Foodways: Fishing from or near the Shore – Sardines

A second type of fishing near the shore is catching schools of sardines by encircling them with a net that is pulled to shore. This is impossible in places with a rocky ocean floor which would snag the net, so it is only done from Salalah [the main city in the Dhofar region] to the east towards the towns of Taqa (28 km east of Salalah) and Mirabt (70 km E).

As this work requires many people moving to a certain place quickly, the set-up is different than other kinds of fishing. First, the men who own a boat and the large net (costing at least 300 OR) will leave at fajr (daybreak) with several experienced men in his boat. “Experience” in this case means knowledge about where the fish might be and how the schools move, as well as a detailed understanding of the coast line, as the net can only to thrown in areas without rocks. For sake of clarity here, I will refer to the man who owns the boat and net as ‘captain’ but the term used is ruban; this word is only used to differentiate him from other men with the same name, not an honorific in daily use.

The second group is the men who habitually work with the captains to pull the nets in. They gather at a certain restaurant in Taqa Saturday to Thursday between 7 and 8am. Each man will work with only one captain through the season of October to March and will work most days; however there are enough men on each crew that it’s up to each man to decide to work or not. As with the informal football games, there is no such thing as too many men and no one who wants to work is turned away. Sometimes there are 15-20 pulling in the net, sometimes over 40 men.

The third component is the men with Land Cruiser, single-cab pick-up trucks who ferry the men to where the sardines are and bring the sardines to the broker. At least one of these men is in contact with the captain; for example if the captain plans to leave shore at a certain time, he will tell the men with pick-ups when to be ready.

Each morning the captain and the men in his boat drive parallel to the beach looking for schools of fish. When a group of sardines is spotted, the captain will call one of the drivers to tell him where the fish are. The waiting men will pile into several pick-ups and go to the spot indicated.

The captain will come to shore and hand out one end of the net, then he will slowly drive in a large semi-circle around the fish as the men in the boat slowly drop the net in the water. Finally, he will bring the boat back to shore and hand off the second end of the net. The men on shore will then pull the net in or attach each end to one of the trucks and haul it in by using a winch or towing the net.

Many seagulls will flock to the area hoping for an easy meal while the men get the fish above the water line and out of the net. The catch is then loaded into the beds of the pick-ups. Only one type of truck is used because a full bed is a unit of measure (trib). The full trucks are driven to the sardine broker in Taqa. The captain tells the broker if he wants the catch sold fresh to restaurants, sold processed or simply processed, then he will take the sardines himself to use, give away or sell.

The broker notes the captain’s name and catch, then the sardines to be processed are spread out in the sun to dry and turned at least once. Depending on the weather, smaller fish take about three days and larger up to six days. When the fish are sufficiently dried, they are loaded into canvas sacks and are ready for sale.

Bagged sardines cost cost between 2-4 OR and can last around a year if well-stored, i.e. out of wind, sun and the khareef (monsoon) rains. Both sizes of sardine are in demand as camel and cow owners prefer large sardines and goat owners prefer small to use as fodder during the dry months.

One trib (pick-up load) is worth 80-130 OR depending on demand; a good haul is 15 trib or more. The intricacies of payment are beyond the scope of this short essay but in general, the captain takes 30% of the total price of the entire haul as decided with the broker. The broker will take a small percentage for the work of processing, holding and selling the sardines. The remaining amount is divided not by the number of men but by number of shares as each man in the boat is given at least a double share, perhaps more depending on experience. Each man who pulls the net has one share and each man who drives a truck has one share. Each man is free to take his share in cash or in sardines, fresh or processed. In other words, there are a lot of variables but as this system has been in place for decades among men who have known each other their whole lives, the payments are worked out and distributed every day.

This customary divisions of labor means that men with differing skills and abilities can participate. A man who is not physically strong can earn a share by taking net-pullers in his truck to the place where the sardines are; a man who pulls the net does not have to have a truck or pay for gas. Also, a man who drives a truck and also wants to help pull in the net would get a double share.

The amount caught varies widely from day to day. There might be a good haul for several days in a row and then nothing for a few days. If there is a small haul early in the day, for example only 4 or 5 trib, the boat may go out again looking for another school but usually the nets are pulled in only once per day.

As with all types of fishing, there is a lot of charity built into the practices of pulling nets. Any man [see note below] who comes to watch the sardines being brought in can ask for/ be given a 1-4 kees (plastic bag used to haul goods from shops, usually holds about 5 kilo of sardines). The sardines given should be used as food or bait, not sold on to another person. If anyone wants more than this “fair usage” (my term), the sardines are paid for.

Some fishermen will also catch sardines standing on the shore or in a boat close to shore by throwing small cast nets. These are circular nets which sink quickly after they are flung because of small weights sewn into the perimeter of the net. The net is then cinched, by pulling on a rope that gathers it together into a bag, and hauled to shore or onto the boat.  Fishermen who fish with live bait spend approximately 50 OR per year to buy sardine cast nets because they need different sizes for small, medium and large sardines; most fishermen have 5 or 6 nets which cost 25-80 OR each and are sold based on two measurements. First, by the “eye,” meaning the size of the hole, i.e. smaller hole size for smaller fish. Secondly, the radius which is measured by dhirae (‘arm’ in Arabic, from the inside, center point of right elbow to tip of middle finger on right hand); sizes range from 5-15 dhirae.

Related Essays on Fishing

Foodways: Researching Fishing Practices in Dhofar and Selected Bibliographies

Foodways: Fishing from or near the Shore – Boxes

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

(photo by Hussain BaOmar)

h - fish

Note – I use ‘any man’ as the sardines are often hauled in along stretches of beach which are not close to houses or stores; thus only the men working and men who drive by are present. A Dhofari woman/ women would not often be driving along a beach during the day. When the catch is close to developed areas, many people come to look but a Dhofari woman would seldom walk very close to where the sardines are being taken from the net and put into the trucks as there is a lot of noise and confusion from the working men, flopping fish and dive-bombing seagulls. A woman who wanted some sardines would send a male relative to ask or, if a male relative was working, ask him by phone. Female tourists often come close to take photos. I have seen hauls being brought in many times but do not get close as I feel the men are working in a certain rhythm that would be interrupted by a foreign female examining their labor. I am sure that if I asked for a bag of sardines, I would be given one but as I live here, I don’t want to make a spectacle of myself.