MANAMA, Bahrain — Long before the first oil was discovered near here a scant 60 years ago, transforming the Arabian sand dunes into some of the priciest real estate in the world, the people lived off the sea.
The glistening waters of the Persian Gulf--the brilliant aquamarine color of Los Angeles swimming pools--are home to an abundance of fish, shrimp, crabs and lobsters, not to mention dolphin and turtles, which have fed the people who live along the coast for hundreds of years.
But the marine environment is now threatened as never before by the Gulf War. Huge slicks of oil--one 30 times as large as the Exxon Valdez disaster that devastated the Alaskan shoreline in 1989--are drifting south toward the coasts of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
"This disaster is going to be around for a long time," said Walter J. Vreeland, an American adviser to Bahrain's Environmental Protection Committee. "It could affect the Gulf's environment for years."
The Gulf is only 650 miles long and 220 miles wide, narrowing to just 35 miles at the Strait of Hormuz. The narrow neck of the Gulf means that it takes years for pollutants to be flushed out of the waterway. Flotsam from an Iranian airliner shot down in 1988, for instance, has just begun to reach the Arabian Sea.
The oil spill, as well as the intrusion of hundreds of foreign naval vessels and mounting concerns about Iraqi mines, have nearly wiped out the region's fishing industry, one of the few indigenous employment opportunities apart from the oil industry and civil service. More ominously, the war now threatens to deprive the Gulf nations of a key source of food.
"It is a disaster to live on an island surrounded by the sea and not be able to catch a fish," said Bahraini Information Minister Tarik Moayyid, who appealed Monday to the world community for equipment and expertise to help fight the slick.
While the Gulf region now boasts huge supermarkets with butter from Denmark, mutton from Australia and milk from New Zealand, seafood dominates the souks where the middle classes still prefer to shop. Caught the same day, the fish are splayed out in wicker baskets and usually sold early, before the heat of the day can spoil them.
Already, even though the oil slicks are far to the north, fish prices are rising sharply. Chan'ad, or king mackerel, which is in season, usually costs about $2.50 a pound, but the price is now over $3. Nobody is bargaining.
"People are buying more fish and freezing them," said Adel Abdullah, a fishmonger at Manama's central market. "They are afraid the oil will hit Bahrain and there won't be any more fish."
In Saudi Arabia, the giant Saudi Fisheries Co. scaled back its operations after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2. But since the start of the war, and the huge oil slick that came with it, the company has simply stopped fishing in the Gulf.
"We're talking about a catastrophe; we are expecting the worst," said Nasser Othman Saleh, the company's general manager. "The fishing area will die out for 10 years or more."
Saudi Fisheries, which employs 1,200 people and 25 trawlers, has already laid off 125 fishermen and sent its trawlers to the Red Sea. Saleh said his boats cannot navigate through oil slicks, and even if they could, "whatever you catch might be tainted by oil."
As a result, he expects the company to lose between $10 million and $11 million this year, though he believes the 80 tons of shrimp that the company has in the freezer can be stretched out over the year.
The problems are compounded in Bahrain, where there are 4,000 fishermen, because the government has banned boats from going out at night, the traditional time when fishermen cast their nets. Now, only those fishermen who use seabed traps are able to catch fish.
"You can only catch shrimp and mackerel at night," said Jassim Qaseer, head of fisheries in Bahrain's Ministry of Commerce. "The amount of fish coming ashore is very low."
Qaseer noted, with a hint of humiliation, that Bahrain had never before imported shrimp, as it is now being forced to do from Oman.
"The fishing business is destroyed," said Yosuf Divai, whose father and grandfather were fishermen. Reaching into the side pocket of his flowing winter robe, he pulled out 27 dinars, about $80, which his boats earned that day. After paying for fuel and crew, he reckons he will take home about $21.
Divai said his boats, limited now to daytime operations, are continually harassed by U.S. Navy patrols, which are obviously fearful of a terrorist attack against one of the U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf.
"Nobody is working, nobody is selling the fish," he complained. "Everyone is afraid."