Foodways: Catching Lobsters and Diving for Abalone

 (photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

There are two types of fishing that is regulated by the government: abalone (sufela) and lobster. The abalone season is usually 10 days to 3 weeks in November or December, but is only opened if the government deems there is a good crop. Lobster season is from March to the end of April.

The approximate costs for abalone season is about 10 OR daily. About 300 OR is also needed for accommodation and food for the season but this is usually only paid by older, experienced divers who will work for the whole season. Diving is very difficult and many boys and men will join in for only a few days.

Divers wake up at fajr (the sunrise prayer), pray, drink tea and go to the boats, timing their first dive for when the sunlight hits the water so they can see the abalone on the rocks. They will continue for as long as possible; men who are become tired will sit in the boat keeping a look-out for sharks. They will stay in one location until no one can find abalone, then move (perhaps 1 or 2 time during the day), not returning to shore until the last person is out of the water, approximately 4 to 5 pm. Given the dangers of sharks and exhaustion, it is very rare to dive alone. There are usually 3 or 4 men in each boat. At the start of season there may be perhaps as many as 8 or 9 depending on size of boat and engine, but the number tapers off quickly.

The daily costs are about 5 OR for gas for the boat and 5 OR for water and food. For fishing trips, normally the cost of gas is paid from the sale of the fish, with the fishermen then splitting the rest of the profits. However for abalone fishing, the owner of the boat will pay for the gas if he catches a good amount of abalone. If he does not, then the men who rode in his boat will all contribute. Further, the boat-owner will only accept payment from full-time divers. Young men who are learning to dive do not give money.

The costs for the season are for accommodation and personal gear. Any type of boat can be used, i.e. a boat fitted out for throwing nets with no thalaja (built-in freezer), throwing boxes with one thalaja or using live bait with two thalaja.

The main expense is 200-300 OR per person for renting a house or setting up a camp. The costs are usually shared among 4-6 men who are at least in their early 20s and serious divers. Younger men (brothers, cousins and friends) who are learning to dive might come for a few days so there might be as many as 15 men for first nights, but part-time divers don’t pay as explained above.

Sometimes the accommodation costs includes a contract with a cook or a restaurant to make meals for the group of men who are living together: a late lunch around 5pm, dinner at 8 or 9pm, breakfast at fajr and then food packed for the day in the boat. Normally food for a fishing trip is sandwiches, chips, soda, juice, etc. but because of hardships of diving, men usually only take water, drinkable yogurt, bread, and packaged leftovers from breakfast: oatmeal and/ or attriya (also known as balaleet, a dish made with vermicelli; usually it is very sweet, flavored with cardamom and rose-water and served with an omelet on top but for abalone season it is made with milk and without eggs).

The two most important pieces of equipment are the dive suit and knife. Dive suits normally cost around 60 OR and last 3 or 4 years. As it against cultural understandings to wear tight-fitting clothes, the wetsuit is usually bought in a bigger size than needed so it fits loosely. The knife used to pry abalone from the rocks is usually inexpensive (around 3 OR) but men take care of it and try to use the same one for years. In order to collect many abalone, a man has to be able to get the abalone off the rocks quickly so knowing the heft and balance of the knife saves valuable seconds underwater. Men must free-dive; oxygen tanks are not allowed.

Other gear includes flippers (55 OR, high quality pairs can last over 5 years), mask (from 5-55 OR, usually 20-25 OR, men usually bring 2 or 3 in case anyone needs one or one breaks), snorkel (10-12 OR, again, each man usually brings 2 in case anyone needs one or one breaks), mesh bags (7 OR each bought new every year, one is tied to waist to collect abalone underwater and one is left in the boat to hold the day’s catch).

For lobster season, the approximate daily cost is about 25 OR and about 150 OR for the season from March 1st to end of the April. The daily costs are for food and the gas to get to and from the places to throw nets. As with abalone season, the boat does not need to be fitted out in any special way.

The net needs to reach down to ocean floor and be there for several hours, but cannot be used in daylight as fish, squid and octopus will come to eat the trapped lobster. Therefore nets are set down into the water before maghreb (sunset). Throwing can be done by one person if needed and takes about 5 minutes per net. Pulling the net up starts close to (fajr) sunrise and takes 2 or 3 people about 20 to 30 minutes per net, longer if the net is stuck on rocks. Sometimes one man will wear a wetsuit and bring a mask and snorkel so he can go into the water to help free the net from snags. Thus fishermen pay careful attention to time; they need to reach the nets close to sunrise so that there is enough light to see if someone needs to dive to free the net, but not so late that other creatures have a chance to eat the caught lobster.

Fishermen usually return to port around noon, sell the catch, have lunch and rest, then go out again to drop nets for the night. As lobster season starts March 1, nets are first thrown on the evening of the last day in February.

The cost per season is approximately 150 OR for new nets and net repair. A net costs about 55 OR  and it is very different from the curtain net used for fish. The lobster net is smaller with a length of 200 meter and a height of only 5 ba’, the distance from furthest edge of left shoulder to tip of middle finger on right hand. Fish nets are usually 200 meters-wide with a height of 8-12 ba’. Lobster nets are also heavier than fish nets which have to be made from thin/ clear filament which fish can’t see; also, fish nets usually do not touch the seabed. Lobster nets have to settle on the sea floor so they get caught on rocks, meaning they need to be repaired often.

Fishermen usually throw 5-10 nets at one time. Some also catch lobsters in boxes placed in shallow water. The government gives each licensed fishermen 20 boxes for lobster, as the quantity is not decreasing like abalone, but most prefer to use nets.

(photos from social media)

Related essays on fishing

Foodways: Researching Fishing Practices in Dhofar and Selected Bibliographies

Foodways: Fishing from or near the Shore – Sardines

Foodways: Fishing from or near the Shore – Boxes

Foodways: Fish traps

Foodways: Photos for my presentation “The Costs and Benefits of Fishing in Southern Oman,” ‘Fish as Food’ conference, International Comm. on the Anthro. of Food and Nutrition

Foodways: Data for my presentation “The Costs and Benefits of Fishing in Southern Oman,” ‘Fish as Food’ conference, International Comm. on the Anthro. of Food and Nutrition