The species that are rapidly disappearing from the country's waters are demersal or bottom-dwelling fish – in particular the hamour, or grouper.
"In the past few years, the fish catch along the coasts of Abu Dhabi and Fujairah totalled up to 18,764 tonnes, corresponding to values of up to $40 million (Dh146.8m)," said the study. "On the surface, these figures seem impressive, but the real facts only emerge with a scientific appraisal of past and present catches."
The EWS-WWF said a comparison of the latest assessment for the UAE with the one carried out in 1978 by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation reveals a decline of 81 to 93 per cent in demersal fish species, which constitute the bulk of the catch brought ashore.
Demersal fish, according to the research, represented 85 per cent of total landings in Abu Dhabi between 2001 and 2003 with hamour representing 18 per cent of the total catch with a value of between Dh17m and Dh20m.
The coastal and offshore waters of the UAE support a rich and diverse variety of fish fauna, contributing to the nation's cultural heritage and economy.
"In recent years, however, over exploitation of fishing among other threats has pulled UAE fisheries into a state of decline. There is an urgent call therefore to develop an understanding among stakeholders and fisheries-dependent communities [from fishermen to retailers and consumers] about sustainable use of fish," the study added.
The decline in fish resources has pushed up prices dramatically over recent years. For example, a kilo of shehri, another local favourite, sold for Dh8 a few years ago but now costs between Dh18 and Dh22 in Abu Dhabi.
According to another study by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD), hamour is the most common and favourite species in the GCC, where it is the most commercially exploited fish. The study said the species is declining rapidly in the region. The fish, according to EAD, represents up to 35 per cent by weight of the catch landed in Abu Dhabi and 40 per cent by value.
The EWS-WWF study suggests that a major factor behind the decline was infrastructure development and economic growth in the country.
"In every part of the world coral reefs are already facing increased bleaching caused by global warming. Supplementing this are a number of direct threats identified in the UAE. According to local scientific studies, these include oil pollution, coastal development and unsustainable fishing," said the study.
The study added rapid urbanisation of the country's coastline is making the situation worse.
"Currently, the entire 60km coastline of Dubai from Jebel Ali to Sharjah is urbanised and this urbanisation is extending to the Northern Emirates, making greater demands on coastal habitats that host unique species," it added.
The oil industry is another factor and the growth of maritime traffic has led to a greater number of oil spills, either accidental or intentional. "Each day 15 million barrels of oil pass through the Strait of Hormuz. The UAE is also one of the leading countries in terms of containerisation, ranking fifth among developing countries for container traffic."
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