Even in modern Qatar, fishing remains a vocation for a number of locals. We spent two days on the high seas with a leading Qatari fisherman.
Jassim Ahmad Al Lingawi’s fishing boat sets sail as early as practical on the morning of October 11, at the outset of the fishing season for hamour, the much-loved, meaty grouper local to the Gulf, but the sun is already so strong that the deck of the boat seems to shine bright white. It’s a reminder that, even in mid-October, the sun dictates life on the Gulf and along its coastline. Fittingly, the pair leading our small fishing boat tell a story which closely mirrors that of Qatar.
The skipper is Jassim Ahmad, who uses the toponym Lingawi, from an Arabic-speaking region on the West coast of Iran, as a stand-in surname and his nickname in Qatar, where he is a distinguished fisherman. Lingawi forms one half of a duo which is completed by Mohan, the boat's pilot with whom he has worked for 11 years. Lingawi’s seafaring life was sealed by fate: before desk jobs became widespread, there were few other ways for Lingawi to make a living in his native Doha. Although equally passionate, Mohan’s attachment to the sea was a less obvious choice. Born in India’s Gujarat state, he first saw open water when he left a job as a welder to work in Bahrain’s fish market in the mid-1990s.
Lingawi and Mohan have set sail in a small sanbouk, about 30 feet long. Smaller than the more recognisable Boom, its traditional design used to be a commonplace: with its almost-vertical bow, it was navigable in the shallow waters of the Gulf, and ideally suited for pearl diving. This particular boat was completed only a few years ago in Oman, made with a type of teak wood. Asked about its provenance, Lingawi knows only that the wood comes from Africa, quite likely Tanzania given that country’s close connections to Oman, but he isn’t sure. Mohan has control of the small outboard motor which is the only concession to modern technology. The kit is important, but Lingawi insists that “it is the fisherman who catches the fish, not the boat”.
It is difficult to avoid reading meaning into the physical resemblance of the two seafarers. Both Mohan and Lingawi have weather-beaten faces from years spent at sea, and of the physical strains of lives spent catching fish. There is also a surprising hint of kindness and warmth in their rounded faces and disappearing hairlines, and a dignified stoicism. Both men smile generously: at each other, at the others on the boat, at the sea itself, but neither of them has much time for superfluous words.
About an hour into the voyage, Lingawi’s boat is looking out onto the Pearl. Now a world famous luxury residential development, Lingawi can recall a simpler time when this used to be Al Mifras, a prime fishing ground. “I once stayed overnight here, with my cousins on a small boat. We took home more than 40 big hamour.” Like almost all of the fishermen one speaks to in Doha, Lingawi is adamant that the size of both the hamour catches and the individual fish have become smaller in previous years. Ground reclamation in the area near the Pearl means that the water there is no longer as a spawning ground for hamour, the main attraction of dining tables here. Tony Moorat, a British expatriate in the construction industry and head of the Qatar Sea Anglers’ Association, points to a similar, still-developing story: the dredging work done for the upcoming Hamad International Airport has taken rubble more than 30 kilometers into the sea, impacting the ecosystem in which hamour spawn. Moorat’s group throw any fish lighter than three kilograms back into the sea, making it difficult to tell the extent of damage to hamour stock but Moorat, like other anglers, agrees that the catching of juvenile fish is making things worse for Qatari stocks. For the moment though, this remains a moot point for Lingawi. The waters are choppy anyway, and so he heads back east.
For another two hours, Lingawi and Mohan try to figure out where there might be a localised region of water calm enough to allow the catching of fish, preferably hamour. Lingawi and Mohan finally settle on a patch of sea close to Mshoot, known amongst expatriates in Doha as 'Banana Island', and a favoured shellfish harvesting spot. Although the waves prove no less turbulent here, the fisherman’s luck looks like it’s about to take a turn for the better.
After the boat has spent about 15 minutes near Mshoot, Bandoo and Naji, the two men who have been hired to hold on to the fishing lines and wait for bites, shout out in excitement. Naji, standing on the left of the bow is fairly sure that he has got a large fish biting, and Mohan slows the engine just a touch. Lingawi runs to the front, to guide Naji, a novice on his first professional fishing trip, on how to reel it in. Up to this point, the wizened fisherman was skeptical of Naji’s skill. Everybody on the boat is excited that this might be an auspicious, early start to the hamour season.
