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©KAUST 2023; Xavier Pita

Are there really plenty more fish in the sea?

A tool that places fish on a scale of sustainability could help Saudi Arabia protect species at greatest risk of overexploitation.

Saudi Arabia currently imports around 60 percent of its seafood, but the government is ramping up efforts to become self-sufficient and has already invested heavily in aquaculture to supplement the declining catch from Red Sea fisheries. At KAUST, as part of the projects supported by the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture, research is underway to inform fisheries management and secure the future of this vital food source.

“Fishing is a trade-off between how quickly the population of each species can grow and how much we take out,” says postdoc Andrew Temple, “but it can take up to a decade of data collection to spot declines, and so we are always playing catch up. This is particularly bad for people who rely on fishing as a source of food or income.”

Drawing upon experience working with global fisheries from Northern Europe to East Africa, Temple hopes to transform fisheries research from a reactive science — responding to species decline — into a proactive one that prevents species decline and facilitates marine conservation measures.

“Fisheries get a bad rap,” admits Temple, “but most of the species where we have reliable data from are fished sustainably. There are effective management systems in places like Europe, North America and Australia, and species like tuna are fished sustainably in most countries,” he adds.

In the Red Sea, however, management is limited and popular species like grouper and humphead wrasse are declining rapidly. Saudi Arabia is a developed, high-income nation, but it still has very small-scale local fisheries similar to those in Africa and South East Asia. “The economic drive to catch these large fish is very high,” says Temple, “and most fishers have to worry about the here and now, not 20 years in the future.”

Through Saudi Vision 2030, the country wants to combat malnutrition through sustainable food production. Temple is developing a simple tool that uses artificial intelligence to classify fish according to their economic value and how quickly their populations can grow. This will help decision makers to easily identify the species at greatest risk of imminent decline and help researchers to prioritize their efforts.

The collaboration with local fishers is a valuable source of information for fish conservation research. ©KAUST 2023; Eliza Mkhitaryan

“This is a creative approach to address a timely problem,” says Michael Berumen, Temple’s mentor. “Saudi Arabia urgently needs to improve the management of its fisheries for both marine conservation and food security. The tool can inform stakeholders, particularly the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture and coastal gigaprojects such as NEOM, and their plans to address these challenges.”

Temple’s multidisciplinary approach combines market studies and local knowledge with biological data and species morphology. By studying the shape and size of fish, biologists get insights into their evolutionary history and can estimate their population growth rates; for instance, large fish are slower to reproduce than small ones and are therefore at greater risk of being wiped out by overfishing. “By sorting species using their resilience and considering how people interact with them to predict which ones are most at risk, we can take action now instead of waiting five to 10 years,” he says.

For the last three months, Temple has accompanied environmental consultants from KAUST Beacon Development Fisheries Team on trips to local fish markets, where they gather data on the size, age and reproductive maturity of some of the highest-value species, including jacks, snappers, groupers and Spanish mackerel. KAUST Beacon Development also collects catch data from ports to track how many of each fish are being reeled in.

Calculating a fish’s economic value requires a deeper dive into the market trends and some insider knowledge of a country’s preferred cuisine. “Culturally, people know which fish to eat,” says Temple.

“For a start, attractive fish look more palatable, so they might be at greater risk than some of the ‘ugly’ species from the ocean depths.” However, different fish are prized in different areas and all trawling vessels scoop up so-called “trash fish” that have no economic value. These fish either get thrown back or the fishers keep them to feed themselves and their families.

Andrew Temple (left) and Santhosh Charles, Fisheries Specialist at KAUST Beacon Development, go to local fish markets to gather data on different species of fish. ©KAUST 2023; Eliza Mkhitaryan

In December, Temple joined KAUST Beacon Development and local fishers on a trawling expedition from Al Qunfudhah in the southern Red Sea to observe how they interact with species not seen in the market. “Trawlers are mainly on the hunt for shrimp, but their sweeping nets are fairly indiscriminate, and we ended up with a lot of squid and fish,” says Temple. But the bycatch did not go to waste. “The fishers used the low-value fish to make a communal meal, cooked right there onboard using fresh ingredients brought from home,” he says. “It was a nice experience, sitting down together to eat and chat.”

Local fishers are an important source of information for conservation research because they understand the system so well. But it can take time to build their trust, and Temple is wary of jumping in with sensitive questions about their livelihood. Identifying priority species will accelerate progress toward a fisheries management plan that provides recommendations, for example, on the time and locations of fishing trips.

“The fishing communities here are already very cooperative, and they even have a roster for vessels to go to different fishing grounds,” says Temple. “Management decisions must include input from local fishers and businesses to determine what is feasible and agreeable.”

KAUST Beacon Development is working hard to bridge the gaps between researchers, like Temple, stakeholders and decision makers. “We are devoting a lot of time to working with the fishing sector to collect data on fish stocks directly from boats at landing sites, from onboard observations and at auction markets,” says Fisheries Program Director at KAUST Beacon Development, Mark Dimech. “Our ultimate goal is to create an integrated management framework, based on the current status of resources, so that the Kingdom can achieve sustainable Red Sea fisheries in the long term; we will put our suggestions forward later this year.”