DAMAGING YEMEN’S RED SEA FISH [Archives:1998/04/Business & Economy]

January 26 1998

Prepared By P. A. Jones, M.Y. Connda Vennessa Al-Saleef, Yemen
My work earlier this year with our vessel M.Y. Connda Vennessa and the United Nations/World Bank-sponsored project for the Protection of Marine Eco-Systems was carried out by the Yemeni Ministry of Fish Wealth and the Global Environment Fund (GEF). We were involved in surveys of many of the northern islands in the Southern Farasan bank (e.g. Uqban, Tiqfash, Fasht, etc.) and the Zubair Group of islands. Two Australian marine biologists and four Yemeni counterparts were heavily involved.
In addition to this, I was involved with the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Egypt with establishing an Environmental NGO and new Marine Protected Areas. We dealt with issues such as over-fishing, recreational use of coral reef areas and islands (diving, snorkeling, etc.) introducing laws and regulations, training and licensing local boat captains, and in training and educating local people in conservation measures, etc. Beyond that, we have been working since October, with our vessel in the northern Red Sea area of Yemen with diving trips. This gives me plenty of opportunities to dive on the reefs, witness the problems relating to over-fishing and talk with the locals, especially fishermen. The following report intends to focus attention to the potential long-term negative impact of recent developments on the diversity of marine life in the Yemeni Red Sea.
1.1 Egyptian Fishing Boats We have noticed that many (40-60) Egyptian ‘Suez-type’ fishing boats are operating in these areas. The majority come from Suez and operate with a license from the Yemeni government. They fish with trawling nets, some of which are as large as two or three kilometers and are often left for more than 24 hours in the sea. The small mesh size (less than 1 cm) traps all marine life including dolphins, turtles and juvenile fish. This is a very destructive method and is extremely wasteful as over 50% is inedible and are invariably thrown back dead into the sea. On several occasions, we witnessed large areas of open sea covered with dead fish. On closer inspection, we found that they had been thrown from these fishing vessels. This can only suggest that these fishermen are catching large quantities of fish to fill their stores on board, once full they then put the nets back out to try and catch more fish. If they find that the new catch of fish was better or more valuable than the last, they would then throw away what they had already in their stores. My understanding is that these fishing boats pay a relatively small amount for the annual license with little or no control over the amount or variety of fish they catch. Discussions with local Yemeni fishermen from Al-Saleef suggest that they are also catching shrimps. If these fishermen are allowed to continue in such a way, many areas in the next few years will be left with very little fish and will cause irreparable damage to this sensitive and valuable eco-system. The Egyptian Red Sea offers thousands of miles of fishing and raises the question as to why they are coming all the way to Yemen. This is because this method of fishing has been occurring in Egypt uncontrolled for many years and fish stocks have been severely damaged.
1.2 Shark Fishing Fishing of sharks for their fins is now becoming a worldwide problem and a source of concern to many governments. In many cases this practice has been banned and sharks have been declared protected species. Large quantities of shark are being removed from Yemeni waters and exported to the Far East, fishermen are being paid high premiums for the fins which are removed from the sharks (up to US $80 per kg for some species of shark.) Thousands of sharks are being removed from the areas around the northern Yemeni Red Sea on a monthly basis. The majority of the sharks are thrown back into the sea with only their fins removed, with the rest of the meat just wasted. The beaches of Uqban island for example are littered with dead sharks and rays which look and smell terrible and this is a great shame. The most popular method used to catching sharks are large nets which are set at night and hauled in at first daylight with the sharks already dead in the nets. These nets not only trap the sharks, but also catch other species such as rays, mantas and even dolphins. In a matter of two to five years, the shark population in Yemen will be severely affected, and, in some places, wiped out altogether. This will inevitably have a detrimental affect on the marine eco-system as a whole, and disrupt its very delicate balanced.