The fish which butts its head out of the water is certainly big, but with the mid-day sun reflecting off the water while it struggles to free itself of the line, nobody can be sure exactly what it is. It looks like it could be close to three feet long, making it an ideally sized hamour for oven cooking. Before its last gasp, the fish in question, with its yellow linings, looks to be more of a tuna - a rare but not unheard of occurrence in Qatari waters - than a hamour.
By the time it is reeled on board, it is clear that it is a Lahlah, a type of queenfish. Although not a very common catch, and recognisably related to tuna, it is not popular with diners in Qatar. There was hardly enough time for the fish to stop struggling onboard before Naji’s line got a second bite. This time, the excitement is tempered by the fact that the first fish is caught hours into the trip on a windy day, and is not a hamour. This second fish gives the team much more of a fight, and both Naji and Bandoo work hard to pull it up, after a muted drama which lasts almost five minutes. The way that the fishermen work seamlessly together with a bare minimum of words - possibly a result of the language barriers on this small vessel- is impressive. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that the fish which is finally reeled up is a barracuda.
At this point, the fishermen are wondering if it makes sense to cut their losses. They have not caught a single hamour to show for their efforts and it looks like spending the fishermen’s time and the boat’s petrol at a time when the weather was never really right is in nobody's interest. The fishermen quickly hang the barracuda up to bleed it, and prevent the flesh from rotting.
Inclement weather was only partly behind Lingawi’s inability to catch hamour on that first day of the season. The data published by the Ministry of Environment’s Fishery Resources Department paints a clear picture. From 2008 to 2009, a period which saw a rapid increase in Qatar’s foreign-born population, the annual hamour catch began to tumble from 2,260 tons to 1,300 tons. The nature of the population increase was critical: for those Qataris who enjoy seafood, hamour was “just another fish”. In contrast, as many Qataris point out, the white, “not very fishy” flesh of a hamour made it a prized meal for the Qatari hospitality industry, which is geared towards the 70% of the population who are non-Qataris.
Fluctuations in the price of hamour reflected this: in 2011, the price of hamour shot up from a low of 20 to 70 Qatari Riyals per kilogram. Moza Al Naemi, a Research Executive at Qatar’s Science and Technology Park, has straightforward advice about resolving this issue. While she normally adopts the measured, qualified tone of a scientist, she is adamant about one thing: “People have to make certain lifestyle choices if they want to continue eating hamour in the future”.
The Ministry of Environment has indeed responded: beginning in 2011, captive-bred hamour have been released into Qatari territorial waters. So far, about 50,000 fish, thought to be indistinguishable from the wild variety, have been set free in the Gulf. Yet such measures can only ever be a stop-gap. As Al Naemi makes clear, farming hamour, unlike other fish, is not cost effective. This is one reason why the Ministry of Environment wants to ban the harvest of certain fish stocks during the months of April and May, when hamour breed. Yet, as Al Naemi points out, there will never be “just one solution” to all of the problems associated with the depletion of hamour stocks.
This reality is foremost on Lingawi’s mind when his busy schedule - including an appearance at the Doha Boat Show - lets up and allows him to continue the second leg of the trip at the end of November. Catching hamour is a priority, if only to prove that it remains possible to catch hamour using lines and lures. They will be trolling: in other words, simply dropping the lures at an appropriate depth and hoping that it will be at the right place at the right time. For seasoned fisherman Lingawi, this should be easy: he goes to the fasht, or small coral reef, just off of Al Aaliya Island, a few kilometers off the coast from Lusail City near Doha. No time is wasted on the journey: the moment that his boat sets sail, his crew drop lines into the water. The idea is that the hamour, who love the underwater limestone and coral formations around Doha Port from where they set off, can be caught by chance. The work requires skill, however.
Clasping the fishing line, it is difficult for the untrained hand to know if the vibrations are coming from the boat’s outboard motor, or the nibbles of a fish. Lingawi and his crew - only Mohan has remained from last time - are sure of their ability to land a hamour once they get to the coral off of Aali. They seem hopeful. After all, Lingawi says, he “used to catch them in droves there” in his heyday, even only using lines.
