translate by Mohamed Neji Ben Gamra
The Mediterranean Sea is currently in rapid decline, with threats to the habitats essential for the reproduction of marine species. It is also the most overfished sea in the world, with 90% of stocks fished above sustainable levels. In Tunisia, fishing contributes fundamentally to food security and social and economic balance, particularly in regions where it is the main source of income. Nevertheless, the fisheries sector in Tunisia, as well as in other countries of the Mediterranean coast, is confronted with multiple problems, such as illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, overexploitation of fish stocks and pollution, which constitute a real environmental threat by depleting fish stocks and threatening vulnerable marine ecosystems.
At the port of Kelibia, fisherman Mohamed, aged 60, from Teboulba (governorate of Monastir) told Albiaanews: “We have been working in fishing for generations. The sea in the past was generous with an overproduction of fish incomparable to today. I left my region (Teboulba) in search of more fish resources in Kélilbia but the reality is shocking. The same conditions, no fish to meet our needs.
He added: “There are many tales about the sea. We start at 4pm and finish at 3am because the only source of our daily needs is fishing. The fisherman is stuck; when he retires, his pension will not even cover his water and electricity bills,” he said.
For his part, fisherman Ali at the port of Kelibia, aged 68, lived abroad for years and made his final return to Tunisia to choose fishing as his only source of income. He said, “It is difficult to provide people with fish, especially when they are scarce and can only be found in remote places and it takes nine hours to get to the fishing grounds, and each trip is expensive.
Ali complained: “There are some people who take advantage of fishermen and the fishing industry by buying equipment and persuading fishermen to use it even if they don’t need it, and the offenders are not deterred in any way.
Expressing his fears for the sector, fisherman Ali said that “future generations will have nothing to eat or live on if we destroy the treasure trove of fish today, calling for the need for “the law to be robust and strictly enforced against those who violate it as well as those who turn a blind eye to it.”
Furthermore, Ali said that “officials are not letting the sea rest like the Europeans, calling on them to think about the issue as it is a serious matter. “Neither the problems nor the remedies are ever addressed by the officials,” he said.
Béchir, another 55-year-old fisherman from the Bizerte region in northern Tunisia, was in the port of Kélibia to find more opportunities in the fishing sector. He said: “This year, in particular, it has been very hot. There are no fish,” regretting that “everything is taken by the big boats that leave nothing, using all possible means to find the fish, leaving nothing for the small fishermen who have not been able to take their fair share.
It is these problems that prevent the good production of fisheries resources, with many fishing boats, especially the big ones, to the detriment of small boats,” concluded Mr. Béchir.
Communication and awareness-raising
In this regard, Yassine Skandrani, Chargé de mission at the Ministry of Agriculture, clarified some issues of the fishing sector in Tunisia in a statement to Albiaanews.
He said that “the fishing industry is part of the cultural and social heritage of many places, including Kerkenah Island, which is linked to maritime fishing. Tunisia has 13,000 sea fishing units, so fishing is still important in Tunisia. However, there are setbacks and problems, as in any industry, dangers that are more prevalent today, such as climate change.
Skandrani also pointed out that “compared to the average of previous years, the sea temperature in July 2022 was extremely high, reaching 31°C, which is causing fish to migrate from the Mediterranean to the northern regions”. He added: “The additional reason in the overexploitation of many fish species, especially those with high commercial value, is the result of haphazard fishing by fishermen using fishing methods that guarantee good production.”
Furthermore, he said that “the involvement of the government in guiding and promoting awareness, as well as that of organisations interested in the fishing industry and the marine environment through the use of selective fishing gear is crucial.”
“Raising awareness and improving the productivity of fishermen helps to protect the marine environment while paying special attention to the human element,” said the chargé de mission.
“The industrial sector in the Gulf of Gabes and the Gulf of Tunis is a major contributor to marine pollution, which also threatens water and sea resources by reducing fish production which mainly causes the decline of fish stocks,” noted Yassine Skandrani.
He recalled that “since 2006, Tunisia has started to implement a national policy for the farming of marine species, despite the fact that the majority of its stocks are overexploited.
As a solution to the problems of the fisheries sector in Tunisia, the official said that through satellite and boat monitoring, which reduces control costs, the ministry seeks to regulate IUU fishing, mainly in the Gulf of Gabes and all along the Tunisian coast, which is a technical system of control of boats.
