Bulletin 1 - March 1977: Dugongs in Abu Dhabi Waters

Dugongs in Abu Dhabi Waters

by Tony Harris and William Bertram

Following Professor Colin Bertram's talk (see this Bulletin) an attempt has been made to record the number of dugongs caught by fishermen operating from Abu Dhabi island. The method is far from reliable, but it is to be hoped that the overall picture is not too inaccurate.

Dugong meat has appeared in the fish market in Abu Dhabi on about 15 occasions since the beginning of November 1976. The occurrences were spread fairly evenly, though December saw only two, possibly because of stormy weather that month. (We are indebted to David Corfield for keeping a close eye on the souq.) Unfortunately, the appearance of meat in the market is not a very reliable indicator. Sometimes meat from the same dugong is brought in on successive days; on other occasions it must have come from more than one animal. Questioning the fish-sellers in the souq can be misleading; they themselves are not always fishermen (often they are just middlemen) and they have only a vague idea of where the dugongs have been caught. In general, however, they have affirmed that the dugongs are brought in singly. There is also evidence that the dugongs, once brought into Butain where the fishermen congregate, are sometimes sold off directly without appearing in the souq. From personal observation, the local Abu Dhabians are partial to dugong meat and buy it regularly (it sells usually at Dh10 per kilo or a little less).

The pattern revealed above was totally upset on 14th February 1977. It was learnt that a number of dugongs had been brought into Butain a day or so before. In fact, eight were still lying on the beach, some still whole. Seven had heads attached (the fishermen commonly throw the heads away if they bring the dugongs on board; if they tow them in they are usually intact when they get to the shore). The fishermen who had caught them had put out to sea again. Colleagues on shore intimated that more had been caught but were vague about the details. All had been taken in the vicinity of Mubarraz, Heel and Butain islands to the west of Abu Dhabi. (This area of shoals, stretching as far as Sir Bani Yas, is agreed by all to be where the dugongs are exclusively found.) One man said that he had seen a hundred or more grazing in this area just recently, but he may well have been exaggerating. Fishermen say that dugongs get entangled in the nets at night (never by day) and often drown. Others live for up to two days after being caught. No fisherman yet interviewed has claimed that he went after dugongs deliberately.

The seven heads were removed and buried in damp sand as a first stage in cleaning them up. (We hope to be able to ship them eventually to Professor Bertram in Cambridge. One other head was recovered last year.) The list gives details of sex and length.

Much of the meat was sold direct to "the Bedouin" as the fishermen put it: apparently elderly Abu Dhabians living nearby. The skins, formerly used for footwear, are now discarded. It was noticeable that, although the meat was already four days old, it appeared not to be "going off" (staying fresh even when exposed to the air is a well-known characteristic of dugong flesh). The fishermen salted a large quantity of it in order to take it to sea with them as provisions.

As forecast by the fishermen, the early part of the year is when dugongs are usually caught. There is evidence that about a dozen have been brought in in February alone, and at least two dozen so far this winter. This accords well enough with the view of the supervisor at the fish souq who estimated that between 50 and 60 are caught each year.

Dugong found at Butain -- 14th February 1977

  1. Female 8'6" Head taken
  2. Young male 7'6"Tusks. Head taken
  3. Female 7'6" Head taken
  4. Male 8' Tusks. Head taken
  5. Female 9'6" Head taken
  6. Young, unknown gender 4'6" Head already removed, not found
  7. Male 8'6" Tusks. Head taken
  8. Female 8' Head taken


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