Tides of History: A Look Into Oman’s Fishing Industry

10 Oct 2019
POSTED BY Alvin Thomas

Oman’s long-standing fishing tradition dates back centuries. Now a younger generation is stepping in to lead the way – leaving old practices behind in favour of new. And with exports on the upturn, we head to the high seas to determine what’s on the horizon for the future of commercial fishing in the Sultanate.

The rewards of the seas can prove bountiful to those who cast their nets and ply the deep for their hidden troves. 

Whether their shoals of fish are snapped up to feed the hungry or plucked from the waves as the stuff of sport – and social media bragging rights – for the communities of fishermen who have made the Sultanate home to their seafaring traditions, the water is their life.

And, why wouldn’t it be? With Omani coastlines spanning over 1,700kms, there’s much area to be reconnoitered and resources to be exploited.

For many in the Sultanate, fishing strikes the right balance between an exhilarating leisure activity and a team bonding sport – but for generations of Omanis, it’s a livelihood that’s been a mode of self-sustenance.

Take the story of Abdullah al Balushi for instance. A third-generation fisherman by trade, the 42-year-old Omani makes a living plying the waters of Seeb and selling his catch to the local fish market.

To him, fishing is beyond a sport – it’s a way of life.

As he recollects: “My grandfather and father were both fishermen, and my grandmother and mother were both sellers in the market. I remember growing up in a small house by Seeb, and the money we made would be from selling the catch of the day.

“Everything depended on how well his morning and evening catches would go. We wouldn’t have money for the day if my father came home empty-handed, but that was very rare.

“The sea has always been kind.”

To this day it still continues to provide, as Abdullah sets his nets in his own boat with the help of his wife Fatima and son Ismail.

His evening fishing session (at 5:30 p.m.) is only an arm’s length away and other boats have already begun fighting the waves from the high tide as they sail into the surf, anticipating a good catch.

Abdullah’s son Ismail, 21, keeps our conversation going as his father hops into the boat to begin his second rally of the day (his first being in the morning at 6:00 a.m.).

He says: “Tonight will be a great night for fishing and we’ll be sharing our catch with the expats who line up by the beach first, before taking the rest to the Seeb Fish Market.

Speaking with the bold confidence of a fisherman, there’s truth to Ismail’s declaration of fortune. It comes in the form of modern technology – specifically an app called Fishing Points that forecasts patterns for efficient angling and offers tidal details and GPS navigation while in the water.

It’s one of the steps that Omani fishermen are using while out on the sea to have an edge over their counterparts who still use traditional (but effective) fishing methods based on setting landmarks and studying wave patterns.

“Change is inevitable,” Ismail adds.

He has a point: his father is one among 49,299 fishermen as per recent data revealed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF). Moreover, there are 23,232 registered small fishing boats operating in Oman; meaning, competition is greater than it’s ever been despite a steady flow of youth towards modern streams of life in the city.

“As you can see, there are quite a lot of fishermen currently operating in Oman – but I don’t think it’s enough,” says Ismail.

The young Omani, who is studying to become an engineer, has a penchant for fishing and hopes to pursue the profession after his graduation – even if his parents won’t approve.

“While engineering is my passion, I picked it all up from repairing the two-stroke engine on my father’s boat. I learned a lot from my time with my father and I hope to carry forward this tradition when I get the chance.”

This, he says, is a common mindset among those youth who hail from families in the fishing industry.

Ali al Ghafri, 26, is another Omani who aims to carry forward his father’s legacy – but through different routes. A graduate in the fields of management and logistics, the young Omani says: “I’ve always been fascinated by fishing and the trade industry around it.

“And even though I have a license to fish commercially, I’m thinking of setting up my own export company here in Oman. It’s an up-and-coming business, and with the abundance of fish we find in the waters around the country, I think we could make something great of it.”

Despite his plans, Ali vows to continue fishing: “Growing up, I saw how passionate my father was when he and his friends would get on the boat and sail away to catch fish. They would sing songs while they pushed the boat and pulled in nets full of fish.

“It’s a part of my life – and I want to continue living it. My mother comes to send me off every time I get on the boat. I think she’s so proud that I continue fishing even though my father is no more.

“This is for you, Ubbi (father),” a teary-eyed Ali adds, as he ends our interview.

Contrary to popular belief, fishing is moving on to become a profitable profession that can indeed support the economy of the nation.