1.3 Aquarium Fish Collection Several speed boats are operating from Al-Saleef with Filipino divers and are removing coral reef fish for the aquarium trade, probably in Europe. The divers net selected reef fish then bag them in oxygen and water to be sent on to wholesalers. In Europe, for example, coral reef fish can fetch up to US $500 each! The main problem is that certain reef fish are targeted such as butterfly fish, angel fish and turkey fish. The fishermen will visit a reef continuously until all the required species have been removed, effectively eliminating that species of fish from the reef with very little chance of re-establishing the population. With each boat removing 100-150 fish per day, a complete area can be wiped out in just one day. In most cases the destroyed fish are the prettier and more colorful species. Areas planned for tourism development will be greatly affected by the absence of the main attraction – colorful fish. The process also causes irreparable damage to the natural reef areas and an imbalance in the delicate eco-system.
1.4 Commercial Prawn Trawling In the last two months, Al-Saleef port has seen an influx of commercial prawn trawlers. More than fifteen vessels are now in the Saleef area waiting for permission or already operating. Some are from Saudi Arabia and have very professional freezing plants on board, which grade and package the prawns ready to be shipped out of Yemen. About 1,000-1,500 kilos of prawn are fished per day, compared to the local fishermen who trawl, with the Sambuk, 100-200 kilos over two to three days. The other vessels are, I believe Lebanese owned, were previously operating from Aden. This intensive style of trawling is not sustainable and will rapidly lead to the destruction of shrimp and fish stocks in these waters. This is especially so because the large nets used have a large by-catch and will throw away many other dead marine species into the sea. This in turn will lead to socio-economic problems for the indigenous people of the Tihama who have relied on fishing for their income for thousands of years. People will be forced to leave these areas in search of work in the cities and swell the already present problem of beggars on the streets. I understand Yemen receives 20-40% of the revenue of the catch but this is often hard to control and regulate, if not impossible. So Yemen can expect short-term minimal financial gain but long-term irreparable damage to the delicate and priceless natural resource that should be protected and preserved.
Recommendations 1. Projects, Funding, Donor Agencies: Projects should be immediately initiated to study and review the impact of such types of fishing on the marine environment and controls and/or restrictions should be implemented. Funding could be allocated by the relevant ministries or from outside donor agencies such as the United Nations, World Bank, USAID, … etc.
2. Egyptian Fishing Vessels: The operations of Egyptian fishing vessels should be more closely regulated if not stopped altogether. The revenue generated from the license is by no means comparable to the damage they are causing to Yemeni fish stocks, As all the fish are taken back to Egypt, the benefits to Yemen are not only minimal, but in fact severely negative.
3. Protected Areas: Many of the offshore islands such as the Zubayr Group and those in the Southern Farasan Bank should be declared protected areas with the introduction of management plans, conservation measures and legislation. Arguments in favor of marine conservation policies in these areas are unassailable. A project conducted in the early eighties by the International Union for Conservation of Nature produced a survey of the entire Red Sea with a view to identifying areas where marine parks should be established. Areas recommended for special protection in the Yemeni Red Sea are: a) Saleef – South-west side of Isa Peninsula for coral reefs. b) Zuqar Islands – for coral reefs and also the gazelle population (which are reported to have been eliminated by the recently appointed military).
4) Shark & Aquarium Fishing: Both of these are relatively new fishing practices and should be banned. They are extremely difficult to regulate and control with quota seasons and cause irreparable damage to the marine eco-system as well as any future tourism projects.
5) Enhancing Local Fishing Methods: With the introduction of the above mentioned projects (Recommendation 1), fishery experts could be employed to maximize the catch of the local fishermen compensating in a way for the loss in revenue from a ban on shark fishing for example. In Saleef, the annual shrimp season is not controlled and in the early stages, fishermen are driven to catch large numbers of juvenile and smaller shrimp before they have had a chance to mature to the larger more valuable shrimp. Preventing the catching of shrimp until they have reached a mature size will produce larger more profitable catches in the long term.
6) Commercial Prawn Trawling: This volume fishing method should be stopped before it gets out of control. Already in the last two months, fifteen vessels have arrived and will start to trawl at a level of which a relatively small area of shrimping grounds cannot sustain.