Beginning early in the morning, the Qatif Fish Market in eastern Saudi Arabia is bustling with trade. The market, established more than 150 years ago, is one of the largest in the Middle East.
Khalil al-Zawadi, the leader of the fishermen in the market, said about 1,000 to 1,200 tons of fresh fish exchange hands in the market everyday during the shrimp and fishing seasons. The daily transactions are valued at 1,200,000 Saudi riyals (about $320,000).
"Our grandfathers established this market, and we inherited this profession from them," Al-Zawadi told Al-Shorfa. He said about 4,500 people work in the market.
"The market opens its doors early in the morning, and many merchants from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries come to the daily auction for fish and shrimp brought by the sailors directly, as well as by some merchants who offer Gulf catch in this market and are sold wholesale to be distributed to various Saudi and Gulf markets," he said.
Even with seasonal fishing regulations, Qatif Fish Market is still growing with yearly transactions amounting to 475 million riyals ($100 million).
Soon, the market will have a new location.
To accommodate the market's size and to show its support for the fishing industry, Qatif Province Municipality started building a new market in February.
"The new market will be an artificial island to the east of the port of Qatif with a total area of 110,600 meters and a total cost of 7 million riyals ($2 million)," said head of Qatif Municipality Khaled Al-Dousari.
The first phase of construction is scheduled to be complete by the end of 2010. Access to the new market will be through the bridge to Tarut Island.
Recently, there have been attempts to regulate fishing in the Gulf in order to preserve and protect species from over-fishing.
"The Qatif Fish Market is a huge centre for distribution to the Saudi and Gulf markets," said Ali Al-Gharir of the UAE. "There are many large companies that depend on the Qatif Fish Market to buy their daily needs."
However, some species have become scarce, he said, "due to activities of the large ships that use illegal fishing methods in the Gulf waters, in addition to the contamination that has afflicted the Arab Gulf over the past 30 years."
Saaid Al-Jarouf, director of a supervisory body in the market that weighs and auctions fish, explained why some species are going extinct.
"This happened because of the change in the traditional fishing methods and the appearance of the large destructive ships that sweep fish," he said. "Therefore, some neighbouring Gulf countries have banned them."
"The market imports about 60% of its fish while the local production represents 40%," he said.
Al-Jarouf said there is increased demand for fish and a 30% rise in cost for some local species after the UAE implemented the seasonal fishing system, which imposed a ban on fishing some species and imposed a temporary suspension on fish exports for two years.
"The price of Arabian grouper (also known as the king of fish) ranges between 1,000 riyals and 1,350 riyals ($266-360) per ton," Al-Jarouf said.
Abdullah Selis, director of another supervisory body in the market, said there have been other, less successful, attempts to regulate the market activity.
"The municipality forced us to use electronic scales, but they stopped after only two days because of the pressure on them and the large quantities that reach the market every day," he said. "So, we sometimes depend on manual scales."
The shrimp fishing season (July to October) is fast approaching, bringing up other concerns about protecting the shrimp and shellfish.
"Shrimp is an economically valuable shellfish and a source of income for many families in Qatif Province," said Fahd Abd Al-Aziz Al-Jami', General Director of Fish Wealth Research in the Western Province.
"Based on a thorough study about egg production and propagation of this fish, the centre concluded that there must be laws to protect this fish and prevent fishing it for a period of three to four months a year," he said. "Therefore, the price of shrimp during these months will increase from 12 riyals ($3) to 50 riyals ($14) per kilo, and then stabilise during the rest of the year."