Artisan fishermen in Tunisia are finding it ever harder to bring in a catch, with pressure from factory fishing vessels and pollution.
Seventy-three-year-old Hamdi Jaziri pulls on his cigarette. He stares out into the still waters of the old port of Bizerte and, like seasoned professionals around the world, jokes about how easy the young fishermen of today have it. Jaziri has been fishing from the town’s harbour since he was 15 years old, four years after the country gained its independence from the French. A nearby fisherman tending his nets shouts over, laughing as he says Jaziri isn’t just a fisherman from Bizerte – he is Bizerte.
The winters, cold and damp, can seep into his bones, but the constant shifting of the lines keeps Jaziri moving. Whatever the weather, he still heads out to fish for the bream and sea bass that form the bulk of the area’s stocks. Jaziri remembers the time in 1975 he netted a great white shark. He had a bigger boat then. He says the shark was four metres in length and weighed 700 kilograms. He brought it back to Bizerte and sold it. He talks fondly about the seals that used to follow his boat before they became extinct in these waters, but mostly he remembers the fishing boats that used to compete for space in this small Mediterranean harbour.
“There were a lot more fishermen then. Everyone wanted their sons to become fishermen. It was that kind of a job.” Pausing for a heartbeat. “Now nobody does.”
This area was first settled by the Phoenicians in 1100 BCE. Men in boats have been fishing these waters ever since. Even today, none of those who head out in their small wooden boats to fish the coastal waters can remember anyone from their families ever doing anything else for a living.
Looking around the town’s old harbour today, distant both geographically and economically from the industrial developments of the city’s deep port along the coast, it’s hard to imagine that much has changed since the Byzantines first erected the Kasbah wall that now shelters the small stone-lined anchorage within the city centre. Low stucco buildings still line the harbour and the fish market, now moved closer to the berths, remains home to a crescendo of traders shouting out the type and price of their wares, all of which can be bought and cooked to order at any of the small cafés that crowd the dockside
However, with pressure from the larger ice-carrying ships operated by the country’s elite fishing families from the town’s deep port, the intrusion of rival boats operating on dubious sports licences, coastal pollution at home and shrinking government support, few now think the tradition will continue much beyond the present generation.
Go drive a taxi
Bizerte’s artisan fishermen can head up to 10 miles out to sea in search of whatever fish their nets can find. Catches vary. On a good day, a catch can bring up to 250 Tunisian dinars (90 Euros) at market. However, a normal trip burns 70 dinars in fuel, plus the cost of bait and the endless expense of repairing nets damaged by poaching dolphins. On a bad day, they can return home with nothing but the costs.
Walid Albjawi, 29, stands on the harbour walls, five-year-old son Fehdi balancing on his boots. He has been fishing from Bizerte all his life. The men in his family have been fishermen for as long as anyone can remember. “There are fewer fish now,” he explains. “The large boats take them all, then they blame us. The sea is also being polluted by factories. In Bizerte there’s a sugar factory that releases toxins into the water that kill all the fish and octopuses.”
It isn’t just one factory. Tunisia’s decaying infrastructure is decimating fish stocks along its coast. Archaic heavy industries and sprawling sewage plants pump sporadically treated waste directly into the waters the fishermen rely on for their living. “The problem is really one of domestic and industrial wastewater,” explains Morched Garbouj, president of SOS BIAA, an environmental pressure group which conducts extensive tests on the wastewater Tunisia pumps into the sea. “What we’ve noticed is that in many cases, the water coming out of the sewage treatment facilities isn’t all that different from that going in.”
Exacerbating the impact of Tunisia’s untreated sewage is the heavy industry lining the country’s coast, says Garbouj. “It isn’t just the sugar factory, there are problems with many polluting industries all around Bizerte and along the coast. What we’ve been doing is monitoring the quality of water going into the sea. We’ve done some simulations on the impact, and it’s devastating.” The pressure group has held a number of press conferences to draw attention to the importance of the issue. However, in a country battling economic depression and surging unemployment, it’s been hard to raise domestic interest in the damage being wrought upon the country’s natural inheritance.