Ashish Laxman, manager of Al Reef Fisheries, is among those optimistic about the future of commercial fisheries. He says: “It’s amazing how fishing has become a self-sustaining industry today with the potential to add to the GDP of the Sultanate.

“As recent stats go, it is expected that fisheries exports alone in Oman will contribute to RO1.3 billion to the GDP of Oman. This is huge for fishermen, as an increase in demand for exports will also help increase the value of the catch.

“We predict that fishing and trades related to fisheries such as exports, fishing technology, marine biology, and so on will be among the most prominent jobs one can undertake in the coming years as the industry grows.”

As per data revealed by MAF in 2018, Oman’s annual fish production stood at 347,541 tonnes in 2017, while more than 176,711 tonnes was exported in 2017. This increased to 245,000 tonnes in 2018 – and represented 44 per cent of the nation’s 553,000 tonnes of catch from the year.

To complement it all, MAF has also undertaken an integrated country-wide value chain to boost exports from sea to international markets in less than 36 hours.

Oman is known worldwide for its yellowfin tuna, sailfish, oil-fish (a type of mackerel), dorado, grouper, and kingfish – and Ashish reveals that it exports much of its catch to the UAE, Qatar, and India.

A study titled ‘Fisheries Statistics 2018’ published by the MAF also reveals that in artisanal fishing, yellowfin tuna came first place in production rates with 177 tonnes, followed by various breeds of tuna in the Indian ocean at 127 tonnes, and oil-fish in third place.

While harvest numbers in commercial fishing are increasing, it’s also leading to a jump in sport-fishing – an activity that Omanis and expats alike are adopting. A prime example comes after Oman was ranked seventh in the top 10 spots for fishing worldwide.

But this has also led to the enactment of much-needed laws to govern the industry – laws that prevent over-fishing in areas such as Yiti and Salalah which are prone to leisure and sport-fishing.

A decision issued by MAF in 2017 states that fishing for recreation and sport requires a permit, thereby reducing private boat operators from offering fishing tours to tourists.

H.E. Hamed Bin Said al Oufi, the former Under-Secretary of Fisheries Wealth and (current) Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries clarifies the law, saying: “The law was always there – and these aren’t just pertaining to Oman but are actually international laws that govern sport-fishing so that their practices don’t harm the [livelihood of] local fishermen.

“Currently, anyone can go with a fishing rod or small boat and fish. But it requires a license to do so, and back in the days there was no restriction on the quantity they could catch. So, some were taking in one and two tonnes of fish.”

But he explains that the current law mandates that leisure anglers are only allowed to catch 20kgs of fish.

He explains: “Leisure or hobby [anglers] are meant to only catch to consume their catch. They aren’t meant to sell it to the public. So, 20kgs of fish is more than enough.”

As per His Excellency, the law now obliges boat-owners, cruise vessels belonging to maritime clubs, and firms organising fishing activities for tourists and enthusiasts to have a valid permit, which is issued by the Ministry.

A 24-hour permit is available for RO2 whereas the 30-day permit can cost up to RO25. But permits for recreational fishing at sea will only be considered for applicants over the age of 18. Applicants must also be medically fit and skilled swimmers, in case of an emergency.

Expatriate residents with valid residency cards can apply for fishing permits, although no form of commercial fishing is allowed; albeit even commercial fishermen have laws that mandate their activities. For instance, fishermen must stay away from certain locations during peak seasons and mustn’t over-fish.

Having noted a strong pull towards fishing, MAF has also organised several contests and festivals to help create awareness of the nation’s fisheries industry. The last contest, which was held in Seeb, for instance, brought together 251 fishermen in 73 boats – and saw 1,940kgs of fish being caught.

Fisherman Abdullah and his ‘brothers’ (a group of Omani fishermen) will be among the contestants who will take part in the competition in 2020. But for now, they head back to home-base by 9:00 p.m., their nets brimming with over 125kgs of fish; some of which they donate for free to workers who have lined up at the beach.

The veteran fisherman adds: “Fishing isn’t just about making money and selling everything you get in the market. It’s about sharing the gifts of the sea with others. We believe that if we give a portion of what we make to the needy, then we will receive five-fold of what we would normally get.

“That’s something I’ve learned from my family – and I hope I have passed it on to future generations who are waiting eagerly to get on the boat and cast their nets.

“There’s plenty of fish for everyone who wants a share of the rewards – but when we see it as a blessing rather than a business – then, the fish will come to you.”

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