Responding to a question from Albiaanews on the rest at sea, he said that the biological rest at sea is a technique that Tunisia uses since 2009 for trawl fishing boats in the Gulf of Gabes for three months a year (July-August to the end of September) and to finance the boats that need to rest, Tunisia has created a biological rest fund.
On another level, the Ministry of Agriculture employs 162 security agents in 42 ports, added Yassine Skandrani, adding that the coast guard (Ministry of the Interior), the military guard (Ministry of Defence), maritime customs and the Ministry of Agriculture are responsible for controlling and fining offenders.
In this regard, two 27-metre sentry boats will be delivered to Tunisia by the end of 2023 as part of an international partnership with Japan, to strengthen the control capacity of the Ministry of Agriculture, he said.
Contribution of international organisations
Many organisations have been active over the past decade in implementing development programmes, public awareness campaigns and efforts to protect the marine environment, he said.
Valerio Crespi, representatif of fisheries and aquaculture at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) office in Tunis, also gave a statement to Albiaanews in which he said: “We are heavily involved in providing our national partners with the assistance they need, the industry is in fact plagued by a number of problems and is mainly overexploited, especially in the Gulf of Gabes.
“There is a growing phenomenon of illegal fishing, especially because there were fishing gears like trawls that made the fishing already not deep enough,” he noted.
Valerio Crespi said that FAO has had to do studies to address the problems to understand the type of problem related to the pandemic, noting that recently “we are doing a lot of work on social protection when artisanal fishermen have found themselves with a halt in their activities; the weak point of the sector is the lack of organisation,” he lamented.
Another problem causing the decline of the fishing sector is the impact of pollution from industrial enterprises and buildings, such as the case of phosphogypsum in the Gulf of Gabes, as well as harmful algal blooms
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) North Africa has expressed concern about “reconciling fisheries and biodiversity and preserving living marine resources, such as the case of artisanal fishing in Gabes”, according to an official report published on their website (https://www.wwf.tn).
WWF North Africa notes that “The Gulf of Gabes region is under considerable pressure, particularly from fishing, which directly impacts certain habitats and species. Indeed, according to WWF, “the majority of seagrass beds are destroyed by the repeated passage of trawls and other destructive gear.
The WWF believes that “the challenges of preserving coastal areas are still numerous, to protect a rich biodiversity and essential productivity for the communities that depend on them”, underlining that “the adoption of more respectful fishing practices is now essential to ensure a direct positive impact on biodiversity, and also on fishing activities. Finally, a healthy ecosystem is also more productive.
On the other hand, there is also the lack of awareness among fishermen of the need to protect marine resources and the environment, as well as overcapacity and overexploitation of marine resources by trawlers.
The situation in the fisheries sector is also aggravated by the lack of coordination and partnership between professionals and the authority.
The impact of harmful algae
However, with rising sea levels and temperatures, the fishing sector is likely to experience more storms and heat waves. These events will affect the mortality rate of fish populations as well as the development and spread of invasive species and toxic algae according to the Institut National Des Sciences et Technologies de La Mer (INSTM) “Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs) are a natural phenomenon caused by the mass proliferation of toxic or non-toxic phytoplankton (cyanobacteria, diatoms, dinoflagellates) in aquatic environments…
These blooms can be harmful to the environment, human health and aquatic life due to the production of harmful toxins and the depletion of oxygen as a result of biomass accumulation.
The alarm bells have been ringing in recent years about the degradation of fisheries resources linked in particular to the intensification of illegal fishing activity, which has threatened the fisheries economy and social welfare, but unfortunately and regrettably, this issue was not taken seriously by our decision-makers. On the contrary, messages calling for the fight against poaching of the sea and the preservation of biodiversity have multiplied from one day to the next. And the lines of intervention are not marked.
No one can deny the environmental threats faced by the fishing sector in Tunisia, adding massive overexploitation. For this reason, it is time to act and revise the development strategy of the sector for the next few years and put in place an ambitious action plan to promote the sector, improve the quality of production and ensure its sustainability.
« Ce reportage a été produit avec le soutien de l’Earth Journalism Network d’Internews, dans le cadre du projet Méditerranéen Media Initiative ».