The route which the fishermen take to the fasht passes by a floating checkpoint of the Qatari Coast Guard, and one of the sailors stops Lingawi to take the particulars of his companions. “You’re Jassim Lingawi? Are you that fellow who owns all of the boats in Qatar, you?”. “Not all of them” retorts Lingawi, “only about half of them”. Lingawi beams with pride, knowing that he is more famous on the seas than most people are on dry land. He is ready to go fishing.
The cormorants flying over the surface of the water and the needlefish jumping around are all good omens for a catch; Lingawi has learned to read such signs during his 40 years at sea. By the time we get to the reefs around Aaliya, the sun is high and bright enough that Lingawi can see how the chalk and dust has floated to the surface. Seaweeds rising to the surface seem to be the only thing standing between the boat and the ultimate prize of hamour at this point, but Lingawi is even more impressed by the cloudiness of the water, which he takes to be another harbinger of hamour catches.
Even for these weathered fishermen, the wait is tedious. The boat crisscrosses the length and breadth of the fasht for several hours, but there is not a single nibble on the lines. By this point, the crew’s faces are already beginning to bear the brunt of the elements out at sea. Although it is by no means a storm, the air out at sea, tangibly salty, is starkly different from Doha and its skyscrapers and the nondescript weather there.
Lingawi is perturbed. “Shall we try to catch something else, other than hamour?” he asks the others, and Mohan changes course without protest. Lingawi does not want to abandon his belief that it is still possible to catch hamour on simple lines instead of traps and nets, but today might not be his day. Again, the boat moves to the area around Mshoot. About 14 kilometers away, it is prime territory for kingfish and queenfish but the hope remains that a transient hamour can be picked up along the way. This doesn’t stop Lingawi from changing his decoys, using others which are more buoyant, and thus will not sink to where groupers live: even if not a hamour, he does want to catch something.
Onboard the fishing boat, there is time for silence and introspection. There is also at least some anxiety about not catching any hamour. Yet there is, finally, a chance to enjoy some food. Lingawi has brought a tuna-based medley prepared at home, as well as falafel and hummus from Beirut Restaurant, a Doha institution which seems oddly out of place on the sea; and copious amounts of bread and soft, packaged cheeses. In a separate ice chest sit small plastic cups of saccharine sweet orange juice. These are refreshments but might also be useful to help revive from the effects of long doses of sun and sea. This is a feast to be enjoyed peaceably, and with some amount of pleasure, but they must have also been wondering what they were going to do about catching fish.
Just as they arrive at Mshoot, Lingawi seems vindicated in his decision. It is clearly a big, big fish, probably close to 10 kilograms, and it is also a chanad, the migratory kingfish which appears in Qatari waters over the winter months. Like others in the species, it is incredibly fast: chanad have been reported going as fast as 70 kms per hour. This is definitely a much better prospect than the fish caught last time, not to mention more appreciated on local dining tables. The next fish, hot on the heels of the earlier chanad, is, disappointingly for Lingawi, a lahlah: the same tuna-like fish caught last time, and which would normally be discarded right back into the sea, but Lingawi and the crew need to take back something.
The first lahlah to be brought up puts up an incredible fight, exhausting two of the crew members who pull it up. It continues to flap violently on the boat’s deck, and Lingawi has to give the order that the fish be allowed to die by itself, without anybody intervening to make that process quicker; the others seem slightly frightened by its writhing. By the time it stops, it has beaten itself black and blue, contrasting with its natural yellow markings.
The crew hardly have the time to put the decoy back into the water before another nibble, on the same line - Lingawi starts to think that it is lucky - brings the crew back to the rear of the boat to watch. This time, all optimism is snuffed out. The fish, about the same size as the first two to be caught, seems resolved to its fate. Even while still in the water, the fish holds still and looks up plaintively at the people onboard.
Lingawi and his crew have little time for sentiment. Instead, he looks up towards the changing colour of the sky and makes the snap decision that it is time to leave. Hobbyist fishermen in leisure boats wave as they recognise him, but he doesn’t mention that he is going back to dry land with nothing to be proud of. Unless things change, many more fishermen will, like him, go back disappointed.
Abed Ayyad is an Associate Editor at Qulture.com
Photo: Emre Rende