf.