Fishing watchdog report
Yemeni fishermen used to sail off shores that are more than 2,500 kilometers long. The shores stretch across two seafronts extending from the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea, including Bab Al-Mandab strait. For hundreds of years, if not more, the ancestors of Sami Merhi and other fishermen sailed without restrictions, in search of their livelihood.
Since 2016, Sami Merhi’s nets have been empty. Sami, who lives in the city of Al-Mukalla, capital of Hadhramaut, east of Yemen, has been sailing the sea for 15 years until he was prevented from approaching certain areas on the coast of the city of Al-Shihr, where more than 4,000 fishermen make a living off its harbor.
To the east of Hadhramaut is Al-Mahrah Governorate, where Abu Abbas Al-Mahri who has been fishing there since the 1990s, was also prevented from approaching specific places at sea. As a result of this ban, “a fisherman is unable to provide a daily sustenance,” Al-Mahri says. Some fishermen whose debts reach YER 400,000 or 500,000 (approximately $2000) are unable to pay back.
Military intervention in Yemen by the Arab Coalition began in March 2015 at the request of the country’s internationally-recognized government that lost control to Ansar Ullah known as Al Houthi. Contrary to what was initially announced that military operations might last weeks to months, support to government forces against Ansarullah (Houthis) turned into a direct military intervention of the two most prominent coalition countries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in provinces where Houthis don’t have any presence, such as the eastern provinces of Hadhramaut and Al-Mahrah.
This intervention has impacted negatively the livelihood of Yemen’s fishermen. Al-Mukalla is at the forefront of the affected cities, where fishermen say they were prevented from approaching the sea between Al-Riyan Airport and Al-Dabba oil port. The justification used for the ban was that the areas are “near military and oil installations,” and started in April 2016, when Coalition forces and Coalition-backed Yemeni forces deployed in the city.
Satellite photos show fishermen’s boats moored on shores of Al-Mukalla, an indication of the absence of any maritime fishing activity in the restricted areas. This has been the case after Coalition forces issued instructions banning fishermen from accessing the sea and reaching certain depths, thus depriving them of their source of livelihood as they knew no other profession than fishing.
Despite assurances that the ban should not affect the relevant parties, including fishermen, the journalist writing this story has not had access to a copy of the Coalition’s instructions however this ban applies and took effect on the ground.
This article examines the conditions of Yemeni fishermen in Al-Mahrah and Al-Mukalla regions in light of the new imposed procedures since 2016. Data covering the period from 2003 to 2019 and analyzed by the writer indicates a decline in the quantity and value of Yemen’s overall fishing catches. Fish caught in 2004 was 10 percent of the total fish catch in Yemen that was recorded between 2003-2019, while the catch in 2015-2019 was only four percent of the total volume of fish caught in the same period.
Data from the prewar period of 2003-2014 show that Al-Mahrah and Hadhramaut contributed nearly two thirds of the country’s total fish stock caught. Al-Mahrah ranked first in fish catch during the same period with more than one-third of the country’s total catch, while Hadhramaut ranked second with a quarter of the catch.
Following the measures taken to prevent fishing in the designated areas, fishermen resorted to peaceful protests, including organizing vigils to demand an end to the ban. However, Coalition forces and local security forces allied to them retaliated with repression and threats, the fisherman Abu Abdullah says. “When we hold or intend to hold protests, we are threatened with arrest by intelligence officers of the second Yemeni (military) command on behalf or the UAE troops stationed at the airport.” Moreover, according to the fisherman Sami Merhi, their attempts to lodge complaints with local officials have failed.
The ban decisions “have had negative impacts on us; our incomes are no longer enough, and fishermen are doing jobs alongside fishing,” says Mehri, who used to own two boats previously. He adds, “After access to the sea has been sealed off, I left the profession and started working in other occupations to make a living: sometime I worked in a blacksmith’s shop, a snack cafe. And I keep moving. I keep moving.”
Analysis of satellite images of Al-Mahrah Governorate shows that the Coalition has established 11 military outposts, along the coastal strip, close to 11 of the 12 fishing harbors in the governorate. The first military outpost was established near Nashton Harbor in August 2018 and the first camp near Qorhait Fishing Harbor in September of the same year. The Coalition continued to establish camps during 2019, adding eight new camps and a number of military outposts. According to Abu Abbas Al-Mahri, the presence of these outposts has intensified the blockade imposed on fishermen and prevented agricultural fertilizers from entering, in addition to controlling all what reaches Al-Mahrah through the sea.
