Arabian gulf fish stocks in crisis

Following years of overfishing in the Arabian Gulf, some fish stocks are on the verge of collapse. but it’s not too late to turn the tide and save our seas

How do you change the eating habits of over a million people? In fact, how do you change the eating habits of just one person? The first question might overwhelm you, sending you into anaphylactic shock at the stinging thought of how to influence such a vast number of individuals — each with their own personality, likes and dislikes, fears and desires. The second question seems more manageable, given a little time, but unfortunately, when it comes to the question of dining out on rare fish, the luxury of time is in short supply.

The issue at stake here is the UAE’s love for a fish dinner — it’s long been a staple of the Emirati diet, but is equally loved by most expats — particularly some species that are in dwindling supply, such as the hamour. Yes, it’s succulent; this much any fish-lover knows, but it’s numbers, according to the EWS-WWF (Emirates Wildlife Society in association with the World Wildlife Fund), are in steep decline, along with over half a dozen other fish species. Yet although the hamour — and its other threatened cousins — taste good, there are many other species available locally that are found in healthy numbers, which can also please your finely tuned palette.

This is the message that the EWS-WWF is trying to get across. This is why people’s eating habits need to be changed, and this is why wknd. magazine is focusing on the issue this week, because habits need to change fast, otherwise those dwindling fish populations will fall to levels below which they’ll be able to repopulate. Put simply, they’ll be wiped out; reduced to stragglers that missed the net. It’s a dystopian scenario, but one that’s more than possible unless habits change soon.

Leading the charge with a campaign that has already drawn much support is Nessrine Alzahlawi, conservation officer at the EWS-WWF (an organisation that aims to protect and conserve the natural world). Nessrine has been at the forefront of the campaign Choose Wisely that’s trying to raise awareness about the problem of overfishing, but which also suggests fish that are in healthy numbers.

The double-edged approach has the backing of the Ministry 
of Environment and is gradually gaining corporate support from companies that deal in fish on a daily basis — restaurants, hotels and supermarkets.

Those of you that shop in Choithram may already be aware of the campaign. The supermarket is the first major store to join the Choose Wisely campaign by using its clear red, orange and green labels to mark off fish that are “heavily overfished”, “exploited within sustainable levels” and “not experiencing heavy fishing pressure”. It’s a simple way to get the message across to the consumer, but the decision is still left, ultimately, with the consumer.

According to Nessrine, the campaign has to be consumer-led. “In its first year, the principal component of the EWS-WWF sustainable fisheries project is the consumer awareness campaign, Choose Wisely. It all starts and ends with the consumer buying a fish at the market… When suppliers see an interest from their clients, they in turn see the value in seeking sustainable local species to supply,” says the conservationist who is passionate about protecting marine life in the Gulf and beyond. So, the pressure is now on to raise awareness amongst the general public of the UAE. If we don’t change our ways, we’re running out of time to conserve many fantastic species of fish, meaning our children and their children won’t have the option when it comes to their dinners.

Nessrine explains, “Available science does not allow us to predict exactly when UAE stocks will be wiped out. What we know, however, is that in the past 30 years, the decline has been dramatic.

When you place this decline in parallel with the much higher development and population growth rate of the UAE in the last decade, it is clear that the pressures placed on the marine environment will be higher than they ever were in the 70s or 80s. If nothing is done to protect fish and their habitats, it is likely that it will take much less than three decades to see a devastating impact on our stocks.”

Before you worry about where you’ll get the nutritious benefits from fish that dieticians have been raving about for years, take a look at pages 23 and 24, which clearly show a wide variety of fish that the EWS-WWF says are still in abundance and therefore fine to eat. The next question on your mind might be about how to prepare these fish. Fear not, you’re not in this alone — it has to be a shift on a large scale — so much so that even professional chefs are, if you’ll excuse the pun, caught up in the same net. On pages 30-33 several of the UAE’s top chefs demonstrate recipes they are serving in their restaurants. If they can make the change, so can you — and if you want even more recipes then check back in with this magazine in the coming weeks, but also visit, where the EWS-WWF explains its campaign in full, but also lists recipes uploaded by its supporters and fans — people like yourself — who have already made the switch to only eating sustainable fish. There are currently 25 recipes listed, and you can even rate what you thought of the suggestion — the power of the Internet strikes again.

The chefs that have joined the Choose Wisely campaign represent some of the finest hotels and restaurants in the UAE, including Hilton Dubai Creek’s Scott Price (recently named as Chef of the Year at the What’s On Awards 2010) and Grosvenor Hotel’s Tom Egerton, along with Le Royal Meridien Abu Dhabi’s Olivier Loreaux and the Sheraton Dubai Creek Hotel, which is pushing sustainable food at its outlets. The salubrious list highlights the level at which the Choose Wisely campaign is being followed, and Scott Price of Gordon Ramsay’s Verre Restaurant says chefs have an important part to play.

“I think now that most chefs are aware that we have a crucial role to play in the choices people make when they eat out. The more people are aware of the problems of using unsustainable fish the faster we can make a difference. At the end of the day, chefs who are not willing to change will very soon feel the pressures around them and find they will lag behind their competition,” says Scott. His sentiments are echoed by Tom Egerton of Grosvenor House, who explains that customers are usually obliging: “I’ve noticed that at first some customers are not sure which types of fish are from sustainable sources, however once chefs take the time to explain it to them, they are usually more than happy to try different types of [sustainable] fish which they have not come across before.”

The issue of sustainable fishing has been developing for years, but the EWS-WWF’s Nessrine says that the government has been making a difference too. “Federal as well as local government agencies across the UAE have been trying to address the decline in fish resources for a number of years, through research, through regulations on fishing gear and commercial fishing licenses... Most recently, in January 2010, the Ministry issued a decree banning the fishing, sale, marketing and purchasing of undersized fish. All these efforts, in addition to public awareness and consumer education, are essential to move forward towards more sustainable fisheries.”

Even though the government is on board, more is needed from the consumer; the very consumer that has been enjoying these fish for years; the very consumer that may not even be aware there’s a growing — or dwindling — problem out to sea. According to the EWS-WWF that problem has led to fish stocks dropping by up to 80 per cent in UAE waters alone; hamour is currently being fished out 7 times over the sustainable limit, while kanaad (kingfish) is currently being fished out at over 5 times the limit. It doesn’t take a maths genius to work out that at that rate supply won’t exist much longer.

With that in mind, the focus is firmly on UAE fish consumers to change their buying habits away from those endangered fish species, but also on sustainable fish stocks taking their place — no one’s asking you to stop eating fish altogether. So, take a look at the recipes on our pages; take a look at the recipes online and see what you think of the sustainable options that the Arabian Gulf can provide. The EWS-WWF has shown us how change can be achieved, but are we concerned enough to follow? It’s up to you.

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