Khaled Fris quit fishing five years ago, severing the unbroken line of fishermen in his family that extended back further than memory. “It stopped being worth it. You never know what you’re going to earn, or even if you’re going to make any money at all,” says the 29-year-old, standing on the dockside, hands thrust into pockets, a resigned smile on his face. “A lot of fishermen just stop and become taxi drivers. It’s easier and you get respect. Why would you be a fisherman?”
Khaled does whatever he can to get by now. He says he enjoys travelling. One thing is certain: he will not be going back to sea. “The older men are always sick, their bodies are broken. They’re experiencing real agony from spending their lives out in the damp air, or the days out at sea in the cold. They regret it now. They all do.”
Further along the harbour, 43-year-old Jamel Mouhalib tends to his nets. He works diligently, standing on the deck of the impressive trawler he bought without paperwork shortly after the revolution. Without documentation, the state will not let him take it to sea, and its ultimate fate remains uncertain. Under normal circumstances, the larger boat would cost 32,000 dinars, roughly triple the average annual income. In the meantime, Jamel must rely on his older small fishing boat to support his wife, their two young children and an aging grandparent. He says he doesn’t know how long he can continue.
On top of the pressure from large-scale commercial fishing is the intrusion into traditional commercial waters of teachers, lawyers and even doctors hoping to supplement their shrinking incomes through the manipulation of the government’s sport fishing permits. Under current regulations, those operating on sporting licences should restrict their technique to fishing with lines and limit their catches to 5kg. The reality is quite different.
“They’re rich,” Mouhalib says. “They have more money than any fisherman has, so they go out and catch everything they can. They don’t care when fish are in season or not. Also, the bigger boats have sonar. Sonar can’t tell the difference between fish with eggs and fish without. They’ve changed the entire sea.”
Lax enforcement of existing regulations has also affected the fishermen’s livelihoods, says Foued Hachani of the Union Tunisienne de l'Agriculture et de la Pêche (UTAP). “We have laws that say you should limit certain types of fishing to certain depths,” he says. “However, the observation of these rules is pretty random. For example, sometimes the larger ships that are supposed to only fish at 50 metres and more enter shallower waters. At other times, their nets catch species that live on the seafloor, which damages fish stocks and impacts upon the livelihood of the smaller fishermen.”
Along with agriculture, fishing accounts for some 15.2 per cent of the country’s overall employment. However, government subsidies for the sector are shrinking. Hachani explains that although fishermen still receive some financial benefits from the state, the discretionary powers granted to local government to issue rebates on equipment or vouchers to purchase supplies are drying up. “In the past, they used to give them annually, but over the last few years it’s changed. They’re no longer given each year, sometimes it’s once every two or three years.” On the quayside in Bizerte, the fishermen say they haven’t received any payments since 2014.
Frustratingly for Tunisia’s southern fishermen, rich Libyan fish stocks lie tantalisingly within sight but legally out of reach. According to UTAP, fish stocks within their neighbour’s waters are far richer than along Tunisia’s overfished coast. However, despite the potential gains, the penalties for Tunisian boats straying into Libyan waters can be high. In December last year, 54 Tunisian fishermen were released by Libyan authorities after being shot at with live ammunition following their incursion into foreign waters.
Pressed on whether the volume of fish in Libya’s waters was due to the widespread repurposing of traditional fishing boats for people smuggling, a UTAP spokesperson declined to answer, committing only to saying there were definitely fewer boats.
Back on his boat, Jamel Mouhalib contemplates the possibility of his children following in his footsteps. “Absolutely not. I wouldn’t even tolerate them thinking about it. My son must study. He must find another path… There’s no future in fishing and I don’t want that for my son. My generation, we got lucky, we can survive, but for those coming after us, there’s nothing. This is it.”
But some are determined to continue. Despite his age, Jaziri still has to go to sea to supplement his monthly government subsidy of 155 dinars (62 euros). Too old for a commercial permit, he fishes for whatever he can with lines. “Normally I’ll leave here at around 10 o’clock, staying out until about seven in the evening, even during the winter. As long as there are fish, I’m fishing.”