Foodways: Fishing from or near the Shore – Boxes

The Dhofari fishing industry is divided into three sectors. The first is wooden dhows, which are used to catch sharks, tuna, hamour and other ocean fish. The second sector is individual Dhofari men who own or borrow boats and go out full or part time for sardines, lobster, abalone, squid, tuna and/ or other ocean fish depending on the season. The smallest sector is Dhofari men who occasionally catch fish or squid from the shore and/ or set fish traps close to the beach and women who collect mussels and sufela (abalone) on rocky points in shallow water, usually at low-tide. There are also a few boats, mainly managed by expats and attached to hotels, which take tourists on day-fishing trips.

My main focus is “official” (meaning full-time) Dhofari fishermen who make daily decisions about what type of fishing depending on the “weather and season”; the four main methods are throwing nets, throwing “boxes” (fish traps), fishing with live bait on individual lines or fishing for tuna. In this essay, I would like to briefly discuss fishing from/ close to the beach.

There are many causal fishermen who throw a line with a baited hook or lure from shore in the late afternoons and evening for fish or squid depending on the season. They catch enough for dinner, to give to someone or to sell informally. This is done by all ages from boys in high school to older, retired men.

Women do not usually fish with a line or have fish traps, but they collect mussels and abalone (in season) during low-tides. The shell-fish are usually collected in amounts large enough to sell either by word-of-mouth, with a social media account or given to a male family member to sell ad hoc to a restaurant.

Setting fish traps (“boxes”) near the shore is mainly done by older men who grew up with more traditional lifestyles, are retired or are not working. It is usually done by one man working alone and does not require a boat. This type of fishing is seen as slightly old-fashioned and does not earn very much money, but it’s an important link with the pre-motorboat past. Further, this is the only type of fishing that is territorial, in that a man who puts boxes in a certain area will be seen as being responsible for that area and other men will not put boxes there.

This kind of demarcation is respected because the men are working in the same areas that their fathers and grand-fathers placed fish-traps. When a son retires or if he does not have a job, he might then take over that location from his father. Hence the fishermen are seen as “saving the place,” meaning both keeping the area clean and continuing an unofficial claim because they have spent hours of time, over years, creating the setting of the boxes.

Boxes are not just put down in the water but are placed within painstakingly designed rock-scapes made by clearing rocks out of certain areas, so that the box is surrounded on all sides by rocks that are higher than the trap with only one “door,” which faces the beach. Further, boxes are not set on the ocean floor, but balanced up on three rocks so that the water can move freely. This perception of work producing ownership rights can also found in the Dhofar mountains; a man who plants and takes cares of trees may eventually be given an non-official recognition of ownership by virtue of his time, effort and money.

The boxes are checked every 3 days or so around the time of low ebb with the fisherman wading or swimming out. In monsoon season (khareef, June to August) when the waves are very rough and there is a dangerous undertow, boxes are checked every day but only at the exact time of the lowest ebb. It takes about 15-25 minutes to check one box, meaning swim to the box, take it out of the water by bringing it to shore or placing it on a rock that is higher than water-level, transfer the fish to a mesh bag and replace the box. In khareef extra time is needed to gather a type of black seaweed that fish like and put it in the box; otherwise nothing is added to the box as fish near shore eat plants and small mollusks, not other fish.

The daily costs are negligible as there is no need to have a boat or buy food since checking boxes can be done between meal times. Boxes cost 25-50 OR each. Usually a man has 1-5, with 10 as a maximum. Because they are placed in water that is 2-3 meters deep, they are smaller and flatter than the boxes that are thrown in deep water. Also, boxes thrown in the sea are made of two parts, the mesh top which must be replaced every year and the iron bottom which lasts 2 or 3 years. Boxes placed near the shore are made from aluminum so they don’t rust; traditionally this type of trap was made from plant material which lasted only 3 or 4 months. Besides the boxes, the costs are a mask (5-55 OR, usually 20-25 OR), snorkel (10-12 OR), mesh bag (7 OR) and swimming clothes.

Related essays on fishing

Foodways: Researching Fishing Practices in Dhofar and Selected Bibliographies

Foodways: Fishing from or near the Shore – Sardines

Foodways: Catching Lobsters and Diving for Abalone

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