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Migrant fishermen targeted as Bahrain faces fish stock collapse

As Bahrain contends with a drastic fall in its fish stocks, migrant fishermen are increasingly falling victim to wage theft. Bahraini authorities have intensified efforts to arrest and deport migrant fishermen for unauthorized fishing, rather than dealing with the crisis or holding sponsors accountable

On May 8, 2024

Bahrain’s fishing sector relies heavily on migrant workers, though only Bahraini nationals can hold fishing permits. Bahraini permit holders sponsor the migrant fishermen and provide them with vessels and fishing equipment. Workers typically either receive a share of their catch, split earnings with their sponsor, or pay sponsors a fixed sum monthly from fish sales and keep whatever they earn beyond breaking even. In rare cases, they are employed on a monthly wage basis. Irrespective of the working arrangements, a poor catch can push migrant workers into exploitation and hardship.  Conditions for migrant fishermen are similar throughout the Gulf, as Migrant-Rights.Org’s white paper on the sector details.

Crisis in the making

Over the years, Bahrain’s fish stocks have declined due to land reclamation, overfishing, harmful fishing practices like trawling and fishing during breeding seasons, as well as sea pollution and global warming. According to a study conducted by Bahrain’s Marine Resources Directorate, the country’s fish stocks have plummeted by approximately 90% since the 2000s, with the number of fish species dwindling from 80 to just four over the past few decades. 

In recent months, the decline in fish stocks reached critical levels, sparking public outcry over unprecedented fish prices. The price of a popular fish in Bahrain, Safi (Rabbitfish), skyrocketed to over BD7 per kilo, a stark rise from its previous cost of less than BD 1 per kilo. In response, the Bahraini government banned the export of all types of fish and shrimp caught in its territorial waters and the fishing of three popular fish species during the month of May.

For decades, Bahrain’s fervent pursuit of development and land reclamation has wrought havoc on its coral reefs and marine ecosystems, driving fish populations away from the coast where development projects are carried out. Despite this, Bahrain has recently embarked on a plan to construct five new artificial islands, two of which are ironically named after the Gulf’s two largest coral reefs. This plan is projected to expand the country’s landmass by a staggering 60%.

Meanwhile, mainstream criticism of these land reclamation plans has waned due to the government’s intensified crackdown on media freedom. Consequently, blame has increasingly shifted towards migrant fishermen for the decline in fish stocks. This pattern echoes a common trend wherein migrants become scapegoats during crisis.

Last year, a group of MPs proposed an urgent legislation to ban migrants from engaging in commercial fishing and replace them with Bahrainis. MP Hassan Bukhammas, who is also the Foreign Affairs, Defence, and National Security Committee chairman, claimed that “Many expats just overcatch in a bid to make as much money as possible even if they see a turtle stuck in the net, they would tear the limbs to get rid of it, while all turtles are protected by law.” He further fanned flames of xenophobia by stating that the  fishing profession has been “invaded by expats from the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.”

Bahrain’s coastguard recently stepped up inspections of fishing boats to enforce the use of legal fishing gear and deter the capture of prohibited fish species. This effort has led to the arrest and subsequent deportation of several migrant fishermen.

While some migrant fishermen do engage in unauthorized fishing practices given their significant presence among Bahrain’s fishermen (see sidebar), their actions are the responsibility of their Bahraini sponsor. Sponsors often fail to provide legal fishing gear and pressure their fishermen to disregard fishing regulations to make profits. The xenophobic narrative and policies targetting migrants distract from both the root causes of the decline in marine life and the lack of government action to address them. 


Labour and consumer practices that promote overfishing

Seafood is a key part of Bahraini cuisine and is highly sought after by residents. This demand is starting to strain fish stocks, as many consumers do not consider the breeding and spawning seasons of the fish they buy, according to an expert in Bahrain’s fishing sector.

The unsustainable consumption trend was most notable when Bahraini MPs recently voted unanimously to end the government fishing ban imposed during April and May. One MP stated in protest to the ban that “the three fish varieties are integral to every Ramadan dish and meal, and banning their catch and sale at this time is wrong.” He added that, “decisions that don’t involve consultation with those concerned – in this case, fishermen – have to stop.” Under this pressure, the government ultimately only upheld the ban for May.

Despite the drastic drop in fish populations, Bahraini fishermen and owners of fishing permits protested against the government’s decision to continue the ban in May, pointing out the adverse effects on their profits. Such protests are not uncommon. In 2017, Bahraini fishermen and fishing permits holders staged a protest in front of the Bahraini Parliament to oppose the ban on shrimping and urge the government to shorten the ban period.