Mohammad Al-Hasani, head of Al-Hudaydah Governorate’s Tihamah Fishermen Association, said fishermen are not only missing out on fishing seasons; they are also facing arrests. More than 1,104 fishermen have been arrested by the Coalition forces, he added.
The Yemen Data Project, which documented Coalition airstrikes from 2015 to 2019, shows that 52 air raids targeted fishermen, their boats and their fishing infrastructure in the governorates of Al-Hudaydah and Taiz, killing 125 fishermen and injuring 75.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, published in August 2019, at least 47 Yemeni fishermen were killed in five attacks by warships and helicopters, and more than 100 Yemeni fishermen were detained by Saudi forces for 40 days up to two and a half years in detention centers and prisons in Saudi Arabia. The report documented testimonies of former detainees who said they had been subjected to “torture in detention in Saudi Arabia.”
In Al-Mukalla, the area made inaccessible to fishermen stretches to 12 nautical miles, according to Salem Bad’oud, head of the city’s fishermen’s association. For the first time, Bad’oud reveals that he was summoned by the local authorities in Al-Mukalla along with others, after Al-Qaeda left the area in April 2016, to be informed about the prohibited fishing areas.
Bad’oud explains that Coalition forces, which took the city airport as their headquarters, summoned those responsible for the marine fishing sector to inform them that due to new security arrangements, the parts of the sea, rich in fish and a huge source of livelihood for fishermen, had been banned to fishing. This was confirmed by the head of Al-Mukalla’s Cooperative Union of Fishermen, Omar Qambeet.
The Coast Guard commander in Al-Mukalla city, Major Majed Al-Awbathani, said the imposition of the ban was due to two reasons: either the area is close to a military outpost or is in the vicinity of an oil facility. He denied that non-Yemeni forces were stationed on these coasts. He said the affected fishermen were compensated by monthly salaries.
Abu Abdullah, a fisherman in Al-Shuhair for 30 years, said some fishermen, affected by the measures, receive SAR 600 (about $180) each, per month; this is an additional confirmation that local authorities and the Coalition have banned fishermen from operating in certain areas.
The restrictions on Yemeni fishermen in the east are solely justified by security reasons, specifically in Al-Mahrah, whose coastline is more than 750 kilometers long. Head of the Fisheries General Authority in the governorate, Abdul-Nasser Kalshat, defends the establishment of military points, manned mainly by Saudi forces: these are “security surveillance outposts,” he says. Yemeni coast guards forces are posted there, too, he adds, arguing that the deployment is meant to fight smuggling and does not represent a constraint on “the semi-stable conditions of fishermen” in the governorate.
Dr. Ali Al-Thahab, a military expert and researcher in maritime affairs, does not deny security justifications related to smuggling taking place in fishing areas and nearby locations. However, he confirms that whatever the matter is, fishermen suffer from restrictions, while the areas are “hotbeds of corruption, because there, servicemen and other corrupt officials live on money taken from fishermen,” who are forced to pay bribes to circumvent restrictions.
Fish stocks in Yemen rank second to oil in terms of annual exports – their share is up to four percent of total exports. Dr. Adnan Al-Sanaawi, an economy professor in Sana’a University, says the fishing sector needs reinvestment and regulation to become one of the promising sectors that can contribute to the gross domestic product, like the other sectors, such as services and oil.
Foreign interference in the Yemeni coasts includes other parties. A report by the Global Fishing Watch found that between June 2019 and April 2020, more than 200 Iranian ships, including 144 fishing ships and up to 89 percent of the total, entered Yemen’s waters.
Fishing watchdog report
Ali Sawda, a 70-year-old Yemeni fisherman and father of 11 sons and daughters, most of whom work in fishing, concludes that the country’s situation has made “citizens underprivileged,” as a kilogram of narrow-barred Spanish mackerel is being sold for YER 10,000 approximately $40, (which doubled in price in recent years). The series of unfortunate events and transformations is not confined to the fishing sector, Sawda says. He adds pointing to the sea, “look how it became polluted.” What the fishing sector needs is “a state (authorities) to protect it as the case is in other countries.”