"Oman Oceans"

Dhofar's abalone harvest*

THE year-end bonanza that awaits the fisherman of Dhofar is phenomenal and unparalleled elsewhere in the Sultanate. The coastal waters in the southern tip of Oman turns into a veritable goldmine during the two-month period of November-December, yielding an unbelievably rich harvest of lobsters and abalone, premium marine delicacies which sway the international fisheries market. The good news, especially in the case of abalone, is scintillatingly strong to financially sustain the fishermen till the next season a year later. Today, at RO75 a Kg, raw abalone commands the highest price among fishery products, lavishing a largesse on the Dhofari fishermen. Last year, the abalone catch in Dhofar stood at 43 tonnes.

The going, however, is not easy as one may think and a successful abalone season is assured for only those who can persevere with hard toil. Boulders and crevices up to depths of six metres from the abalone habitat where fishermen, as per government regulations aimed at conserving the abalone stock, can dive with out the aid of oxygen, tanks to pluck their share.Dhofar's wilayat of Sadah tucked away in the deep along Jabal Samhan holds most of the Sultanate's richest marine treasures. The best of abalone and lobsters are found in the wilayat besides the top quality Al Hojary frankincense which also originates from its pristine environment.

Sadah has been fiercely slow in adapting itself to the changes of modern living, in all probability out of a deep respect for the land and sea which nurture the 4000-strong population. The people's obsession to guard their prime land is all the more strong from the fact that had they opted to transform the area, it would not have been difficult with the funds at their disposal. Modern houses could be the only exception in the otherwise scenic stretch steeped in antiquity.

To reach Sadah, the drive from Salalah will take you to the point before Mirbat to turn to the left for a bumpy ride on the gravelled road for about 90 minutes. On the way, a commemorative block shows abalone, the main source of income for the people, as the wilayat's symbol. Though available for only tow months of the year, abalone wealth is unmathched as a single fisheries product. The bulk of the delicacy is devoured by the Far-Eastern market.

Diving for abalone can be taken up by only those who are physically very fit. The best of divers with staying power of up to two minutes under water can go to depths of nearly seven metres. While the most experienced divers may opt to dive deeper, youngsters choose to stay closer to shore and dive in depths up to four metres. Many a danger lurk in the depths and unless one is properly oriented, he may end up getting hurt. These days, divers are properly equipped with goggles, suits which cover the entire body, shoes and gloves for the abalone search. The gear is incomplete with knives which the fishermen carry to force out abalone from rocks and corals as well as to scrape out abalone flesh from the ear shaped shell.

Agile fishermen do continuous diving for two hours and the resultant catch could average two Kg of abalone valued at RO 150. Abalone which cling together on rocks and corals are plucked out with the help of the knife and deposited in the net bags tied around the waist of the divers. The biggest size of abalone will be no larger than 10 centimeters in diameter. About 15 of them could make up a Kg after being removed from the shell.Traders buy abalone removed from shell and process them which mainly involves boiling in sea water in about two hours. Sea water is used for boiling Abalone to retain its full nutritional value.

The boiled Abalone are then spread out on large meshed stands and dried under sun for two weeks. The dried Abalone can be preserved for over a year. Even though raw Abalone can be consumed, the market for it is limited, probably in view of the high price it commands. Hence, most of the abalone from Dhofar are dried for the export market. Nearly 3 Kg of raw abalone are required to form 1 Kg of dried variety which currently fetches RO 250 in the international market. The delicacy dishes include soups and other preparations. While raw abalone can be chewed easily, the dried ones are a bit harder for the teeth.

Local traders operate in Hadhbeen and other areas to provide instant cash to fishermen who bring in abalone. This year the demand for abalone is quit high as a company went to the extent of even paying an advance of RO 400,000 to fishermen to supply their abalone catch. Even as the season is drawing to a close, dried abalone is being dispatched to the export market regularly. The restrictions placed on abalone catch have helped in the surge in price of the delicacy.

From RO 9 a Kg some years ago to the present RO75, Said Ali Shamas al Amri, a leading abalone trader in Sadah, said. Al Amri has wealth of experience in abalone export which he learned from his father who started the family business. Last year, Al Amri exported three tones of abalone, mainly to Hong Kong. This year, he hopes to increase the trade to four tones. Jaman Ahmed Darwish is another trader operating in Hadhbeen. He also actively engages in diving to supplement his income. Darwish, however, sends his consignments to Muscat from where the same are exported to various countries.

Diving has to be taken up with extreme precaution as sea snakes, octopuses and other poisonous sea creatures could spell harm. One of the divers in Hadhbeen pointed to a large scar on his forehand saying he was bitten by some dangerous fish. He also narrated a few cases of divers who were found dead in the water. The fishermen strictly abide by the government regulations on abalone catch during the two month season, the wali said adding that the citizens themselves patrolled the coast to cheak overfishing.

The Dhofar coast is an exclusive belt in the Sultanate where abalone abounds at commercially viable stocks. Nowhere else can this delicacy be found in Oman at a level to sustain the fishing community. However, the Marine Science and Fisheries Centre has launched a abalone culture project wherein its stock enhancement is targeted through a seed production system. Initial experiment proved successful with the production of 4,000 abalone larvae whose growth is being monitored in rearing tanks at the Raysut Laboratory. The study has being taken up at a large scale at a new site in Mirbat in the second phase of the abalone culture project.

The strong seasonality of the regional upwelling and the associated changes in sea temperatures and macro-algal abundance are reflected in the life history of abalone in Dhofar, the study added.

* © Adapted from Oman Observer. Nizwa.NET is not responsible for errors.