According to multiple fishermen interviewed by MR, the majority of commercial fishing permit holders and vessel owners, who must be Bahraini citizens, often lease out their fishing permits to migrant fishermen and are never on the fishing vessels themselves. These migrants then compensate the sponsors based on their agreed arrangements.

Such arrangements typically involve sponsors charging migrant fishermen an agreed-upon amount each month. Once this amount is paid to the sponsor, the remainder is divided among the fishermen. Alternatively, migrant fishermen may be offered a percentage of their catch as compensation, but only in rare cases receive regular monthly salaries. According to fishermen interviewed by MR, the majority of Bahraini permit holders opt for the first arrangement, seeking a steady stream of passive income. A Bahraini fishing permit holder told MR, “Most fishing permit holders view this as a business opportunity to make money. They are unconcerned about the impact on the sea as long as they receive their payment.” He added, “In return, migrant fishermen are under pressure to catch and sell as much fish and shrimp as possible, even during ban periods, to meet their quota and avoid repercussions from the sponsor.”

The sale of fish varies based on the arrangement. Typically, those who receive monthly wages or commissions hand over their catch to the sponsor, who then sell it directly in the market. Alternatively, migrants who must pay a sum to the sponsor are usually tasked with selling the fish themselves. In recent months, there have been several incidents of migrants being arrested and deported for selling fish and shrimp at stands across the country during banned periods. In contrast, Bahrainis caught selling unauthorized fish generally only face fines.



"...migrant fishermen are under pressure to catch and sell as much fish and shrimp as possible, even during ban periods, to meet their quota and avoid repercussions from the sponsor."

Vinish, an Indian fisherman from Tamil Nadu, arrived in Bahrain in January 2024 after taking a loan and paying a recruitment agent in India 50,000 Rs (US$ 600). Unlike the typical arrangement of paying the sponsor based on catch or a fixed price, the sponsor promised Vinish and his two colleagues monthly wages of BD 80 (US$ 212). However, after being provided with a boat and fishing gear, Vinish and his team were unable to catch enough fish during their fishing expeditions given the recent collapse of fish stocks.

As a result, the sponsor has not paid Vinish and his colleagues any wages since their arrival in Bahrain. The fishermen relied on food from charitable organizations, despite working continuously. After nearly three months without payment, the fishermen requested the sponsor to return their passports and arrange their flight home.

However, the sponsor refused and demanded that the workers pay back the visa and recruitment costs, an illegal but not uncommon practice in Bahrain. When the workers complained to the Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA), they were simply told that “the employer is not picking up the phone” and instructed to return another day. 

After weeks of pressure from local community groups, the employer gave in and returned the passports to the workers. With groups support, Vinish and his colleague recently returned to India, empty-handed, facing the debts they had taken on for their short stint.

Many migrant fishermen in Bahrain encounter similar pressures, often coerced to take risks by using illegal heavy fishing nets, fishing during prohibited breeding seasons, or even venturing beyond Bahrain’s territorial waters to more fertile fishing grounds to earn wages or pay off their sponsors to avoid visa termination. There are numerous instances of migrant fishermen going missing or losing their lives because they are compelled to travel far from the coast due to the fish stock crisis.

 It is also not uncommon for sponsors to force or encourage workers to shrimp during banned periods to turn a profit.  The Bahraini government enforces a six-month shrimping ban each year, meaining that migrant fishermen sponsored for a full year can only earn for half of that time unless they possess the skills to catch other types of fish. In an incident reported in 2021, a group of migrant fishermen were caught shrimping in Bahrain’s waters during the official ban period. The coastguard intercepted them by ramming their patrol vessel into the fishermen’s boat, resulting in the death of one of the coastguard crew members. The arrested fishermen claimed they had set sail to catch shrimp at the boat owner’s request.

Per Bahrain’s fishing regulations, the holder of the permit and the fishing vessel bears responsibility and is formally liable to fines and penalties for fishing violations. Nevertheless, as noted by an expert in Bahrain’s fishing sector, it is commonplace for owners to plead ignorance, asserting that they did not authorize the crew to fish during prohibited periods. Consequently, this frequently leads to lenient repercussions for them. In contrast, migrant fishermen are promptly arrested and deported.

“What’s crucial right now to protect Bahrain’s fish stocks is strict enforcement of fishing bans during breeding seasons and ensuring that vessel owners are personally present to captain their fishing boats. This way, they’re directly responsible for following regulations and facing real consequences if they break the rules,” he added. 

Rather than addressing the multiple factors contributing to the decline of fish stocks in Bahraini waters, Bahraini officials have chosen to scapegoat migrant fishermen. Meanwhile, their sponsors, who expose them to risks, continue to profit from their exploitation.