Yahia Ali Zabarah: “Our marine wealth can help us overcome many of our current economic problems” [Archives:1999/09/Interview]

March 1 1999

The Republic of Yemen has a coastal stretch of nearly 2,500 kilometers, extending from north of Meidi on the Red Sea all the way to the Yemeni-Omani border on the Arabian Sea. In addition, the country’s sovereignty extends to many islands, which further expand the territorial waters of Yemen.
Because of their location in the tropics and the currents off of the coast, the coastal areas are enriched by upwelling processes which allow marine life to grow rapidly. As a result, the maritime resource potential of the Republic of Yemen is indeed enormous. The sector has received much attention due to its potential as a source of food, its importance to foreign exchange earnings through exports and employment of manpower, and its part in other important economic activities.
To discuss these issues, Yemen Times spoke to Mr. Yahia Ali Zabarah, Deputy Minister of Fisheries. Mr. Zabarah, a native of Sanaa, was educated in Sanaa and Cairo. He joined the government services in 1962 at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. He gradually rose through the ranks, and since 1990, he has served as the Deputy Minister.
Ismail Al-Ghabiry filed the following interview.
Q: The starting point is Yemen’s territorial waters and zone of control. What are the facts about these areas?
A: As most people know, Yemen has a long coastline of over 2,500 kilometers. In addition, there are over 150 islands that fall within the nation’s sovereignty.
Therefore, the potential usefulness of our coastal waters is very large.
Q: How much of its potential is being used at this time?
A: I am afraid our take is less than 30% of the sustainable production capacity. Our annual catch is only around 350,000 tons. Also, we are only catching the close-to-surface, close-to-shore species, like sardines, because our fishermen do not have proper equipment. We estimate their are over 400 varieties of marine life that could be fished on a sustained basis.
You will note that the number of fishermen going out to sea every morning is more than 42,000 persons. In addition, there are many people who are engaged in the packing, transportation, freezing and marketing of the fish products. In other words, this is a large and important sector.
Q: What is the volume of our fish exports?
A: Let me first say that there is no ceiling on the volume we can export. Market demand is high. The limitations are our own capacity to catch, pack and export fish.
At the moment, we export around 30,000 tons a year, which is less than 10% of our catch. Most of it goes to Jordan, Egypt and a few Gulf countries.
Q: What exactly is exported?
A: Most of the exports are lobster, prawn, shrimp, squid, octopus, and a few varieties of fish.
Q: What is the local market structure for marine products?
A: In the past, fish products were limited to coastal communities. Today, these products are marketed more and more into the mountain areas inland. But still, most of the Yemeni public only eat fish, not the other marine animals like octopus, squid, or even shrimp.
I think, with time, the consumption pattern of Yemenis will change to include a higher amount of marine life. In addition, improvements in transportation and refrigeration will add more marketing options.
Q: There are reports of piracy as well as illegal and destructive fishing by large foreign ships. Can you give us details?
A: Indeed, because Yemen does not possess an effective marine patrol system, a number of intruders fish in our territorial waters without proper licensing. Some also engage in illegal practices like blast-fishing or fishing for endangered species, etc.
We prepared files on these matters for the government and asked for measures to control this situation. In December 1997, the government issued a number decisions, including the following:
1) Large foreign vessels will be prohibited from fishing within 6 miles of the shoreline.
2) Around the islands, fishing can only take place beyond a five-mile limit.
3) Penalties for breaking the law have been increased. They start at US$ 100,000 and can go as high as one million dollars, depending on the violations.
This problem of large foreign vessels doing illegal fishing in our territorial waters will not go away. It deprives local fishermen of their livelihood, and deprives the country of an important resource.
Q: What are the plans and actions the Ministry has taken to develop this sector?
A: Our target is to achieve a 9% annual growth in fish production. Towards that end, we have allocated adequate funds for investing in this sector. The government financed infrastructure, research, and other needs. In addition, it provided fishermen with 820 fishing boats free of charge which made a difference in the lives of 4,000 families. The government has also financed the construction of 6 ice-producing plants in the governorates of Al-Maharah, Hadhramaut, Shabwah and Aden.
The European Union and the World Bank have also supported the growth of this sector. For example, the EU has contributed US$ 16 million, and the World Bank (through IDA) US$ 3 million towards the Fourth Fishing Project which has a total cost of US$ 39.5 million. The money went primarily for packing facilities and plants.
Q: According to our information, the Ministry of Fisheries does not have full control over the sector. How do you respond?
A: Of course, we do not have full control over everything. When it comes to our maritime resources, a number of governmental bodies are involved. Refugees come from here, so the Ministry of Interior has to be involved. We may have disputes over sovereignty, as was the case with Eritrea over the Hunaish Archipelago. Therefore, the Ministry of Defence has to be involved. There may be pollution considerations which brings into play the Environmental Protection Council.
As a result, the cabinet has established an inter-ministerial committee to present proposals as to how the relevant ministries can coordinate their work.
Q: You mentioned pollution. How bad is it, and what can be done?
A: Pollution is an international problem. For Yemen, which lies along the path of one of the busiest naval routes, it is important to patrol the coastal areas. Many tankers dump tar and other pollutants as they clean up their hull. This is against the law.
There is now an on-going project to study pollution in the Red Sea – GEF, based in Hodeidah.
Q: There was talk about privatization of the Mukallah Fish Packing Plant. What happened?
A: The Mukallah Fish Packing Plant has undergone two stages of modernization and upgrading, and the third stage is about to start. It now produces 12 million cans a year, and is expected to double its capacity after the third phase of modernization. It has received many prizes worldwide.
The second plant, at Shuqra, in Abyan, has also resumed work after a short interruption.
The Ministry is working hard to upgrade both facilities.
Q: Donors and local observers complain of bureaucratic nightmares in your ministry. What is happening?
A: Well, all government agencies have bureaucratic difficulties. Inefficiency is a general phenomenon. We are trying our best. I think that law number (43) of 1997 has improved performance.
Q: Any final comments?
A: I would like to make three comments.
We are all well aware that our marine wealth can help us overcome many of our current economic problems. This is especially true in light of the fact that our oil production is falling, and tourism has now been badly hit. I feel marine resources can offer a lot to this nation. Therefore, it is only logical that our government and society should focus on this sector as it offers comparative advantage in our socio-economic development and in solving our present difficulties.
Second, this is a sector in which responsibilities over-lap. This is normal. But what is not normal is for any of the involved partners to block the possible progress of other players. What I am saying is that all agencies involved in this sector should support each other to achieve more, each within their their respective responsibilities.
Finally, I would like to thank the Yemen Times for constantly addressing issues of vital concern to the nation. This is the real job of the media – to alert and educate the public.